Listen to an audio file of this tool.
Now Is the Right Time!
Teens age 18 are redefining their identity as they contemplate upcoming adulthood. Though they may have adult-looking physical features, they still require guidance and clear rules. They are seeking independence, defining who they are and will be as they approach adulthood, and navigating how and by what principles they will make decisions. In order to clearly understand where they draw boundaries, they will naturally test limits and break rules. When they do, they require support on how to repair harm caused to a relationship or item. After all, even adults struggle with the capacity to right a wrong. This is a normal part of their development and necessary for their learning.
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can choose to be deliberate in the ways you provide guidance when your teen makes poor choices or mistakes. Your support in building the skill of repairing harm can help your teen actively develop social awareness — “the ability to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts.”1 They’ll develop relationship skills as they learn how to mend hurt feelings in friendships or with coaches, teachers, or mentors. They’ll also exercise responsible decision making, or “the ability to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations,” learning that their choices cause a reaction or outcome, which can harm others or themselves.”1 These skills grow your teen’s sense of responsibility all the while improving your relationship.
Some parents and those in a parenting role feel that if they do not impose punishments, their teen will not understand that their behavior is inappropriate. In fact, when a teen is punished, they often feel angry or hurt. They also may feel that your intervention is unfair or unjust as they exert more independence. This impacts their relationship with you while also failing to teach them the appropriate constructive behavior and build a skill. Your teen is likely to miss the lesson you want to emphasize entirely. An even greater risk is that the injustice they feel can lead them to hide or not share tough circumstances in their lives that you most definitely want to be aware of.
Pay attention when you use punishments to whether or not the poor choice is made again to know if the lesson was learned. In fact, punishment often leads to more poor choices. A vicious cycle begins in which a teen feels badly about themselves and repeats the behaviors that are expected of a “bad teen.” To interrupt this cycle, parents need to learn to actively support them in repairing harm.
You can expect that teens ages 15-19 will make mistakes, test limits, and break rules. And when they do, they are only considering their own impulses and desires and not how it might impact you or others. Teens require support and follow through from parents to understand the impact and also, how to make things better. They need to understand that they always have another chance to repair harm. This skill is developed over time and requires a lot of practice.
Research confirms that teens are in the process of developing higher order thinking skills like consequential thinking and linking cause to effect.2 This directly impacts their school, including college success, their ability to sustain healthy relationships, and ability to take responsibility for their actions as they grow. Teens need the guidance and support of caring adults to learn these skills.
Guidance on repairing harm can be challenging for many parents and those in a parenting role.3 Instead of a quick, reflexive response like yelling, scolding, or punishing, repairing harm takes time, follow through, and thoughtful consideration. Yet, it can become the most powerful teaching opportunity for your teen as they learn to take responsibility for their actions and begin to understand how their choices impact others. As you utilize these teachable moments that grow your teen’s skills, your relationship with them will be enriched. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters.
Why Guidance for Repairing Harm?
When your fifteen-year-old hides a failed test, your sixteen-year-old lies about going to a friend’s house where there’s alcohol available, or your nineteen-year-old verbally fights with a neighbor, these situations are opportunities to provide guidance for repairing harm.
Today, in the short term, guidance for repairing harm can create
- a sense of confidence that you can help your teen heal hurt relationships and make up for mistakes made,
- a greater understanding of the connection between your teen’s actions and their impact on themselves and others,
- trust in each other that you have the competence to make things right after harm has been done, and
- a growing understanding of rules and expectations.
Tomorrow, in the long term, guidance for repairing harm helps your teen
- build skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making;
- learn independence and self-sufficiency; and
- build assertive communication to express needs and boundaries, critical for keeping them safe and ready to deal with peer pressure.
Five Steps for Guiding Your Teen to Repair Harm
This five-step process helps you guide your teen to build the skills necessary to repair harm when they make poor choices or mistakes. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are done best when you and your teen are not tired or in a rush.
Intentional communication and a healthy parenting relationship support these steps.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
A teen’s behaviors are often influenced by their feelings. Feelings are spontaneous reactions to people, places, and experiences.2 Feelings are not right or wrong, but what your teen does with their feelings may be appropriate or inappropriate. Though they may act on a feeling in a moment that harms another either through words or actions, they likely won’t consider the impact on others until the harm is already done.
You can help your teen start understanding their feelings by asking open-ended questions. In gaining input:
- You can transform an unsafe or inappropriate behavior into a teachable moment by uncovering your teen’s feelings.
- You can better understand why your teen is behaving in a certain way.
- You can begin to teach your teen how to understand their own impulses and feelings, which will help them manage their own behaviors.
- You can grow their self-control, self and social awareness, and problem-solving skills.
