Helping Teens Learn From Bad Choices

Posted on November 25th, 2015


As parents of teenagers, we may watch our teens make impulsive decisions that we don’t understand, don’t approve of, or don’t remember making ourselves. However, we most likely made those same impulsive and sometimes bad choices at that age. Decision-making is difficult during the period of adolescent development, which includes rapid changes in the body and, more importantly, in the development of the brain.

As you may have noticed, your teen’s body shape, size, and height may have changed suddenly, sometimes seemingly overnight. Your son who was once smaller than you can now easily rest his arm on top of your head. In addition to the more obvious external growth, teens are going through rapid internal changes as well.

You may witness and experience a high rate of moodiness and irritability in your teen. Although it is challenging for parents to deal with their child’s mood swings, we have to remember that teens have an even more challenging time controlling and expressing their emotions. It is often helpful to ride the wave of these emotions, which typically can lead them to impulsively express themselves at home or at school. This can have serious consequences, however it can also be an amazing learning opportunity for your teen.

As the teen brain develops, the frontal lobe continues to form and grow. This area of our brain is known for the executive functioning skills, such as planning, organizing, problem solving, selective attention, personality and a variety of higher cognitive functions, including emotions and behavior. The frontal lobe is something we use daily in decision making as we decide what to eat for lunch, what to wear, how to study for a test, and whether to make good or bad choices. As the teen brain develops, the impulsivity may remain relatively high until the late teenage years or into the early 20s.

As a parent, it is important to keep in mind that this developmental stage of adolescence is not only a time of rapid growth but also a time of exploration of self, differentiation from parents, and a springboard into adulthood. Does this mean that we support every decision our teen makes in order for him or her to navigate through this process? The resounding answer among professionals and parents is no. However, when our teens make bad choices, we can support them in their recovery.

It is important for parents to provide the 3 Cs for our teens:

  1. Containment is the set of boundaries defined by the parent,
  2. Choices are made by the teen, and
  3. Consequences for the behavior are determined by the parents.

The boundaries could define anything from curfew, to substance use, to dating, to concerts, to spending. As teens push these limits, our guidance and support is vital for them to make good choices and recover from bad ones. At the same time, it’s critical that we manage any disappointment we might experience over their individual choices.

Our first inclination as parents of teens may be to lecture, or to punish behavior we disagree with. However, it is more beneficial to talk to teens and explore the actual consequences of their behavior, both to themselves and others. It’s also important to explore the feelings involved in their behavior.

The best way to help teens recover from bad choices is by allowing them to take ownership of the choices they make. In addition, that ownership will hopefully guide them into more positive future behavior.

* * * * * *

* * * * * *


Would you like additional guidance in this area? Los Gatos Teen Therapy provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.