Throwing It All Away: When Good Kids Make Bad Choices
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.
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.
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.
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.