Kids make mistakes and do stupid things. That's what kids do. As young children their brains aren't developed enough to be able to think abstractly and clearly about complicated or long range consequences. Even as pre-teens and teens, they just haven't had enough life experiences to think things through fully before jumping to a quick verbal response or a rash behavior which could get them into trouble.

This is the time to remember that you were young once too. Resurrect some of your youthful screw-ups to remind yourself of foolish decisions you've made. In fact, we often don't have to scroll back very far in time to recall a dumb choice in our recent past. We're not perfect-and our kids aren't perfect either.

So when your kids make poor choices and take impulsive risks, be sensitive. Don't fly to criticism, conclusions or harsh punishment. Instead, take your time to learn about the situation as completely as you can. Only then are you ready to respond.

You see, when your kids make a mistake is when they need you most. That's when you're really glad you've developed and maintained a close, positive and trusting relationship with them-so you can talk with them, influence them and guide them.

I adopted a slogan that helped me through the crazy times of raising my two daughters: "When a crisis occurs, don't panic. Don't react. First, secure the relationship." Make sure you don't damage your connection with your kids. Maintain and even increase your contact. There's plenty of time to solve the problem after your child knows you understand, you care and you're on his side.

A mom told me that a couple of years ago that her teenage son called in a bomb threat to the school. Now that's serious! In fact, it's a potential felony charge. He did it, not because he was a bad kid but because he had ADD and was very impulsive. Also because he felt like a nobody and he yearned to feel like a somebody. The school and the legal system were right there to impose significant consequences. So Mom wisely decided to stay calm and stay connected because she knew he would need her to help him learn to make better decisions in the future and to feel like a somebody without engaging in behaviors that evacuated the school and threatened to land him in juvie.

Here's a chiller! You get a call from the principal who says your fifteen-year-old daughter just flunked math and was busted for smoking dope in the school parking lot with a twenty three-year old on a Harley with fifty tattoos. How do you stay calm in the face of that one? Here are some simple tips for keeping your cool.

1. Count to ten. But you can do it quietly-in your head. If you can put a few seconds of time between hearing the crisis and giving your response, you'll be able to talk more reasonably with your child.

2. Bite your tongue. Literally. It will remind you not to talk when the only words that would come out would be critical and judgmental.

3. Put your hand over your mouth. Not in a way that shows dismay or horror, but to quiet yourself. You man need to give yourself a physical restraint to keep from saying something you'll regret.

4. Walk away. Yes, leave the room. Give yourself some physical space to help you recover from the shock of what you've seen or heard. (It's also a great technique to really sober your child and make him/her wonder what will be coming next!)

5. Do anything you can think of to prevent yourself from saying something that will damage your child's spirit or hurt your relationship.

When my daughter Carol was in sixteen, she got drunk at a party, fell over the beer keg and broke her nose. When she came home that night, she woke us up as usual to let us know she was safely home, then dropped into bed. She said nothing about her predicament. However, the next morning when she sheepishly came downstairs to the kitchen, she had two black eyes, a sore nose and a defeated spirit. She promptly came forth with the entire story-no details omitted.

We could have yelled, made a fuss and punished her immediately. But fortunately, we didn't panic. As we listened to her woeful tale, we actually felt sorry for her-remembering some pretty stupid things we had done when we were young. I was upset and concerned about her behavior, but I also knew I wanted to be able to talk with her about teenage drinking, addiction (which was in her family) and all the self-esteem issues that often prompt kids to follow the crowd. Cutting her off with a heavy hand and a harsh punishment might have closed her down to me and prevented me from talking with her and helping her in the future. Besides, how could I have punished her more than the universe around her? She had to have surgery and wear a drip pad under her nose for several days in school. Doctor's orders prohibited her from going with her friends on a camping trip to the desert over spring break. She couldn't play soccer for the rest of the year. And she had to answer all the probing questions of her teachers and the other kids in school. I got to use the opportunity to show compassion, talk about the ramifications of drinking and appreciate her for being honest with me.

The result? She learned a big lesson about drinking. It helped to cement our relationship because she knew I was understanding and on her side. She knew she could trust me to be supportive and to be there for her when she needed help. I got to be the one she talked to-and listened to-in the midst of her tough times. And that's about as good a parenting gets.

For up to date advice and tips on parenting, please check out my book, "Parenting Is a
Contact Sport: 8 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Kids for Life.

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About the Author

Joanne Stern, Ph.D.

Joanne Stern, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in family and couples counseling, as well as the author of Parenting Is a Contact Sport.

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