When Kids Make Bad Choices with Dr. Meg Meeker

When Kids Make Bad Choices with Dr. Meg Meeker

Today we are talking about responding to our kids with appropriate discipline. When our kids make bad choices, what a lot of time is called tough love. 

As if raising kids alone wasn't hard enough, the complexities and the stakes increase when our children make bad choices. We want to be supportive and nurturing parents, but how do we maintain a healthy relationship while also enforcing rules? Adding to this dilemma is the fact that we have no sounding board as single parents in the house, making it difficult to know if we're playing both the roles of good cop and bad cop correctly.

Our guest Dr. Meg Meeker, answered our questions about appropriate discipline. Dr. Meg is a pediatrician, mother, grandmother, and bestselling author. She is the country's leading authority on parenting, and children and teens' health. 

When our kids make bad choices, how do we gauge when it is time to employ tough love appropriately?

When you're thinking about disciplining kids, you have to put behaviors in different categories. For instance, if you disobey in this one category, you're going to bring great harm to yourself. If you make a mistake in another category, it's not that bad. For example, if you just stayed out too late for your curfew, but you always come home on time, then you'd give different consequences. 

It's really important that the consequences meet the bad behavior. Whenever you're thinking about disciplining, it's always important to do your work ahead of time. Before you ground your 17-year-old for three months, it's important to say to them, now here are the rules, and here are the things that really are not acceptable in our home.

You decide what those things are going to be—three to five. For us, it was the way our kids spoke to us. They weren't allowed to scream or swear or call names. Make a list of things that are very important to you then talk through these with the kids beforehand so they always know the rules. And then if they break the rules, it's on their shoulders, not yours. And this makes a big difference.

Absolutely talk about consequences up front. Go through every major rule. I would always use the phrase “in our family.”  Don't say “you have to do this,” but say “In our family, we don't tell each other to shut up.” And if you tell mom or dad to shut up, then for one week, you're not going to go to anything after school, period. You're not going to your sports practice, you're not going to friends' houses, you're not going to study groups. Do you understand? And the minute you say, “Do you understand?” They'll go and do it.

And so then there should be no yelling. You're grounded for a week. Another example is, I'm giving you the responsibility to drive the car. And here are the rules with my car. It has to be in the garage by 11 o'clock every Friday and Saturday night. You can be wherever you want. My car needs to be in the garage. And if you choose to break that rule, then I will be forced to take the car away from you for three weeks. So that's what I mean by you always throwing it on them.  Here are the rules, and here are the consequences. If you decide to break them, then I'm forced to give the consequence.

How do we find balance in the tension of showing mercy and sensitivity, but not enabling?

First of all, discipline as though you were married. If you were still married, you wouldn't feel that guilt. Second of all, never change the rules because you feel guilty for what they've been through. Their bad behavior is never an excuse because they hurt. Those are two separate things. You need to deal with their pain. And so you clearly acknowledge that I know that you feel abandoned, and I know that you feel we don't love you. And if you're not sure, then you ask them over time. It depends on how old the child is. However, I'm still going to treat you like I would treat a non-hurting child because teaching you self-control is really what discipline is all about.

If I don't enforce my rules, then I’m not teaching you how to control your behavior. Just because I feel sorry for you and you're having a hard time doesn't mean I'm going to allow bad behavior. Single parents with good rules and good consequences, get rid of the G word. Get the guilt out. Because they're two separate issues.

You never do anything with your child because you feel sorry for them. This cripples them, you feeling sorry for a child. You can feel badly for them, and you can help them work through it. But once you start doing things because you feel sorry for the child, you're crippling the child because you're treating them as though they should be felt sorry for, that their life is really tough and isn't this too bad.

You really create a weak person when you do this. You should really talk to them as though you've been through a really hard time and I'm linking arms with you through this really hard time and maybe I'm responsible for this part of this really hard time, but we're going to do it together. But here's what I do know, you are tough and you are strong and you can still abide by these rules because if you don't learn to abide by the rules, you won't function as a strong person in the world. If you talk to them like you feel sorry for them, you're giving them a bad sense of self. You're making them feel like they're a pathetic soul. You never want your kids to feel this way. 

How do we help our kids understand the gravity of their decision without shaming them or creating a sense of fear?

It depends on your child’s age. You can't get through to a nine-year-old that riding his bike as fast as he can into a tree is not going to hurt him. You can't convince a 17-year-old because they don't get it. They don't think as you do. Imagine you're walking down this road with your kids and the older they get, the wider the road gets. They have more choices, but there's a wall on each side. And as they get older, the wall gets a little higher because if they jump over the wall, they could really hurt themselves. So you have to have the walls higher, but you give him more room to move. In other words, you sit down with your nine-year-old and you think in your head, “What could he do that could really do some harm to him?” Jumping off the roof. Or all the stupid stuff nine-year-old boys want to do. Boys are all about trying to self-destruct because it's fun.

One of the big disservices we have as conscientious parents is to try to get kids to understand what consequences for certain behaviors are going to be when they have no ability to do that. We explain to them if you go up on the roof, first of all, the ladder could give out and then you go up there and what if it's been raining, then the roof is slippery. They're like, “What are you talking about?” Just say you can't go on the roof. Make it simple. 

