By Mendi Baron, LCSW

So many young people come through the doors of treatment struggling with a variety of behavioral and addiction issues. Oftentimes they are accompanied by their parents, who tend to feel pain, frustration, and, most commonly, guilt for their child’s struggle.

What did we do? What could we have done? How did it come to this?

There is no easy answer. It is difficult, maybe even impossible, to find one specific cause or lapse of judgment within the entirety of a person’s childhood that may have led to the issue at hand.

Rather than agonize over what could have been, it is prudent to focus on the key elements that may guide their future interactions with their teen as well as other children.

A key element to address is communication, particularly indirect communication. This speaks to how you convey your thoughts and beliefs through actions and gestures, whether consciously or not.

Ever wink at your kid and allow them to sneak an extra cookie when mom isn’t looking?

Ever say you are around the corner when you are 20 minutes away?

Have you ever pretended to be someone else when a telemarketer calls, or fibbed to get out of a commitment?

Things like this may seem small and insignificant in the moment, but fast forward to your teenager sneaking alcohol or bluffing about where they are and when they’ll be home. Suddenly you see the severity of these “small and insignificant” actions.

It all comes back to your method of nurturing, the rules of life your children have learned by observing your behavior. Your children have learned, from your example, that lying is ok if it seems small and the situation calls for it. Then you wonder why they don’t take their dishonesty as seriously as they should.

Even if you have been somewhat lacking in this area until now, and even if your child is already a teen, there are several ways to improve; the most effective way is by being consistent.

  1. Establish your own imperfection and desire to learn:

No one is perfect and the only way to grow is to acknowledge that you have room in which to grow. There is no better way to model this than allowing your children to see you accepting your own shortcomings and resolving to change them, obviously when and where appropriate. This is not a new concept. In fact, we do this annually on the High Holidays, collectively and publically. If we were angels there would be no need for us down here anyway.

  1. Establish your code:

It is important to be consistent and in order to have consistency you must define a set of rules or code. Sure, religion and society define much of how we are supposed to act, but it is important to establish right and wrong, setting expectations in a formal fashion.

We don’t engage in these behaviors.

We believe in giving to others.

Our family holds these things dear.

 Establishing your code gives meaning to your behaviors and also draws certain lines for you and your loved ones to follow. Lead by example.

  1. Reflect and connect:

As important as it is to develop a code and consistently model behavior, it is of equal importance to reflect for your child or teen how their behavior impacts you. Exploding or becoming overly punitive in response to negative behavior will have the opposite of the desired result. When faced with negativity, children are more likely to tune out, disregarding both your message and your feelings.

I don’t know if you realize this, but when you sneak out I fear for your life.

What you said really hurt me.

I am at a loss as to how to respond to this.

Reflecting and connecting the actions with the impact is a good way to help your next of kin mature and develop.

  1. Pass it on:

What you model for your child becomes ingrained further when they have the opportunity to do the same for someone else. For this reason, it is important to foster opportunities for emotional growth. Volunteer opportunities with challenging populations can foster humility and gratitude. Physically and mentally challenging tasks can foster drive and attitude. Doing these things together can foster positive communication. It also provides a chance for them to try their hand at the behaviors that encourage reflection, introspection, and taking others into account.

There is no one answer to address the myriad of issues that arise when raising children and teens. However a basic building block to effective education and development starts with looking inward and holding a mirror to our own behavior as parents.