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When Should Parents Intervene in Adolescent Troubles?

Letting bad problems or choices teach hard lessons is not always the best idea

It can be a fine line for parents to draw – between respecting their adolescent’s ownership of troubles, or to intervene and rescue to stay the harm. To remain uninvolved or to interfere, that is the delicate question?

So it’s the spring semester of senior year in high school, and a college bound student, tempted by an illicit way, cheats on a major exam and is apprehended for his efforts. School policy voids class credit for cheating, and now the student will not have sufficient credits to graduate with his peers. There is, however, an appeal process to which the student, if parents are willing to participate, can resort with the possibility of his being given another chance.

Now parents weigh their decision. In this dispute, tough love preaches letting him face the damages by learning an important lesson the hard way about playing by the rules, while merciful love prefers to shield the teenager from this penalty in hopes just getting caught and talking about it will be sufficiently corrective. Which approach to parenting is best? I’ve seen each response work, when “work” means that a significant mistake or misdeed or misadventure has not been repeated. But for parents it can be a complicated call.

How to know when the protection of merciful love may not answer? Parents might consider whether the current violation or related rule breaking has repeatedly occurred before. If so, and if acts of parental interference and teenage promises to reform have been previously given, but have failed to keep harmful behavior from recurring, it may be time to let painful consequences of poor decisions bite. In such a case, parents may say to the teenager, who expects to be bailed out once again, something like this: “We know we’ve helped you out of this kind of trouble before, but it seems we’ve only helped make matters worse. As always, you can count on our love, but from now on, not our assistance. We can’t save you from yourself. Only you can do that.”

How to know when the application of natural consequences ordained by tough love may not be the first answer? There are three questions parents might consider. First, is there imminent danger to the adolescent if parents let events run their course? Second, is there a self-defeating pattern of behavior here that the adolescent lacks the power to change without their help? Third, is there a self-destructive pattern of behavior here that the adolescent lacks the power to change? Take these questions one at a time.

THE CASE OF IMMINENT DANGER. Suppose parents have a shy middle school son who has been followed around by a taunting bully, with other students starting to join in the name calling and harassing too? As a parent, do you let the young man learn to deal with it by himself, suffer from los of esteem and safety, and perhaps risk more serious hurt? Or do you decide to interfere? For example, do you coach him about violating the bully’s prediction by encouraging your son to try being less emotionally reactive or more socially assertive -- responses that might make the torment less satisfying to give? And if that doesn’t stay the harm, with his permission do you contact the principal to get the bullying to stop?

THE CASE OF SELF-DEFEATING BEHAVIOR. Suppose you have a highly social middle school daughter who doesn’t want time spent doing homework to get in the way of communicating with her friends, and now zeroes for assignments not turned in are resulting in failing grades? As a parent do you do nothing, let her learn a self-defeating habit, and risk her learning that not doing schoolwork and failing some of her classes is okay? Or do you decide to interfere? Over her objections, do you sufficiently supervise homework being brought home, adequately accomplished, and faithfully turned in so she does not allow less academic motivation, common at this age, to result in a slackening of effort and a lowering of grades that will limit academic options to come?

THE CASE OF SELF-DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOR. Suppose you have socially and sexually mature looking high school freshman who is welcomed by a faster crowd of older students among whom recreational substance use is the norm, and now the young woman is making risky choices of a careless and uncaring kind that suggests she is drug using too? As a parent, do you do nothing, let her choose to get into serious trouble, and then hopefully learn from the errors of her wilder ways? Or do you decide to interfere? Do you give her the protection of your prohibitions that limit her social freedom so she has a choice to follow a safer way, and do you get her substance use assessed to determine to what degree if any it is having a personally and socially disorganizing effect? And if indicated, do you mandate some form of counseling or treatment so she can recover a more sober way?

There’s a lot written about over-parenting, hovering parenting, “helicopter” parenting, invasive parenting that suggests parental letting go is the preferred strategy of choice. We are told how parental letting go allows adolescents to build autonomy, how figuring their problems out builds resourcefulness, and how confronting the consequences of their choices builds responsibility. And to an important degree all this can be so. However, it is a matter of degree. Although parental non-interference is often a good policy, it is not always the best one, and parents must be able to make this discrimination.

When in the adolescent’s life there is imminent danger, when there is a pattern of self-defeating behavior, when actions are becoming self-destructive; these are times when parents may want to interfere.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) More information at:

I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.

Next week’s entry: Bargaining with your Adolescent

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