RECOVERY PLAN: How parents can respond to serious mistakes made by our children
Our kids can make mistakes, some of which can be serious and, if we are honest, even life-changing, and even deadly.
That is partly related to the fact that they are young. We all know at least a little about brain development, including the idea that the functions of our brain that help us make good judgments and avoid bad mistakes are not fully developed until the mid-20s.
But let us be fair. Watch the news a couple of times, or just look around you, and you will see all kinds of examples of adults making terrible mistakes, also sometimes life-changing, career-ending, marriage-destroying, and sometimes deadly mistakes.
Our kids make mistakes because they are kids—but also because they are human beings.
I’m going to confine my remarks to a few categories of mistakes. I have a strong interest in the mistakes that cause terrible injuries and death. But this is about a Recovery Plan and not about the worst kind of tragedies.
So, let’s focus for a minute on kids before puberty.
Many of the mistakes that can really upset parents have to do with peer relationships and what we might broadly call “conduct” violations. Breaking serious rules at school are an obvious example. Increasingly, even among these younger kids, foolish use of social media can cause serious problems.
For teenagers, we tend to see a larger range of potential problems and they may be more serious.
- An unplanned pregnancy
- An incident of alcohol use that causes major problems: an arrest, a motor vehicle accident, a suspension from school
- Any kind of serious encounter with police
- A problem involving social media
- A serious violation of school rules, leading to disciplinary action
Let’s think about the “recovery plan” in these categories. They are related!
- Our emotions
- How we respond to our child
Let’s name some possible emotional responses
Question: How much should we express these feelings to our kids when they have made terrible mistakes?
To decide for yourself you might consider what you want to ACHIEVE. Do we want to vent our emotions on the child who has made the mistake? Do we want to unload on them? Or do we want to respond in a way that will HELP them? They are not the same goals.
There is NOTHING WRONG with saying to our child that we are angry, shocked, disappointed, worried, embarrassed. I mean it. But we should not convince ourselves that doing so will help our child in any way.
Do we think that our kids knowing we are mad, or shocked, or disappointed at them solves anything? Again, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. But we just need to remember that our anger isn’t going to fix what happened. It is possible our anger, expressed, may discourage future, similar mistakes. We have to be careful, though. Too much expression of too much anger and disappointment done in the wrong way, can backfire.
Here’s a possible example of a better way to express our feelings.
I’m mad. I’m upset. I’m worried. But this is not about me. This is about you. I am your parent and I love you. I may need some time to calm down a bit. I may not always be able to talk with you when I’m emotional. But we will work this through together and get through it.
Here is a side note for you.
Sometimes kids who have made mistakes are defensive. They make excuses. They avoid responsibility. If we yell and carry on too much, they will yell back—or they will retreat and withdraw from us.
We can’t always judge whether we are “getting through” to them based on their reactions. We just have to keep at it and not get into too much back and forth.
HOW TO RESPOND:
None of this is easy and I do not presume to know the right thing to do. I have ideas.
What is the role of punishment?
Honestly, this is a complex question, highly dependent on the specific circumstances.
One thing I feel sure about is that punishment may be appropriate, but it will not necessarily accomplish the goal of preventing future mistakes.
Some things to consider.
- Don’t get in a rush to decide how to punish. We tend to overdo it when we don’t take time to try to calm down and think it through.
- Consider the possibility that the child is already punished enough by the natural consequences of her mistake (embarrassment, being bullied for it, school consequences.)
A healing message
In my clinical practice I saw many, many teenagers who were in terrible trouble. Something terrible had happened to them or they had made some terrible mistake.
Some of them—many of them—I’m not sure, maybe even most of them ended up getting through the crises. I noticed a theme along the way among those who recovered from the crisis the best.
What they seem to have in common is they had someone in their life who believed in them. Who didn’t judge them. Who reassured them. Over the years, I have developed a kind of summary of what I think can be a healing message.
- You have made a mistake. A bad one. You are a person and being a person means you can make terrible mistakes. It doesn’t mean you are a bad person.
- I care about you. I want to help. Sometimes I may do the wrong thing and say the wrong thing to you because I am also a person and I have feelings about this. I’m upset. But it’s not about me.
- I have confidence in you. We will get through this. You will get through this.
I’m aware that may sound a bit too kumbaya. A bit too Mr. Rogers. All I can tell you is that I think it has literally saved lives.