One of the greatest joys of working with teenagers is that you can never predict what they are going to do next. It is a time of great uncertainty and unpredictability for them, their parents and their teachers. In fact, after having worked with teenagers for over three decades now, the only thing that I am certain of each day is that, generally, my days will be unpredictable! Even when I have my days perfectly organised, they rarely go to plan as I am at the mercy of 850 teenagers and the daily decisions and mistakes they make.
Being a parent, I also understand that life for parents of teenagers is often highly unpredictable. Even when we feel that we know our kids well, they will do, say, or post something which completely blindsides us and leaves us feeling bewildered and uncertain about our competence as a parent.
I think the greatest risk any of us parents can make is to utter the expression, “my child would never”. Time and time again, I have seen parents proven wrong when their teen has done something which their parents would never have imagined them doing. Unfortunately, in my role as Head of High School, I often have to share with parents the exploits of their teenagers. When this happens, parents generally belong to one of two camps. Half the parents take a deep breath, accept what their teenager has done, apologise for their behaviour and then ask for assistance. The other half of parents ask, “are you sure?” and then launch into their teen’s defence, saying that their child would never do such a thing, I must have made a mistake, I must have this wrong, and are in total denial and disbelief.
What I have learnt over the years is that nearly all teenagers will do, say, or post something which we could never imagine them doing. They will all lie, twist the truth or withhold important information at some time, particularly if their friends are involved. Repeatedly, I have seen fantastic teenagers from wonderful homes with supportive parents make mistakes and sometimes these are big mistakes. However; the teen years are a time of pushing the boundaries, rebellion and making lots of mistakes and we should expect this behaviour from teens. We should never condone or accept poor behaviour but expecting that it will happen at some time may make it easier to deal with when it happens.
We can never underestimate the influence of our teenager’s peers on their decision-making and even the most rational and thoughtful teen will make decisions that we, as adults, can’t understand, for the sake of influencing their peers or trying to fit in an endeavour to feel a sense of belonging.
My advice to parents is that when your teen does something beyond your comprehension, that you remember this article. The best way that you can support a teen who has made a mistake is not to defend them, not to make up excuses for them, not to cover up the mistake they have made, not to deflect responsibility and blame someone else or to deny their wrongdoing; but instead to take a deep breath and accept your teen has made a mistake. If you can’t make a mistake as a teen then when can you make a mistake? We can’t expect our teens to be perfect. Our children look to us to see how we are going to react when they have made a mistake. If they see us defending them, blaming someone else or making excuses for them when they have done the wrong thing, then this is how they will learn to deal with mistakes when they are adults.
When our teens have made a mistake, it is important that we, the adults, remain calm and consistent and try not to overreact. If our teen senses that we will overreact when they have made a mistake, then they will try to cover up and hide their mistakes, which usually just makes situations far worse. Teens need to feel that they can turn to their parent for support and guidance, even when they have done the wrong thing.
Additionally, if we do lose it with our teens (which is a very normal reaction), then they shift the focus from the mistake they have made and they make it all about our reaction to the situation.
So next time you hear that your teen has made a mistake, hold off from saying, “my child would never”, listen to what they have done and work with us so that, together, we educate your teen so that they hopefully do not make the same mistake twice, as a mistake should only happen once!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Hemphill is the Head of High School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.