How to Help Teens Grow Morally

Parents and caregivers, are you concerned about some of the moral decisions of teenagers? It can be very scary to listen to the values and language, or witness attitudes and behaviors that characterize our teenagers. Some parents become concerned because they fail to see family values demonstrated, which they believe they have modeled and taught their to their children.  Did these values just vanish during teenage years?

Why does a teen take risks?

No doubt, teenagers’ attitudes or behaviors can be shocking, especially to those who care for them.

3 teens, one with gun
What do you do when your teen makes a shocking error in judgment?

When adolescents err in moral judgment, it is difficult to know how to respond.  We may want to react strongly because we feel exasperated or angry with what they have done. Often, our reactions reflect in actions that punish or verbal humiliation as we hope to teach our teen (unsuccessfully) not to repeat such detrimental behavior.

However, it is helpful to know every teenager goes through a significant set of internal developmental changes.  The teenage brain continually rewires, thus generating hormones associated with risk-taking behavior that may be illegal, immoral or outright dangerous. In this phase of growth, a teenager will process a variety of moral dilemmas in which values and messages may seem contradictory to his or her belief systems.

Strategies for shaping morality

What is the best strategy for dealing with this phase of life?  Do we sit down in a room and have a long session on morality?

Unfortunately, shaping morality is a long process. As our teenagers learn how to cope with the world in which they live, they are gradually shaping ideas, values and opinions about that world.  They are in a place of emergence in which their body, brain and perspectives are changing daily.

Happy mom and daughter
Establish the kind of relationship that guides

This moral development process continues beyond teenage years; so, you will find it most helpful to establish the kind of relationship that encourages your teen to reflect on life with your guidance, capitalizing on the teachable moments of life’s circumstances. Since life occurs situation by situation for teens, and knowing that your input as a parent will impact who they will become, it will be important for you to be in a position to process those situations as they occur.

Consequences can be the best teacher

In order to provide a stable environment where moral development can best occur, it will be essential for parents and caregivers to allow consequences. A teenager will benefit from understanding the impact of his actions and discussing potential solutions, but providing healthy consequences for making amends will invite moral growth.

Experience definition
Open discussion about consequences helps.

As life progresses and healthy dialogue–that is less judgmental and more consequential–occurs, a teenager gradually shapes his own values and beliefs and begins to connect them to his outward behavior. Certainly, patience is needed as this takes a very long time, and parents will find solace by keeping this in mind.

When we process life’s situations with teenagers, it is significant that conversations with them be centered around the moral experiences and the impact and consequences of questionable moral decisions.

The best way for teens to self-discover and grow internally is to have open–and sometimes difficult–discussions about moral issues as we give them the tools to establish their beliefs and values. As exasperating and difficult as these discussions may be, it can be a time in which our experiences and wisdom as parents and caregivers can greatly benefit our teenagers.  In fact, these moments can be transformational.  It is certainly a challenging phase, but also one of the most exciting times of growth for parents and teenagers.

Gerry Vassar, President and CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

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