Shaming and harshly punishing teens will only push them away

THE WASHINGTON POST – Q: We just discovered our 13-year-old was abusing her phone/device privileges in a big way: sneaking time on her phone at night and during virtual school hours, and going on YouTube on her school computer during school hours.

She got in over her head after she signed up for the Royale High Roblox game and started chatting with older teens who exposed her to inappropriate situations through the game’s chat and messaging platforms.

We discovered there was a problem when we looked at her grades after Christmas.

For the first time, she had D’s and C’s.

She has lost all device privileges, and she even has to ask for permission to watch TV. She’s grounded from anything social.

We of course sat down with her twice before school started and went through what happened to understand what she was thinking and had been exposed to, and to really make her understand how selfish and dangerous her actions were.

How long do we hold her to these consequences, and how do we begin to repair the way she perceives her world and family? I don’t foresee giving back her phone for a few years.

It has brought a sickness into our home that I never thought we would have to face.

A: Whoa, boy. I empathise with you. As a mother with a child who is using (addicted to) Roblox, I feel you. And as a woman who once was a 13-year-old who lied, I feel for your daughter. There is a lot to unpack here, and there’s so much I do not know. Your daughter signed up for a very popular game, got sucked into some shenanigans, understandably blew off school (the tech is too seductive), got bad grades and has been punished severely for all of it.

But here’s the deal: I have no idea how your daughter feels.

I see how you feel (rightly upset), but where is your daughter in all of this? She is far more than a collection of her mistakes, and we must see that to move forward.

Although consequences were and are required, grounding her from everything social and taking her phone for a few years feels like a lot.

Like, a lot a lot. And I am not even sure it’s practical.

Do you really want to deny her access to a phone for the next few years?

Again, although I completely empathise with your shock, I need you to hear me: Teens sometimes lie to their parents.

Your daughter knew she was stepping outside of the family’s rules.

She probably felt as if she was violating her own rules, so to keep going, she had to lie about it.

This can be the young teen mind.

Even when teens know “the right path” the influence of others, the power of technology and the desire to be liked and seen overrides their morals.

This is not an indictment of her entire character; it’s life.

Good kids sometimes lie.

And fall prey to the influence of older teens.

And fail some classes.

And get into some trouble.

Your question to me is: “How long do we hold her to these consequences, and how do we begin to repair the way she perceives her world and family?” My answer is: I don’t know, because these are not the questions I think we should be asking.

Instead of only considering your effect upon her, I would also like to reflect on her experience. What would happen if you instead chose to support her during this tough time?

This doesn’t mean handing back her phone; it means we help her to unpack the images she saw or what the teens said. We are not going to “repair” the way she sees the world; the toothpaste ain’t going back in the tube.

And I am concerned at how deeply you seem to want her to return to being a young child; it is not happening.

The work of “repair” needs to happen in your relationship with her, because as I see it, it is you who has hurt her.

Our work, as parents of teens, isn’t to punish and shame them into perfection and innocence.

It is to walk with them as they inevitably come into contact with these tough realities.

By cutting your daughter off from everything good in her life, by continuing the shock and heartbreak, you are building a deep crevasse between you and your daughter.

This separation will not lead to her healing and good mental health; it will lead to depression, anger or more sneakiness – or all three.

Your daughter didn’t resist the siren song of the older teens before, and if we keep punishing her, we will send her right back to them.

I don’t disagree with you, but your parental job is to help her cope with this, not rip it all away and stick your head in the sand.

If I sound a tad harsh with you, it is because you have an important opening here.

You allowed her freedom, and she made a whole host of mistakes.

Lesson learned.

But swinging to the opposite end of the spectrum is just as bad.

Your relationship with your teen needs to exist somewhere in the middle with flexibility, compassion, boundaries and a lot of unconditional love.

If you cannot get there alone, please seek out counselling or a coach.

You deserve just as much support; no one needs to go it alone.