Learning Life’s Lessons the Hard Way

From school suspensions to traffic citations, teens can get into a boatload of trouble. And it’s inevitable that adolescents are going to make mistakes and some are going to be doozies. But as a parent, how do you handle it when your teen gets into big trouble?

My son, for example, recently received his first traffic ticket; he was pulled over going 30 mph over the speed limit! Hence, the inspiration behind this piece. Right after getting the ticket, he called to tell us what happened, so, fortunately, I had some time to get my emotions in check before his arrival home. In truth, when he dropped the bomb, I felt frustration seeping in and started to undergo some form of transformation, like Bruce Banner turning into the Incredible Hulk. After a few deep slow breaths, I was able to get my emotional self and my rational self in sync, and that helped put the situation back into perspective.

Perspective is something parents can easily lose sight of when it comes to our kids. For some strange reason, our kids seem to know just how to push all our buttons at once. When that happens, it’s easy to blow our tops, which doesn’t solve anything, and in fact, can make matters worse.

[Read: Take the Bubble Wrap Off Your Child.]

When my son told us about his ticket, I quickly gained perspective by reflecting on my experience in working with adolescents. I thought back to talking with parents whose kids had been in a tragic accident that resulted in a severe life-changing injury or worse — a fatality. I remembered sitting in funerals where precious lives were taken because of an accident. It didn’t take too long for these memories to remind me that the situation could have been far worse than an expensive ticket.

Going a little farther down memory lane, I remembered a young naive 17-year-old girl flying past a highway patrol officer going 25 mph over the speed limit. Yes, guilty as charged, I too had a similar violation to my son’s at a similar age. I was holding my son to higher standards than I held myself. Like many parents, I didn’t want him making the same mistakes that I had made. I was projecting myself and my choices onto him, and that wasn’t fair, because he’s not me.

Odds are as parents, if we take a walk down memory lane, we’ll recall some boneheaded mistakes that got us into a lot of trouble, too. Personally, I learned a lot from my lead-footed incident. I learned that it takes a lot of hours working overtime at a part-time minimum wage paying job to pay off a speeding ticket. It was a tough lesson, and I had to learn it the hard way. And sometimes our teens have to learn things the hard way, too.

[Read: 6 Tips for Talking to Your Teen About Anything at All.]

Aside from our past, think about the courage it takes for kids to tell their parents what happened. Thinking back, I wonder which was worse for my son: calling home or getting the ticket itself? When it comes to fessing up, many kids will go to great lengths to prolong telling their parents what they did, because they either don’t want to put stress on their parents or disappoint them. Or in my son’s case, he knew to call ahead and allow us some time to process the information before coming home. Regardless, here’s the plain simple truth: We all make mistakes, and our children are no exception to the rule.

Given that, here are seven things I’d recommend (including what not to do) to handle your teen’s big mistakes:

1. Know that screw-ups are inevitable. Teens are going to make mistakes, especially as they have more unsupervised time. As parents, it’s easy to put a spotlight on the missteps, but don’t let a mistake overshadow the great stuff kids do.

2. Don’t blame yourself. First of all, it’s not your fault. Our kids are their own people, and they are responsible for their own behavior. Our job is to make sure they have the resources and information they need to make the best decisions possible. What they do with the information is entirely up to them. All we can do is hope and pray they use the tools that we give them.

3. Let natural consequences be the punishment. Sometimes life dishes out the most valuable lessons. In my son’s example, his father and I simply said, “It’s your mistake, not ours. So, you’re going to pay for it with your time and money.” It was clear from his reaction that life’s natural consequences were far greater than any punishment we could have doled out.

4. Teach your child to own the mistake. It’s human nature to want to find fault and blame others for what happened. It’s easy to blame an officer for writing a ticket but failing to catch the other vehicles flying by. It’s easy to accuse a friend of passing the joint or pouring the drink at a party. Yes, it’s easy to shift responsibility and play the blame game. The main point in all of these situations is that the teens made poor decisions that led to undesirable consequences, and therefore, they need to own the mistake.

5. Set the stage for future generations. Our past experiences help us handle situations that arise. How we handle our kids’ mistakes will lay the foundation for how they, in turn, will handle their own kids’ mistakes. It’s like a domino effect that can affect generations to come.

6. Be an ally, not a defender. When teens mess up, they need an ally, and who better to serve that role than their parents? But we don’t have to fix the situation. In fact, we may not be able to. Rather, we just need to be there and stand by their side as they go through the storms of life.

7. Allow them to learn from their mistakes. Our experiences help us mature and grow into responsible people. If we look back, we’d probably recognize that life’s hard knocks taught the most valuable lessons. Moreover, those lessons helped shape us into the people we are today.

Teens are going to make poor choices. Whether they get into trouble with the law, get pregnant, wreck the family car, lose a scholarship or end up on academic probation, they are still our kids. What’s most important is that they know we love them regardless of what they have done.

[Read: Is Your Teen a Daredevil?]

Don’t lose sight of all the awesome and terrific things they do in life. Their good acts almost always outweigh the bad ones. Sometimes our kids have to learn life’s lessons the hard way, and that’s OK. In many situations, our kids don’t need to be rescued, they just need us to be there, because life experiences can be the greatest teacher of all.

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Learning Life’s Lessons the Hard Way originally appeared on usnews.com