I HEAR FROM PARENTS of teenagers all the time who feel worn out from fighting with their teenagers about bad decisions. And when it comes down to it, I have one single piece of advice.

Is this scene wearing you out?
Is this scene wearing you out?

It’s simple, actually. Ready? Stop arguing about it. No, I don’t mean letting your teen do whatever they want. What I do mean is shift your argument.

My early ministry years working with urban at-risk teens stressed me out. I was trying to advise parents in one crisis after another. I think I spent more time arguing right and wrong in parent conference meetings than in service. My group was crazy, they made crazy decisions, and they suffered crazy consequences. The parents were beside themselves. That’s where I learned that if I wanted to help teens I couldn’t argue with them. I had to offer them something else.

Here’s what we know. When we argue with teens about problems directly, they never change their minds. That doesn’t mean we ignore what they’re doing. Instead, use it as an opportunity for change.

No mom helps raise her student’s failing grade by arguing about his laziness. No parent get their teen to stop smoking pot by arguing about the health effects. No dad improves his Father/Daughter relationship by arguing about how “we never talk anymore!”

Instead what you need—and what researchers say actually works—is a replacement strategy.

Out with the Bad, in with the Good

One of the best ways to use this these strategies is with implementation intentions. An implementation intention gives your teen a positive response when she faces a negative circumstance. I don’t think many teenagers are going to use the words Implementation Intention, so it’s easier to think of it as an If/Then Plan.

It’s time to have a talk with your teenager about creating their own If/Then Plan. Let’s say your son has a terrible case of “Senioritis” and the last class of the day is his worst subject, Physics. He’s a good student but those unexcused absences are killing his GPA. The typical parent approach is to argue with their student by telling him that he’s not going to get into college and will instead wander the lonely streets as a hobo.

Everyone who fails Physics has to live in one of these.
Everyone who fails Physics has to live in one of these.

What would happen if you tried to help him create an If/Then Plan instead? What would happen if you told him that whenever he feels like skipping Physics he should take a short walk instead? Even if the result is a tardy, the quick walk will help him make a better decision than if he just stared out at the senior’s parking lot, keys in hand, hoping his will power holds. See? Now you have shifted the fight from the morality of truancy, or scholarships, or life as a hobo to something immediate. So the next time he’s tempted coach him to say, “When I feel like skipping, then I will go for a brief walk.”

“[W]hen it comes to reaching your goals,” says Heidi Grant Halvorson in her book 9 Things Successful People Do Differently, “you need to plan how you will replace the behaviors that sabotage your success with better ones, rather than focusing on only the maladaptive behaviors themselves.”

So how can we help build If/Then Plans for our teens?

Four Questions

Here are four questions you can ask your teen to help them fight bad decisions:

1. “What don’t you like about your current situation?” Whether it’s their grade, their health, their relationships, whatever, ask them what’s wrong with the circumstances. How does it make them feel?

2. “What would you like to change about your current circumstances?” Now that they’re clear on what’s wrong and why, it’s time to decide what would they like to change about it?

3. “How could you change it?” Once you know what they want to change, they’re ready to make an If/Then Plan. Help them find a positive action that they can do in response to the negative trigger.

4. What do you want for you? This is a powerful question to ask a teenagers. Growing up the only time a child is asked what they want is around Christmas. One of the most alluring things about the negative decisions that plague teenagers is the feeling that for the first time they are doing what they want to do. They get to make the decisions. Helping teens figure out what they want is critical.

Remember, your job is to guide students as they graduate from child to adult. You are teaching them how to navigate. Change won’t come easy. Teens drift into negative circumstances because drifting is easy and offers short-term rewards. Shifting to something better requires effort and creating a working If/Then Plan might require you to throw out your old arguments. Did anyone ever get a better grade in Physics because of the hobo argument?

The way to help raise a student’s grades is to find positive responses to a boring class. The way you end your son’s pot smoking habit is to develop a beneficial one that meets the same needs. The way to improve your Parent/Teen relationship is to expand what’s working instead of arguing about what’s not.

Stop arguing, start asking.


  1. GAC says:

    Well written. A large number of teens are concerned about their future, thus a feeling of hopelessness. A society going to “pot”, pun intended, national debt that is out of control, terror groups and more. So how do we encourage our children, that God is in control and has a plan for them?

  2. Phil says:

    Yes how do we encourage our kids that no matter what God is in control. I don’t know that all of them really pay attention to what is going on in the world, but with the way we are headed we need to empower them so they are prepared. Great topic!!!

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