When You Encounter Moral Immaturity in Your Teenager

One of the most difficult moments as a parent or caregiver of a teenager is when he or she betrays a trust, lies, cheats, steals or violates a cherished family value. Parents often feel like they have failed as parents and can quickly give up hope that their teenager will become a person of integrity.

How do you approach broken trust?

It is understandable that parents should have such strong reactions.

father talking to teen daughter
What do you say when your teen uses poor judgment?

After all, you have poured your life into your teenager, and suddenly it appears that nothing you have taught him about moral decisions has been honored.

In addition to the frustration of being ignored, feelings of anger and betrayal may occur. Sometimes there can be a strong sense of grief, loss or depression as you realize a significant disappointment.

When emotions rule…

In such a moment of high emotions,  parents can easily send extremely reactionary messages to their teenagers. Sometimes these messages induce such levels of shame that it is difficult for your teenager to recover from the devastation felt by “letting down” his or her parents. Consequently, some teenagers get angry, some rebel even more and some withdraw completely.

It is most important that parents become self-aware about their feelings so that they can process the situation appropriately when dealing with a teenager who has morally disappointed them. We know that teenagers are very good at covering violations of trust: they can argue, excuse, fabricate stories and even deny wrongdoing. If parents are reacting to a specific situation, they may miss opportunities to be attuned to what is actually going on with their teenager. It is easy in such moments to miss the real reason he or she has broken trust.

Asking the better question

Parents normally will begin an internal dialogue asking “Can I trust you?”  However, a better question to ask is “When and to what extent can I trust you and how do I determine that?” This will give the parent the chance to reopen the door to trust with their teenager. The ability to establish trust again is an important truth for both teenagers and parents to have hope in.

three friends
Keep the door open to re-establish trust

Parents need to be mindful that teenagers will have lapses in judgment. In fact, we should come to expect incidences like these. Parents need to remember that the journey from moral immaturity to gradual maturity in this time of life is a long one. It is a normal expectation that teenagers will make mistakes, use poor judgment and may alienate their parents. It is part of their growth process.

The goal as parents and caregivers is to create an environment where these words are said to a teenager that has morally failed,  “Now that you have betrayed my trust, which is understandable even thought it is unacceptable, what can I do right now to help you accept responsibility for your behavior and help you learn and grow in your moral understanding.”

This is a statement that I think is helpful in discussions of moral failure. In so doing, we are offering help, being clear about acceptable and unacceptable behavior, giving them the chance to accept responsibility for their behavior and setting the stage for learning and growth.

Further, if we continue to send this type of message, we will be clear in our role as parents. We will be using these situations as teachable moment opportunities and we will move our teenagers to a new level of responsibility, respect and growth in their moral lives. It is a great way to turn obstacles into opportunities!

Gerry Vassar, President and CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Some excerpts taken from Understanding Teens, Diane Wagenhals, 2007.

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