Teens ages 15-19 are still learning to understand their own feelings, other people’s feelings, and how their own actions affect others. Consider that adults sometimes do not realize the complex emotions they are feeling. They will need your support in figuring all this out. When both you and your teen are calm, reflect on their feelings so you can be prepared to help. Ask yourself:
- “Does my teen have an unmet need?” They might need someone to listen or give them attention, some alone time, or some help so they can be successful at something they are trying to do.
- You can ask them about how they are feeling.
- “I noticed your face got really red. So, when you said unkind things to your sister, were you feeling frustrated?”
- “I saw your friend leave you after school to go talk with someone else. I wonder if you are feeling sad?”
- You can also ask them about how they think others might be feeling.
- “When your friend walked away, how do you think they were feeling?”
- “When you said that to me, how do you think that made me feel?”
- Use your best listening skills! Listen closely to what is most concerning to your teen without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
- Explore the mind-body connection. In calmer moments with your teen, ask, “How does your body feel now?” See how descriptively they can list their physical signs of wellbeing. Now ask, “How does your body feel when you are angry?” For every person, their physical experience will be different. Find out how your teen feels. Sometimes, it helps to offer what physical symptoms you’ve observed. “I’ve seen your face get red. Do you get hot when you’re mad?” Making the connection between those symptoms and the normal feelings they are having helps raise their self-awareness and notice sooner when their upset emotions are triggered.
Remember that teens can be highly sensitive to any judgment. They will notice the tone and feeling behind your words. Avoid letting the question turn into an accusation. Remember to stay calm. Remind yourself that the goal of the question is to help your teen uncover feelings.
Step 2. Teach New Skills through Interactive Modeling
The fundamental purpose of repairing harm is to grow the skill of taking responsibility through constructive action such as healing hurt relationships and mending broken objects. Learning new skills and behaviors requires modeling, practice, support, and recognition.
Learning how to understand your own feelings and behaviors when your teen behaves inappropriately is a great way to start. It will help you understand what they are learning to do. You might ask yourself:
- “Do I get angry when they act in a certain way?”
- “How do I respond to my anger?”
- “How do I want my teen to respond when they feel angry?”
Learning about your teen’s developmental milestones can help you have reasonable expectations for your teen.
- Fifteen-year-olds may feel sensitive to criticism and preoccupied with peer impressions. In their push for greater independence, they continue to require guidance, rules, and boundaries from adults but may test those rules or intentionally break them as they experiment with their limits and growing identity, which can lead to intentionally or unintentionally causing harm.
- Sixteen-year-olds may feel more confident. They may have new goals outside of school and along with them — stress and worries. They might be tempted to stay up late studying or socializing but that lack of sleep challenges their self-control and ability to manage anger and anxiety in healthy ways.
- Seventeen-year-olds may become highly focused on their academic and life goals and the stress of adult choices ahead. Conflicts may arise with you as they assert independence but also feel fragile, vulnerable, and scared of their future adult lives.
- Eighteen and nineteen-year-olds are considered emerging adults. At times, they may exude confidence, while other times they may feel highly insecure and run to you needing comfort and security. Though they may face conflict with you as you renegotiate your relationship with an adult son or daughter, they’ll also face their own internal conflicts wanting to rely on you while needing their independence.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems. This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences when expectations are not met.
It can be easy for parents or those in a parenting role to scold a teen who has made a poor choice, inducing a feeling of shame. Instead, we want teens to feel empowered to take steps toward making something better. Remember that teens are their own worst critic and may already have intense messages of failure generated in their self-talk. Calming down first will take the heat out of your tone and send the message of support for guiding them toward a next better decision.
- Recognize and reinforce healthy, constructive decision making. Each time your teen makes a choice on their own that impacts them, you, or others and involves their careful consideration of that impact with an attempt not to do harm, recognize the challenge and the thoughtfulness involved in making good decisions.
- At a calm time, brainstorm healthy coping strategies to deal with impulses or difficult feelings. These might include getting some exercise like walking outside or riding a bike, getting a glass of water, talking to a friend, writing in a journal, or listening to music.
- Normalize expressing feelings. Teens can become private about their social lives and their inner experiences. Yet, they need a safe, caring environment in which they can share their feelings when needed. Offering a listening ear with non-judgment helps create that trusted space. Sharing your own honest feelings models the behavior.
- Model assertive communication through “I-messages.” Here’s how: “I feel (insert feeling word) when you (name the words or actions that upset you) because (state the impact).” Here’s how it sounds: “I feel sad when you say hurtful things to your brother. It hurts his feelings.” This helps you take responsibility for your feelings while avoiding blaming language like “You did…” (which closes down the mind and ears of the other). It helps communicate the problem constructively.
- Teach your teen how to repair harm. When they hurt a sibling’s feelings, talk to them about what they could do to help heal the relationship such as apologizing, doing an act of kindness for the other, writing a note, or offering a hug. Give them options from which to choose.
- End the day with love. When teens make impulsive or harmful choices during the day, they can end the day feeling bad about themselves. Be sure that you spend one-on-one time with them if they have had rough patches that day and express your love. This teaches them that they are loved no matter what choices they make.
