I have seen many parents of teenagers fall into a trap. Parents can see the poor judgment and lack of forethought inherent in a teen’s choices. In response, they try to “force” him to make better choices. The result is often a battle of wills and a power struggle. The teen might continue to make worse and worse choices and get caught up in a cycle of self-destructive behavior that is largely designed (subconsciously or consciously) to prove to his parents that he doesn’t have to obey, that the choice is his. By attempting to force him to make the wiser choice, his parents unintentionally motivate the teen to make poor choices.[i]

In the movie The Godfather (1972), Tom Hagan, played by Robert Duvall, is the Consigliere to Don Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando. In the mafia’s power hierarchy, the Don is the unquestioned authority. He has generals, as well as his son, who answer to him, and they have their lieutenants, and so forth. There is a clear order and pyramid of power that ends at Don Vito Corleone. However, the Consigliere exists, to some extent, outside the pyramid. He does not have lieutenants and does not function as part of the power structure. Instead, it is his role to counsel the Don. To gather the best and most essential information that the Don will need to make a decision. He even goes so far as to advise the Don. To recommend what he believes is the best course of action, based on his information.

And there his role ends. The final decision remains the Don’s. Neither of them ever forgets this. The choices are up to the Don. In fact, in a crucial scene, the Don decides not to take the Consigliere’s advice, and as a result things turn sour. Never is there a moment of “I told you so” or “you should have…” The Consigliere remains in his role. He begins to advise on how to deal with the present situation, i.e. dealing with the repercussions of the Don’s choice. He never mentions the fact that the reason that the Don is in this predicament is because he ignored his Consigliere’s advice in the previous predicament.

This provides an excellent model for parents to consider when dealing with an older teenager. Parents’ counsel is based on life experience and authority. Like the Consigliere with the Don, they have their teenager’s best interests at heart. But when a teenager is out in the world, living his life, he is like the Don. He has the power to make the choices in his life. He can do what he chooses. This does not mean that there should be no consequences. The Consigliere parents can advise him, can remind him of the consequences of his choices, but the power to make those choices remain his. This remains true even if his parents are going to be issuing those consequences. If he makes poor choices, the Consigliere parents are there to help him sort out how to fix the problem, not to say “I told you so.”

Obviously, this type of role shift is not appropriate for younger teenagers, and cannot happen all at once. What I am referring to is a gradual shift from being an authority over the teen to being a resource for him, and respecting his growing independence. There is no one procedure for how and when to do this. It depends on his personality, his ability to cope, and his need for independence. As he gets older, the reality is that it is appropriate for him to have more independence. Not all teenagers handle this new freedom with grace and maturity. The question is, how to teach them to make better choices? If you try to withhold a teenager’s autonomy, that does not teach him better judgment, and often it will only encourage rebellion.

Many older teens respond best and show better judgment (eventually) if consequences exist and are consistent,[ii] but that they are free to make the poor choice, and bear those consequences. This seems to work better than trying to force them to make the better choices through a battle of wills or threats.

[i] Parental control, while well intentioned, can often lead to the opposite of the desired effect (to encourage the developmental process of identity formation). Instead, adolescents can experience this control as intrusive, and this dynamic can lead to developmental problems including, ironically, stunting the development of autonomy, difficulty forming commitments (such as career choice), and lowered self-confidence. Barber, B.K. (Ed.). (2002). Intrusive Parenting: How psychological control affects children and adolescents. Washington D.C: American Psychological Association.

A recent study found that the more an adolescent perceives his parents to be psychologically controlling, the more difficulties he experiences in making commitments in his life. Overly controlling parents resulted in an adolescent who has difficulty identifying with or feeling certain about his choices in life. Ironically, when adolescents explored alternatives in a broad noncommittal manner, their parents became more controlling in an attempt to pressure the adolescents to make commitments. However, this pressure only made it more difficult for the adolescent to make such commitments. Luyckx, Koen; Soenens, Bart; Vansteenkiste, Maarten; Goossens, Luc; & Berzonsky, Michael D. (2007). Parental Psychological Control and Dimensions of Identity Formation in Emerging Adulthood. Journal of Family Psychology 21(3), 546-550.

Parents who are indifferent or ignore their teen’s needs and goals may inadvertently contribute to that teen developing a fragmented sense of identity. In the extreme cases, intrusive and manipulative strategies such as guilt and withdrawing love and support can lead to problems with identity formation. Instead, experts recommend that parents try to view their teen as an equal, and make every reasonable effort to respect his desires, values, and needs in order to foster his identity formation process. Arnett, J. J. (2004). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties. New York: Oxford University Press.


[ii] Domjan, Michael. (1993) Domjan and Burkhard’s The Principles of Learning and Behavior, 3rd Edition (pp.167-174). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Dealing with Tantrums. (n.d.). Retrieved September 17, 2007 from: http://operamom.com/tantrums.html

Domjan, Michael. (1993) Domjan and Burkhard’s The Principles of Learning and Behavior, 3rd Edition (pp.149-153). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Vockell, Edward (2001). Educational Psychology: A Practical Approach. Retrieved September, 13, 2007, from http://education.calumet.purdue.edu/vockell/edpsybook/

Parenting With Consequences not with Punishment (April 25,2007). Retrieved September 13, 2007 from Mommy.com. Website: http://www.mommyhelp.com/2007/04/25/parenting-with-consequences-not-with-punishment/

Terich, Ellen (2002). Raising Good Children. Retrieved September 17, 2007 from Family Wisdom Website: http://www.familywisdom.com/archives.cgi?a=15&method=r


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