Control: Giving It Back to Your Teen


A good parent gradually gives control back to the teenager and helps them learn through the decisions they make.

Sometimes, we feel that the only way we can be a good parent is to be in control of our teenager and prevent them from making mistakes.  And that’s not true.  A good parent gradually gives control back to the teenager and helps them learn through the decisions they make.

And when the teen displays immaturity and irresponsibility, or makes a really bad decision, we parents are often too quick to snatch back control and clamp down even harder on the rules. In those situations, protecting our teen from making any more mistakes may be doing more harm than good.

“The problem with over-control is this: while a major responsibility of good parenting is certainly to control and protect, they must make room for their child to make mistakes. Over-controlled children are subject to dependency, enmeshment conflicts and difficulty setting and keeping firm boundaries.  They also have problems taking risks and being creative.”  — Dr. Henry Cloud

So, my advice is to gradually allow your teenager to have some control, and avoid taking it back…

  • Let them assume more and more responsibility
  • Encourage them to make thoughtful decisions
  • Set reasonable boundaries
  • Let them learn from their mistakes and don’t soften the blow
  • Spend more time in discussion rather than dictation
  • Offer sound advice, if they want it
  • Avoid saying “I told you so.”

Control shouldn’t be without limits…

Like training wheels on a bicycle, give your child some control over their “ride” in life, but have some basic safeguards in place. These are the same kind of limits we as adults experience.  For instance, there is a limit on your credit card. Why do you think credit card companies do that?  Once you prove yourself, they raise the limits. But it’s still giving you control of your own spending. In every area of life we have limits, and it is just as important for your teen to learn how to incorporate living within certain limits as they make decisions on their own.

Limits and the easing of control for an older teen can usually go like this. “Yes, you can take the car, but you can have no more than one other teen in the car, and have it back here by 11PM.” You don’t have to go into all the factual details, like studies have shown that having other teenagers in the car is a major cause of accidents for teenage drivers, and that most accidents for teens happen late at night. Simply make it known (and stick to it) that if your simple rules aren’t followed, then the next time they need it, the car won’t be available to them.

Lack of limits has the tendency to produce a child that is selfish, independent, demanding and aggressively controlling.  

Teenagers will go wild if they aren’t given some boundaries. Moral and ethical boundaries don’t change from adolescence to adulthood, and neither should your expectations of your teen’s behavior. What I’m referring to is giving them control over more and more decisions about things like budgeting money, education, clothing, and transportation, not over whether or not it is time to abandon civilized behavior. While they are living at home, or even at college while their tuition is being paid for by you, you can expect them to be living within reasonable moral boundaries, or they’ll lose some of the privileges you are providing. Consequences of breaking those established boundaries should be clear and understood up front, and enforced without wavering.

Giving control means allowing your teen to learn from bad decisions…

Giving control to your teen means they’ll begin learning from making small mistakes, but only if you allow those mistake to hurt a bit.  For example, if your teenage boy takes his gas money and decides to blow it all on the latest music CD, then you’re not helping him by giving him more gas money.  He needs to learn to set aside gas money and never use it for anything else. Softening the blow will only lead them to making the same mistakes again and again.

By the way, your teen will rarely come right out and say that they made a bad decision.  If you’re waiting for it, don’t hold your breath.  In fact, they may defend their decision with all their might, all along knowing it was bad.  It simply is not in their nature to go around talking about their mistakes, nor to suggest that they were wrong, but they will have learned from the mistake nonetheless.

And, take note of this.  Never use the old “I told you so” phrase with them when they make a mistake.  If you’re tempted to, bite your tongue, because “I told you so” tends to undermine the learning experience (and it makes an adult sound childish, too). If you offered your sage advice (which is the reasonable thing for any parent to do) and they didn’t heed it, then it is best to keep that to yourself.  They may only “fess up” that they should have taken your advice after years have gone by, or when they become a parent themselves.

A job well done…

When the time comes for our children to enter adulthood and make tough decisions on their own, we hope that we have given them ample time and opportunity to learn from making smaller decisions. As in everything else in life, good decision-making takes practice. If they have had some control over their own decisions earlier on, and they’ve learned from making wrong decisions, then we’ve done our job of teaching them.

Most teenagers say that they want to be out on their own when they turn 18 and make all their own decisions.  But the fact is, they usually have difficulty becoming independent. They secretly wish to avoid the kind of responsibilities they see their parents have for as long as possible. The tendency, then, is that we’ll have to nudge them out of the nest in some way, and the best way to do that is to get them started early making their own decisions and learning to do so within the limits.

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