As a family therapist, over the years many parents have come to me and said, “My child has so much going for him, but he’s just throwing his life away. Why is he doing drugs? Why is he dropping out of school? Why is he making terrible choices with his life when he has so much potential?”

I’ll never forget the mother who said in exasperation one day, “Sometimes I just want to superglue my daughter to the chair until she gets out of her teen years!”

The good news is that you have the power to influence your child’s decisions by taking control of yourself—and not your teen.

One of the most painful and frustrating things for parents is watching their teens make bad choices and “throw it all away.” Some of these choices include running with the wrong crowd, blowing off homework, dropping out of school, drinking and doing drugs, and engaging in risky behavior.

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What can you do if your adolescent is making bad choices? I know many parents who have lost sleep at night, wondering what their responsibilities were. They ask themselves, “Is it my responsibility to fix things? And if it is, exactly what am I supposed to do with a teen who refuses help?” When the pain of watching your child toss opportunities out the window becomes overwhelming, it’s natural to try harder to control them or throw your hands up in despair.

The difficult truth is, you don’t have control over your child’s choices—or the outcome of his or her life. You have a chance to guide him to a better place—that’s what you’re responsible for. The good news is that you have the power to influence your child’s decisions by taking control of yourself—and not your teen. As James Lehman says, “You can lead a horse to water, and while you can’t make him drink, you can make him mighty thirsty.”

How to Draw Clear Boundaries

The idea of drawing clear boundaries can be confusing. I think it’s really about saying, “I’m on your side, I’m on your team, we love you and we care about you. We don’t like the choices you’re making and this is how we are going to stop enabling you.” If you have very strong, clear boundaries that you maintain around what you will and won’t do for your child, that’s different than constantly trying to figure out how to control or change him.

In your relationship, you’ll want to draw those lines and maintain them. You can say, “You can’t live here without following these rules. I’m not handing you money if I suspect you’re doing drugs.” Or “I’m not driving you to that party.” You’re clearly stating what you will do and what you won’t do. It’s the difference between taking charge of yourself versus trying to control your child’s actions.

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Remind your child that this is not about punishment or disobedience—it’s about his welfare. You might say, “We love and care about you, that’s why we’re doing this. This is not punishment for breaking a rule. We’re going to do whatever it takes to keep you safe.”

The best part is that you really are controlling what you can control. That’s always the way influence works. “I’m not telling you what to do and I’m not going to scream and yell. I’m simply going to do what I think is best. I’m not going to enable you by giving you rides and money. Those liberties are taken away until you can be responsible for yourself.” So you just close those doors. There is a huge difference between taking your child by the collar and locking him in a room versus taking charge by giving him the appropriate consequences.

Here are five steps to help influence your child to make better life choices.

1. Recognize and Acknowledge

First, recognize and acknowledge your own feelings of panic, despair, powerlessness, frustration, and disappointment. All you have to do at this stage is simply acknowledge these emotions. Don’t react by judging yourself or your child. Blaming, yelling, hovering, distancing and becoming very controlling—or whatever ways you typically manage your anxiety—will only cause you to have more pain to manage and will be damaging to your relationship with your teen. It will also make your child wrestle with you instead of wrestling with the choices he needs to make. Don’t hand him the opportunity to avoid responsibility for those key decisions. You don’t want him fighting for his autonomy by doing the exact opposite of what you’d like him to do. Instead, acknowledge your own fears and feelings, and handle them without asking your child to handle them for you. Take walks, listen to music, do yoga, talk to your family or friends, get more involved in your own career—do whatever it takes to avoid over-focusing on your child. Stay in your box—don’t let your anxiety cause you to jump into your child’s box.

2. Observe

Observe, think and change your contribution to any negative patterns in your relationship. When you’re calmer, you will be able to think more effectively about the best way to guide and lead—and not control—your adolescent. Guiding and leading requires you to change your behaviors as a parent instead of trying to get your adolescent to change his. Step way back and see if you can observe what might be going on. Ask yourself these questions:

  • When did these poor behaviors begin?
  • Were there any triggers?
  • Are there any ways you or your spouse contribute to the problem?
  • Have you felt overly responsible for the choices your child makes?
  • Do you believe that it’s your job to get your kids to make all the right choices?
  • If so, have you been over-functioning for your child by babying her and contributing to her irresponsible ways?
  • Have you provided too many rules or too few?
  • Has your spouse been too hard on your child, while you’ve been too soft? Perhaps both of you have been making lots of noise, but no one has really taken charge.
  • Is your child functioning in reaction to you, for some reason, instead of functioning for him or herself?

