When Good Teens Make Bad Choices

by | Feb 26, 2023 | Teenagers | 0 comments


Elsa is what most would consider an incredible teen.  She did well in school, played two sports, participated in a charity organization, and had a small group of like-minded, high-achieving friends.  Her parents never worried about Elsa.  They knew they had raised her with a sturdy set of values and she consistently demonstrated responsible decision-making.   All was going well, until one day a school administrator called to say Elsa had been caught vaping marijuana in the school bathroom.  Her parents were stunned.  Their Elsa?  When confronted, Elsa admitted she had been vaping marijuana for months.  She said it helped her manage all the stress and pressure she felt. She told her parents it wasn’t that big of a deal,  that everyone does it, and that it’s nothing to freak out about. 



Everything changed when Penelope turned 15.  Her parents noticed a sudden change in her attitude and approach to school, friends, and sports.  “She is not herself.  She argues with us all the time and doesn’t seem to care about her grades or going out with friends.  She needs to get more motivated and realize that she can’t just sit in her room all day! She’s wasting her life.”  When I met with Penelope, it became clear why she was withdrawing.  She had developed an interest in a boy and learned he liked her too.  As their relationship was developing, her best friend suddenly declared she had had a long-time crush on the same boy.   She was angry with Penelope for “stealing” her guy and abruptly stopped talking to her.  Penelope felt left out and unsure who to turn to. She started feeling guilty about the relationship with the boy and let it fizzle out.  She said she can’t tell any of this to her parents because they just “don’t get it.” “They would just tell me this is stupid girl drama and I should move on. They don’t understand how hard it is.” 


Teens are Good!


Teens want to make good decisions.  In over ten years of coaching teens and young adults, I have yet to meet one who intentionally makes a bad decision.  Teens want to be good.  Usually, poor decisions are a result of peer influence, being misguided or misinformed, a deep desire to connect and belong, and simply being a naturally (and appropriately) impulsive teen!  


Obviously, parents can’t monitor every choice their teen makes but they can build a strong relationship and influence thoughtful decision-making.  The way in which parents handle mistakes, talk about trust ,and meet their teen from a place of understanding, plays a critical role in a teen’s values and decision-making skills. 


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Look for the Need


Behind every poor decision is a need.   Elsa needed to learn healthy ways to cope with stress and pressure.  Penelope needed a safe outlet and tools for handling friendship challenges.  When parents pause and reflect on the need behind a  poor decision, they can take action to meet the need.


A Calm Approach


All mistakes and bad decisions are an opportunity for a teen to learn.  Parents who approach a teen’s wrong choice from a place of calm, create an opportunity for a meaningful conversation and growth.  They can explain why they are upset by focusing on the behavior and its inherent dangers, not on their teen’s inability to think a decision through or make a better choice.  I always suggest parents avoid asking their teens “why” because most of the time teens don’t know why they do what they do.  Remember the decision-making part of their brain is not fully developed!  A more helpful approach is to explore “what” they now know.  What wisdom have they gained and what will they do differently next time?




During the teen years, trust is critical and fragile.  Parents need to feel they can trust their teen to handle the independence and freedom their teen craves.  Trust should be earned but it also should be explained. Parents can help their teen understand the role of trust when they talk with their teens about it.  Engage your teen in conversations about how it forms, is strengthened, breaks, and how to rebuild it.  


Opportunities and Second Chances


Teens need opportunities to build trust and learn important life lessons.  Parents provide an opportunity for growth when they step back and allow their teen to make decisions and handle the consequences.  Second chances can also play an important role.  Giving a teen another opportunity to demonstrate learning and growth allows her to feel good about her ability to make better decisions.   




When a teen makes a bad decision, it’s easy for a parent to assume the teen should have known a particular rule or boundary.  It was easy for Elsa’s parents to say she should have known it was not OK to vape at school but when so many other people were doing it and no one at school seemed to care, she second-guessed herself.  It is critical for parents to make rules and consequences crystal clear, and not assume their teen knows.  Use bad decisions as opportunities to set new, clear expectations.  


It is impossible to predict what rules or boundaries your teen will break and it’s unreasonable to lay out a long list of dos and don’ts.  What helps is when parents take time to consider their absolute non-negotiables and make those clear.  It is also crucial to tune in with teens and clarify expectations around the behavior you are observing.  


Good teens will make mistakes.  They will take risks and make poor choices.  This is all part of developing.  While there is a lot parents can do to seize mistakes as teachable moments and create an environment of learning and growth, teens who are excessively risk-takers or who consistently make choices that put them in harm’s way may need professional intervention. 


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