Red lines and teenagers

Non-custodial parents of teenagers often complain when the custodial parent doesn’t stop their child from engaging in typical risky teen behavior. One hears stories of parents losing custody merely because their teen engages in alcohol use, mild drug use, or has sex while under their care. Not having seen this actually happen myself, I am never certain if these tales are apocryphal. I have often seen parents lose custody of teenagers because they condoned bad teenage behavior and it could be these custody-losing parents were more than mere bystanders.

Still, there is a viewpoint among many of my teen-raising custody clients that parents have the ability to prevent mild teen misbehavior. These folks believe they (or, more often, the other parent) can prevent their teens from drinking, smoking (tobacco and marijuana), ditching school, having sex (or merely dating) simply by forbidding it. Essentially these parents create “red lines” over common teenage behavior and threaten serious consequences if their teens cross them.

Having raised teenagers, and having the experience of watching hundreds of custody clients raise teenagers, I am all for drawing such some red lines. However one must be super cautious about doing so. There’s a lot of teen misbehavior that few parents would encourage but that they still might tolerate. Few American parents can realistically expect their teens not to try alcohol or tobacco while in high school. Most American parents would be quite upset if their teens drove while intoxicated or started using opiates.

Draw no red lines and one’s teen might think it’s fine to drive drunk or abuse opiates. However if one imposes severe consequences if one’s teenager plays hooky once, tries a beer or cigarette, or sneaks over to a friend’s house one night, one is likely to have an even more rebellious teen. I’m not claiming that no family court judge has ever held it against a parent who tolerated his or her teenager engaging in minor hijinks, but I’ve yet to see a judge who’s raised teenagers not understand. There’s a danger in drawing red lines for behavior that is upsetting but tolerable: when such behavior happens–which, with teenagers, is likely–one must either impose severe consequences for minor misdeeds, thus encouraging further, possibly greater, rebellion, or lose credibility when it comes to discouraging truly dangerous behavior

Engaging in risky behaviors appears to be part of adolescent development. While few caring parents encourage this, most tolerate a bit of it. Parents who get drunk or smoke pot with their teens should lose custody (as should parents who don’t take steps to stop their teens’ serious drug abuse or criminal behavior); however, we should all be a bit more understanding for the parents who discourage similar behavior but don’t take steps to prohibit it. Drawing red lines over common teen misbehavior is often simply counterproductive.

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