It might be time to stop your part of this two-step dance. When you carefully observe your own patterns and tendencies, you can decide if there are any steps in your dance that can change.

3. Don’t Take Control—Take Charge

Take charge rather than take control. Again, you do not have control over all of your children’s choices, but you can help influence their decisions. If your teen insists on going out and returning at three in the morning, you cannot lock her in her room every night just because you’d like to. You can’t control her without hurting your relationship. But you can tell her this: “If you return after your curfew, there will be a consequence. You won’t be able to use the car or go out with your friends again this weekend.” In other words, she can make a poor choice, but you will respond to her poor choice by making her feel the painful consequences of that choice. Don’t make it easy for her to continue bad behavior. If she breaks rules, confront her and let her know the rules remain in place. Maintain strong, clear boundaries in a loving and connective and matter of fact way. Be the adult she needs.

I want to make it clear that if your child is doing something unsafe, destructive, abusive or risky, like cutting herself, bullying others, or doing drugs, she has crossed a line. You need to respond immediately with very strong interventions. Because you care for your child and love her, you will not sit passively by. If you have evidence that she is doing drugs, for example, you need to do whatever it takes to intervene. If it requires calling other parents, calling the school or authorities or a crisis team, or getting her into counseling and rehab, you will do that. If what is happening is serious enough, then you may have to risk hurting your relationship with your child in order to keep her safe.

4. Hang in There

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Some kids will have a difficult journey. But no matter what, you should try to hang in there the best you can. You can keep your rules in place even though your teen is constantly breaking them. Always remind him that the rules are for his welfare. He may eventually mature, but there is a chance he will throw a lot away. What ultimately counts is not whether you are able to perfectly control your teenager, but whether you can hang in there through the tough times and come back for more the next day. Accept the reality that there is a good chance that your child may throw many opportunities away despite all your good influence. Ultimately, you will need to grieve the losses and the disappointments of your own hopes and dreams. But hang in with your child and continue to move forward together. To quote James Lehman again, “Parent the child you have—not the child you wish you had.”

5. Enjoy Your Connection

Enjoy those good moments with your child. Be the adult, maintain your boundaries, be firm and clear about your bottom line and then enjoy your teen. Focus on what is positive between you and don’t define your relationship around the problem. Share your interests, discuss politics or topics outside of your relationship and really get to know your teen. See them through lenses that are not clouded with distrust and negativity. See them for all they are—not just their bad choices.

So first, recognize your emotions so that you don’t react by judging yourself or judging your child. Then step back and try to understand what might be going on—and if there’s any part you might play that you can change. And then, take charge instead of trying to control: start closing the fence. Once you put all of that in place, remember that there’s a whole other part of your child’s personality that you can relate to and enjoy. Make sure to do that. And if all fails—because it can—acknowledge and grieve your disappointments about the lost opportunities for your child. Understand that some kids remain out of control no matter what. It might take maturity for them to make the necessary changes. Don’t give up on your child: he needs you to be a strong presence in his life even if he’s making bad choices right now.

Related Content:
Teens and Privacy: Should I Spy on My Child?
Risky Teen Behavior: Can You Trust Your Child Again?

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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

Comments (20)
  • N2004
    This is one of the best articles I have read on this topic. We are struggling with our 14 yr old son and he has been dabbling in drugs and his peer group all going rogue. Your article has made.me see that although we can't necessarily force the changes, weMore can't lock him up, we are doing all we really can to steer him in the right direction and we need to just keep showing up as good human beings ourselves and holding onto the nice times when they arise but also enforcing our grounding as much as we can and reiterating that we are trying to keep him safe, not punish him. Thank you for a great article. It has made me feel a lot better (even though I know we aren't at the end of the this nightmare yet).
  • Momofkiddo

