Q: Dear Proactive Parenting,
How do you get a teen to open up and own their mistakes? How do you get [them to take] hold to realize he owes an apology?
Dealing with narcissistic teens who like to blame others for their mistakes vs owning them and apologizing. I’m working on myself and trying to mirror better behavior, admitting my own faults and apologize when needed.
A: Almost every parent of a teen has similar questions. Parents want to know things like, “Why did this smart girl do this really stupid or insensitive thing? What was she thinking? Will he ever think before he acts?”
Parents see the budding adult inside their teen, and want their emotional and mental abilities to match that of full grown adult, now.
The problem is that even though the child looks like an adult, and can hold her own in an argument with you, she still acts like a petulant child when she doesn’t get what she wants. That’s because the teen brain is still developing, and will continue to do so until their mid-20s.
Every parent of a teen has the same dream. You hope that you’ll somehow correct behavior in the perfect way so your child comes to you and says, “Mom, you were so right, and I was so wrong. Let me take responsibility for what I did.”
I hate to burst your bubble but that conversation is probably not going to happen at this age. To be fair, it could happen, but it’s not likely.
Don’t mistake a teen’s lack of owning up to their mistakes as a lack of learning. Your teen is learning a great deal at this time. They’re learning behind the scenes skills like executive functioning, which is planning ahead, organization, and completion of projects. They’re learning informed decision making, empathy, what it means to judge and be judged plus impulse control.
Using a “Big Picture” perspective works well here. Since the brain is built on experiences, the best way to teach a teen is to allow experiences to unfold, if safe to do so, as you guide, teach, enforce rules and boundaries and are empathetic.
In order to teach a child to take responsibility for his/her actions begin with connecting.
As a teen, I took my mom’s car for a joy ride and hit a cement structure surrounding a sewage drain. It really messed up the car. My mom used a “big picture” perspective here.
She began by connecting.
Her first words were, “Give me a hug. Look, I only care that you’re okay, the car is hunk of metal that can be fixed.”
Then she moved on to teaching questions.
She asked me: What were you hoping would happen? What did you learn from this? And how will you pay for this?
Then she moved on to using a learning consequence.
The last question, “How will you pay for this?” is where you begin asking questions that guide your child through all the aspects of what happened.
The reason you ask questions is so your child is required to talk and rehash the experience using a calmer frame of mind. You ask him/her what the others involved in the situation were doing, thinking and feeling. That helps them learn how to deal with risky behavior, how to communicate, take responsibility and have empathy for what she put the others through by acting the way she did.
And there’s so much more.
For mindful, clear ways to implement a learning consequence that truly teaches a child how to take responsibility, including the details, concepts and questions you’ll need, check out Motivating Listening and Cooperation .
To gain a few more questions and concepts, read Acceptance and Connection: 2 Ways to Achieve.
Your teen most likely feels horrible about whatever they did. But they need help releasing the fight or flight hormones that are causing them to argue and reject any responsibility. Try to remember that behind the hormones and arguments is someone who is learning a great deal.
I hope that helps.
Now, go hug your kids!