When you are reflecting on your teen’s feelings, you can think about unpacking a suitcase. Frequently, there are layers of feelings that need to be examined and understood, not just one. Anger might just be the top layer. After you’ve discovered why your teen was angry, you might ask about other layers. Was there hurt or a sense of rejection involved? Perhaps they felt jealous or embarrassed? Fully unpacking the suitcase of feelings will help your teen feel better understood by you as they become more self-aware.
If you tell or even command your teen to make an apology, how will they ever learn to genuinely apologize with feeling? In fact, apologizing or making things right should never be assigned as a punishment since then, the control lies with the adult and robs the teen of the opportunity to learn the skill and internalize the value of repairing harm. Instead, ask your teen how they feel they should make up for the hurt they’ve caused and help them implement their idea.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of cooperatively completing the task together or trying out a task with you as a coach and ready support. In the case of repairing harm, following up with your teen helping them to make things better after a poor choice has been made will offer this kind of rehearsal. Practice is necessary for teens to internalize new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your teen performs the new action.
- Accept feelings. If you are going to help your teen manage their most difficult feelings, it is important to acknowledge and accept them. When your teen is upset, consider your response. Instead of focusing on their actions or the problem, focus on their feelings FIRST. You could say, “I hear you’re upset. What can you do to help yourself feel better?”
- Use “Show me…” or “I know you can…” statements. Teens are exerting their independence often so give them that chance. Say, “Show me how you are able to heal your relationship with your sister.” Or “I know you can make amends with your friend,” offering the confidence that your teen can manage their own relationships.
- Offer limited and authentic choices. Offering them a choice, even if small — “Do you want to talk to her directly or write her a note?” — can return a sense of control to their lives and underscore that they are moving toward independence. It also offers valuable practice in responsible decision making.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you went back to your sister to talk to her after you fought to make things better. That’s how you heal the relationship.”
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple way to assist your teen anytime, anywhere, it’s important to get plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!
- Car Ride Breathing. Teens tend to be more comfortable sharing and conversing when they don’t feel in the spotlight like on car rides. Use this time to breathe together. Set a challenge of taking three deep breaths between traffic lights.
- Ocean Breathing. Practice making the noise of the sea waves while breathing deeply from your diaphragm. Close your eyes with your teen and imagine that your anger is a fiery flame waiting on a sandy shore. And, as you breathe life into the ocean waves, they grow closer and closer to the flame to extinguish it.
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your teen has caused harm, they need your guidance, encouragement, and support in following through to repair it. They may need to have you by their side through that process, and that’s okay! They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
Now that your teen is almost an emerging adult, the risks they are involved with and the kinds of harm they can cause can become more damaging. If more serious harm is caused, don’t give up on the teaching methods in this tool. More damaging harm requires just as much, if not more, teaching, practicing, and supporting to guide your teen to repair the damage and also will require your own self-management skills as you manage your own feelings.
If the harm caused is serious (law breaking, injuring another, injuring self) and persistent, you may want to consider whether your teen needs the support of a counselor to work through the root causes of the behaviors.
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve worked with your teen to develop some new strategies. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “You are going to see Julie today. You were upset about your last interaction. How will you let her know that you are sorry for your words yesterday?”
- Learn about development for your teen and emerging adult as they near eighteen and nineteen. Each new age and stage will present differing challenges and along with them, stress, frustration, and anger.
- Promote an “I can” belief. Teens still need to hear that you believe in their ability to mend their relationships.
- Be supportive of their friendships. Close friends can be an invaluable source of empathy and support for your teen. Reserve your judgment and coach toward making amends.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your teen when tough issues arise.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after an inappropriate behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process and avoiding harm.
- First, get your own feelings in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior.
- Second, invite your teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2.
- Third, consider a logical consequence of their actions as a teachable moment. Be certain to consider the following questions before making your decision: 1) What will you teach with this consequence? 2) Has a natural consequence already taken place such as a friend turning away, a broken device, a failed grade? Sometimes the natural consequence is more than enough, and parents don’t need to impose yet another. 3) Will the logical consequence be obviously connected to the poor choice so that you can teach cause and effect with the action?
Learning to repair harm after making a poor choice takes time. Teens may need your ideas, support, and guidance a number of times since each situation will be unique. That’s okay. What’s important is that you work to understand their feelings, teach new behaviors, and practice all the while maintaining a healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your teen. Your healthy, supportive, loving relationship with them is what is most important.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your teen is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your teen is working to grow their skills — even in small ways — it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and helping your teen manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your teen’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “I noticed you fixed the neighbor’s chair. That’s really taking responsibility.”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you don’t argue with your sister, you’ll get extra allowance money this week” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “I noticed you being kind to your sister. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When teens are using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you picked up trash on the neighbors’ lawn left by your friends. That’s taking responsibility.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, and hugging to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for teens and emerging adults to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.