    My kid is at a cross roads and I feel choosing the path because it’s easy and opposite of the best choice. College- one particular college has the perfect dual major, student athlete with all the perks of student athlete so she will have academic support above and beyond because she’s a student athlete. She doesn’t want to go that path anymore. I think because she had a emotionally abusive coach wanting her to fail. This coach made her a champion but also chipped away at her. For me, continuing on with the sport is the best f-c- you and way to get herself back. She wants to give up and go to a college that is less than. My heart is breaking that my kid is letting this jerk of a coach ruin her future. And when I try to talk to her about it she wants nothing to do with me. Blames it all on me, saying she hates the sport and never wanted to do it then I know that is not true. She loves the sport all times away from the manipulative coach. What can I do? Make her go to school I think she should go to?

    Also, I’m school now when she is overwhelmed she just stops doing work completely. It happens every years since 8th grade this time of year. She has good grades and then March happens and all grades start slipping. She lies about doing her work and then all the zeros start pouring in. I know the boiler plate answer is let them fail and they will have to live with it, but as a loving parent I cannot sit back and let her self destruct. I am scared sending her off to college without any kind of safety net for her. As a student athlete it has mandatory check-in with 1-1 advisor and tutoring to ensure you are successful. I see all these perks, but all my daughter sees is I don’t want to do this sport anymore... if the answer is to let it go and have her go to a school that will not give her the goals she said she wanted, how do I do that. Right. Now I can’t even look at her I am so angry and sad at the same time. We are both fighting and really hating each other.

    • MotherBear

      Hi there,

      I just wanna say I am having a lot of the same issues as you are with my daughter as well. Although my situation is a little different because hers is not related to the coach instead she is just saying she is just tired of playing the sport. However she did just go to a college camp and got negative feedback from the college coach which of course upseted her. Not only that though she has this boy friend who is not helping by encouraging to accomplish her once dreams. So he gets in the way and she has consumed her and is her go to. I am feeling all the sadness, hurt, anger and frustration as you do. We have invested so much into her for this moment for her to now say she’s just don’t like it anymore and she’s tired of it. I to am seeking advice on how to handle this emotionally. I just don’t know how. I’m sorry you are having to go through this as well and i know bad it feels. But us as moms somehow find the strength to get through these times with our children.

  • confused mom
    My daughter is 17 and has had some different things going on. She has smoked pot, had sex, lied, snuck out, cut herself, even snuck a boy in and left him in my house while she went to work and numerous other things. She has been doing well for theMore last few months, and meeting with our youth pastor, yet I feel like there is something going on? She has been talking to several boys. Two of them are a part of all the drama. I'm not sure what I can do at 17. Do I push and risk pushing her away? I'm also not sure what to make a big deal out of and what not too.
  • Patricia

    I am a single mother to my 13year old biracial daughter . Her father was very abusive in every possible way and we split when she was 2. She had almost no contact with him since then, except when I needed a travel signature from him or so, I never went to court for custody due to lack of money, She was the most wonderful and loving child until last year when she had a Suicide attempt. We went to counseling afterward. She made scenes about hating her father and the fact that she doesn’t have all that other kids do because of him.

    I tried to be the best mother I can and I struggled to provide her with everything that the other kids have including a cellphone . The other day I was called at school because she has been caught with marijuana.

    I am devastated. She is completely self destructive. Her grades have fallen from excellent to satisfactory . She doesn’t care she hurts me or herself. She has no intention to stop . She just wants to do what she wants and have fun. She doesnt care about the future

    I took her phone . She now, after years of not even speaking to him, wants to go to her father. He would take her just to hurt me, because he’s never given her anything, including no child support, he has nothing . Since I removed her cellphone and internet iPad and the freedom to see her friends and the money she thinks I am purposely destroying her life. Her teacher says she feeds on negative attention and will stop at nothing to get it.

    Moreover, she is the only girl in the group of firends smoking pot with the boys. I fear she might be doing much worse stuff. She admitted lying to me constantly when she was telling me she was going to Macdonald with her girlfriends and in fact she was using her money for pot.

    I don’t know what to do. She got suspended. I cannot leave her homemade alone. I am scared to . I cannot afford to lose my job either and miss work.

