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A resource produced for parents and educators by Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane. 

  • Writer's pictureLourdes Hill College

Three of the most significant mistakes our teenagers are making

By Linda Stade

If I had my time again, I’d make more mistakes.


Living and working with teenagers means constantly asking, “What were you thinking?” with an incredulous look on your face. It is a whole lot easier to understand and empathise when you recognise that they are human, experience-seeking missiles.


Teens are designed to always be testing boundaries. They are growing into their weird new bodies and figuring out their physical limits. They are also playing with a newly renovated brain which has surprising capacity. But mostly, they are looking for connection and joy.


They are made to explore and play... with every sense and in every new situation.


In all this exploration, teenagers will make mistakes. They will bang up against authority, they will experiment, behave impulsively, and they will make poor choices. Our job is to:

  • remain highly connected,

  • provide a safe place to land when things go wrong (which they will),

  • help them clean up the mess, and

  • guide them towards better choices.


Jo Brasch-McPhee is an expert in guiding teenagers. She is the Dean of Student Wellbeing at Lourdes Hill College in Brisbane. Her role affords her a daily, up-close, and personal view of teenage behaviour. She says, “Mistake is not a dirty word. Mistakes are an important part of growing up.”


What are the mistakes our teens make time and again?


1. Not talking to adults


In early adolescence, kids naturally begin moving towards the influence of their peers. This developmental stage is necessary for them to find their place in the world. It is not a signal for parents to step away.


A child’s support network should get larger as they age. So, becoming a part of a teenage community means adding them to the adults in their lives. It doesn’t mean replacing the adults. If that is happening, parents need to put a metaphoric foot in that door to keep it open.


Unfortunately, many teens believe that to be a teen they should have nothing to do with adults or their advice. It becomes very ‘us and them’. So, when a group of teens makes a mistake, they often don’t get advice from a more experienced, wiser person because that would be considered ‘snitching’.


Instead, they try to solve it with peers, and another 14-year-old probably can’t provide the insight required under pressure.


An extreme example is when teenagers experiment with alcohol. There have been too many cases where kids didn’t call an ambulance or even an adult when necessary because they didn’t want to get in trouble, so they tried to fix it themselves. This doesn’t end well.


Jo Brasch-McPhee says, “Talking to adults is not snitching. I’d like to abolish that word. When they are in trouble a child needs to talk to a trusted adult, we need to promote this as coming to get advice, not coming to get people in trouble.”


However, if our kids are going to come to us, we need to hear them. Listen to their words, and body language and for what isn’t being said as well as what is. Listen to understand so that we can guide and work with them. When we take over or make them feel silly or incompetent, they naturally won’t come to us again.

2. Impulsive decisions


Usually, when we talk about impulsivity in teens, our thoughts flicker to dangerous behaviours in cars or sex or substance use, and yes, these should be considered. However, in the every day, it is far more mundane. Impulsivity presents daily, no… hourly in schools, as being rude to a teacher, minor graffiti on a desk, or going off with friends after school instead of going straight home as requested.


In this context, impulsivity is going with what feels good in the moment rather than what is known to be ‘right’ or required. Often kids do know better. If they didn’t know better, they wouldn’t try to hide these behaviours.


Being impulsive is easy. The hard part is taking responsibility for these behaviours and dealing with the consequences. It’s our job to teach that. It is also our job not to knowingly put them in situations where they are unsupervised, and impulsivity might take over.


Ms Brasch-McPhee says, “You still have the power to impact your child’s behaviour and the environments they are in. For example, you don’t have to let your child go to the shopping centre or beach unsupervised with friends. If you don’t believe they are mature enough to manage every element of the situation or you think it could lead to behaviours that do not align with your family’s values, that’s your choice.


“If you don’t trust that kids will make good decisions in a group then the answer is no, or ‘I will drive you and I will be close by. They can still go and may have short periods alone, but that is your decision, not your child’s.”


Ms Brasch-McPhee knows it may sound old-fashioned, but your kids aren’t in charge. They are not grown up yet and their brains are not fully developed. What’s interesting, is that so many parents feel this way but are scared to say it. You don’t have to challenge other parents but be brave and stand up for what you think.

3. Mismanaging friendships

Friendship issues are where our teenagers seem to make the most mistakes and it is the area that most bewilders parents. For that reason, friendship is an area Inspiring Girls addresses regularly. You can find a bank of articles here.


In her role, Jo Brasch-McPhee is constantly made painfully aware of the competency gaps teenagers fall into in their relationships. Her biggest takeaways for parents are:


  1. Remind kids that unless they have heard it from another person’s mouth or seen it on that person’s social media account, it is gossip and not necessarily true. Young people, and some parents, believe everything they hear. It causes them to catastrophise and jump to conclusions and drama ensues. Stick with facts.

  2. Kids often want to control their friends. Tell them, “Your friend can have 12 other friends and that’s okay. They can sit with someone else at break time and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you and it doesn’t mean they should change and be more like you. People are different and we need to give each other space to be.

  3. “When things are going badly, kids say to their parents, ‘No, you can’t talk to school’. Of course you talk to the school. It’s a partnership. There is no point in putting up with a problem for a year and waiting until there is a crisis to let the school know. Communicate. Let the school know what strategies you’ve put in place, even if you don’t want staff to do anything. They will keep an eye on the situation as well.”

And a special bonus piece of advice in this space… “Monitor social media. Do you know who your child is online?”


Final thought…


It isn’t only in adolescence that people should make mistakes and learn from them. It is how we ensure we grow, and our lives get bigger. The mistake is not the destination.


That said, some mistakes can become life-defining regrets. For that reason, most importantly, know your teen, guide them, and be the person they run to, not from, when they make a mistake.


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