    She says she simply doesn’t care and I cannot physically drag her to counseling either , she refuses to go. She is very manipulative and will stop at nothing . She even tried to get my mom against me, it didn’t work . Now she will try to work on the family (aunts )from her father’s side. I feel the hate . She has become completely disrespectful . She’s not even afraid of losing me or our home,

    I feel I am losing her. I haven’t had any relationship in years to try to focus on raising her well, I even quit smoking cigarettes 4 years ago so she wouldn’t have a bad example. I went to church and tried to teach her right from wrong and responsibility . I sacrificed everything for her and this is the result. Please help me. I am desperate. I cannot lose my daughter she’s the only thing I live for.

    What has happened to my child ? Where did I go wrong ?

    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      I’m so sorry to hear about the struggles you are experiencing with your daughter. It’s common for parents in this type of situation to feel confused and scared about what is going on and what might happen next. While it’s also normal to blame yourself and wonder what youMore did wrong, keep in mind that you are not responsible for your daughter’s choices or feelings. Rather than trying to make your daughter care or see the negative impact her choices are having, it’s going to be more effective to focus on where you have control, which is over yourself and your own actions. Limiting time she is able to spend unsupervised as well as the amount of spending money she can access are both effective strategies to use right now. You might find some additional tips in My Child Is Using Drugs or Drinking Alcohol—What Should I Do? I recognize what a difficult time this must be for you right now, and I wish you and your daughter all the best moving forward. Take care.
  • Brian & Melissa
    My 17 year old son is using drugs and has been for quite a while. We have tried rehab counseling and changes schools . Each with the same results once he starts to meet people he goes right back to using. He recently got arrested and booked into the countyMore jail we refused to bail him out so his girlfriend and her mother went and got him even after we asked them not to . He is a junior and I don't see how he is going to graduate high school . We have tried to express that what he is doing to him self is not only detrimental to his life but also his health . Today when he got out of the county jail I told him his girlfriend wasn't allowed to come over any more due to the fact believe he is starting to sell drugs for money because we will not give him any by doing that he decides he's leaving and him and his girlfriend took off . I tried to talk with him and told him we wanted him to stay his response was if she isn't welcome here then neither am I . So they took off at the time I felt like trying to stop him would turn the situation into a physical one because he has gotten violent in the past . I'm just wondering if I made the right deduction. I'm not giving up on him but I just feel like I can't allow this behavior to continue. We tell him no he sneaks out or worse yet sneaks her in to our house. Her parents are of no help what so ever because they just enable them to continue on doing what ever they want to . I don't know what else to do .
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I hear you. It can be so heartbreaking when you are doing everything in your power to set limits around your child’s behavior, and he still refuses to follow the rules. Overall, we do not recommend getting into physical power struggles with your child, such as trying toMore block him or physically make him stay in your home, because that often leads to situations escalating and even becoming violent. The most important consideration is safety, including your own. At this point, it might be useful to report him as a runaway to the police if you haven’t done so already. I also encourage you to take some steps to take care of yourself right now. Self-care is an important component of parenting, and when it is ignored, it can greatly impact how effectively you are able to parent and set limits. Your self-care plan can be anything you wish, from calling a supportive friend or family member, to using more structured support such as a counselor or a support group. For more information about available support in your community, try contacting the 211 Helpline at 1-800-273-6222. I recognize what a difficult situation this must be for you right now, and I wish you all the best moving forward.
  • Feeling helpless
    My 18 daughter, high school senior, is planning to move to Mexico with her boyfriend to attend college. Her boyfriend has family in Mexico and can speak the language....my daughter does not and cannot speak Spanish. She is adamant that she is going to school there!! Help me!! I feelMore that I will never see her again if she goes. I myself, will never travel to Mexico. I've heard horror stories. What do I do?!?!
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I hear your concern for your daughter, and the choices she is making right now. Parenting doesn’t stop once your child becomes an adult, and I recognize your concern for her safety and well-being if she follows through on this decision. The hard part is, your daughter isMore an adult, and thus has the ability to make her own decisions about her life, even those that you do not agree with or support. While you cannot control your daughter’s choices, you can control your own actions and responses to her decision. As Debbie Pincus points out in another article, Adult Children Living at Home? How to Manage without Going Crazy, once your child becomes an adult, your role changes from that of a manager to more of a consultant. Therefore, it’s more important to focus on your own boundaries and limits at this point, rather than trying to get her to make a certain choice. I recognize what a tough situation this must be for you right now, and I wish you all the best moving forward. Take care.
  • Roxy4
    This is all easier said then done. I have done these things. Not provided rides, they sneak out and get a ride from a friend, not provide money, they resort to selling drugs for money. This is of no help to me. I am at a loss.
  • Wendy
    Our son is 20.  We had him away at college for 2 yrs, we should have pulled him back after one!  2 yrs of college virtually down the drain and the $... now he's home at community college, thought it would be better, but today I noticed he didn't goMore to school.  I asked him if this happened before, he just shrugged.  I don't want to keep spending $ on college if he's not going to appreciate and take it seriously.  Hoe can he be reached?
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport


      I hear you.It can be

      so frustrating when you are trying to help your child achieve, yet he doesn’t

      appear motivated to meet those goals.Something to keep in mind is that your son is an adult, and so anything

      you decide to provide to him is considered a privilege, not a right.If your son is not meeting your expectations

      around attending classes or maintaining his grades, you can make a different

      choice around the amount of financial assistance you provide to him.At this point, I encourage you to https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/ground-rules-for-living-with-an-adult-child-plus-free-living-agreement/ with your son which clearly outlines your

      expectations for his behavior while he is staying with you, and how you will

      hold him accountable.Please be sure to

      write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take


  • SuicidalTransgender
    My daughter is 15, transgender and suicidal. She has serious social anxiety and shy... She gets all A's and values her grades. Sure doesn't do drugs but found that she's been cutting herself to dull pain. I have her in counseling and transitioning to adding group therapy and psychologist nextMore week which might include meds. I'm terrified.... I have a safety plan but this is the roughest of all times yet. I love her to pieces and want her healthy and happy. Anyone who can relate I'd like to share more...
    • Natalie
      To SuicidalTransgender, I can relate, as I have a transgender child that has been depressed. It has been a couple of years, don’t have all the answers, but I can relate. You are right to have her in counseling and a safety plan. Needs to be reported to the medicalMore professionals if she is trying to self harm. It is scary. Don’t know how to message except here, but I wish I could listen. Don’t know when you wrote in, it is 5/2020 now.
  • Miranda
    My son just turned 18, but is still in high school (A senior) We found out he started smoking pot about a year ago. He is hanging around the wrong group of kids. He mouths off to me and is refusing to do any of his homework. If he flunksMore even one class he will not graduate. He had a positive attitude and told me he was going to try harder. That lasted about two days. Now he says he just doesn't care, but doesn't want to drop out. He has ADD and a learning disability in reading comprehension. He won't accept any help though. Whenever things don't go his way he just starts screaming and swearing at me. I really hope he somehow will accept the help people want to give him. He quit drug rehab after one day. We've also tried counseling. It makes me very sad to know there's not much I can do about it. :(
  • Fonna
    I am devastated and at the same time trusting God for my 18 yr old daughter who moved out 2 months ago on her bday- - I work as a victim advocate and sometimes think she is in trouble also- I don't know what to do- I think she'sMore with a ex-trafficker and hear she's using meth :[ she does hv her own car- n she says she carts people around all the time! She recently made contact with me n says she is leaving state with this guy- please any known guidance will help
    • Miranda
      Fonna Praying for your situation!
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport


      I am so sorry to hear about the choices that your daughter

      is making, and I can only imagine how tough this situation must be for

      you.  Since your daughter is an adult, she does have the right to make her

      own decisions regarding her life, even those that are potentially dangerous or

      illegal.  She is also responsible for the natural consequences which might

      occur as a result of her actions.  At this point, it’s probably going to

      be more effective to focus on how you can take care of yourself and your own

      well-being, rather than trying to convince your daughter to take a certain

      course of action.  Sometimes, self-care can involve using local supports,

      such as a counselor, or a support group.  For assistance locating these

      and other resources in your community, try contacting the http://www.211.org/ at 1-800-273-6222.  I

      recognize how difficult this must be for you, and I wish you and your family

      all the best moving forward.

      • Fonna
        Thank you so much for any guidance at all- you are a kind human being :) one#sad*#momma
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