You can’t reason with them so don't expect it. You're going to frustrate them and you're going to drive yourself crazy because you're going to think, “Why am I not getting through to this kid? I'm not talking the right way. I'm talking at the wrong time. I'm telling him too much, too little.” He can't get it so don't assume he thinks as you do, he can't. All of his bad behaviors are just experiments with fun. Most of them are not to get you upset. We take a lot of kids' behavior personally, and we shouldn't, it's really not about us, it's usually about them just trying to figure out life. 

What do we do when our kids try to manipulate us?

Yes, they will try to make you feel sorry for them. They're thinking, “Then she won't punish me.” They know how to play you. They know if they can convince you that their life is really bad and your rules shouldn't really apply because it's just too hard. Don't go there. They can bloviate all they want about how bad their life is and then you agree, yes it is bad. But here's the deal. You're a tough person. You can't go to school and scream at your teacher. You just can't do it. And whenever you do it, regardless of how your life is, here are the consequences. Because allowing them to weasel out of the consequences will not get them very far in life. 

You are preparing them for life. And so teach them that they can't manipulate you. 
Kids learn how to work their parents. They know what your Achilles heel is. So that's why you have to say, “I'm not going to play into the guilt thing because you're a strong person. It just doesn't work here.”

With teenagers, how do we balance giving them autonomy but also stepping in when we need to?

I always say every parent of a teenager needs to invest in some duct tape because everything in you wants to say no to whatever it is. But you need to sit calmly and you listen and you say, “I need to know what you think. You're 18. What do you think about this? And what do you think about that?” So once they know you really want to hear them, they'll usually come to the conclusion to listen to you. But the big mistake we make is we come down and then we apologize. And then we make a choice because we feel guilty. 

When you do overstep, what you need to do is say, “I'm sorry, I mishandled it. I need to hear what you think.”

Is there a silver bullet to defiance in the home?

There is a silver bullet. Your job along the way is to help steer that defiance in a positive way. I know that you're being defiant, but your strong will is really good, but don't use it against me. Use it for yourself. It depends on how old the kids are. Defiance isn't all bad. 

But again, it's about making a list of those top three things that absolutely you cannot have in your home period. You can't do it because if you do these things, the hammer comes down hard. You don't apologize, you don't say anything. They're just done. And so that'll nip that defiance. And then it depends on how old the kid is but if you let them know that there's something really good in that defiance and it's an energy and it's a belief in what they're doing and they're expressing it and that's good. But don't make it work against me and you. Let's put it into a place where it's going to work well for them. 

If one of our kids is acting out and we've caught them, they've gotten in trouble and all that kind of thing, but continues to do that, but gets better at hiding it and one of the other siblings comes along out of worry, how do we address that without breaking confidence?

Just put some cameras all the way around. This is another place that I disagree with really nice parents on, it depends on how old your child is, but the idea that kids need all their privacy. I'm pretty bold about this. If you have a child that's really doing bad things like sneaking out at night and doing drugs or having sex, you have to say there's no privacy.   

Every parent should have access to their kid's Instagram, Facebook, and everything. You're not being mean and you're not being nosy. This whole idea that it's okay for teenagers to live in a private world is not safe. And by allowing to say I don't really know whether you're coming in or coming out of the house, it's not safe. So you need to communicate there really isn't any privacy. Life is dangerous for teenagers. So as a good parent, I need to know what's happening out there because I don't want you to get in danger. And then they’ll say, “Well you don't trust me.” This is a manipulation because you can only trust a teenager as much as you can trust a teenage brain.

Some parents say it's not a matter of trust, it's a matter of what confronts you. I may trust you. You can say that, but I don't trust what's around you and my job as a good dad is to watch out for what's around you, what's going to come for you. So you get out of that trust bit and if kids try to throw that on you go in a different direction. If you think your kids are taking drugs, you need to be able to look through their room, and in their drawers. You own the dresser and you probably own the clothes that are in there. 

The sense that we need to allow kids to live in a private world if the private world is safe, is fine. But if there's danger in that world, you need to peek in there. And that's all you need to tell your kids. It's not about you, it's about the boy that might be wanting you to have sex. 

What would you say is the appropriate response to a kid bringing home a D or an F on their report card?

First I would want to figure out why they got the D or the F. Some kids are visual thinkers, and some are linear thinkers. So to figure out, did my kid get the D or the F because they're just not studying? Or because they can't pay attention or because they don't understand what they're given? I would do a little detective work. Why is it they are getting D's in just math and A's and B's in everything else? You need to figure out what the problem is there before you reprimand the child for the bad grade. It would be very shameful if the kid's really trying hard and can't get the material.

I wouldn't reprimand for a D or an F and I wouldn't necessarily pay for an A or a B because every kid learns differently. They come into their own educationally at their own time. I don't believe in shaming kids. But you want to motivate them. And what parents will do is they'll motivate them either by rewarding or punishing them and I don't know that either really works as far as grades. Their motive behind it is what is really important. I would want to know that before I would reward them or discipline them. 

What's the best way to navigate discipline when we are not with our kids all the time?

The most important thing in the meantime is to take the high road and parent from your gut. Do what's good and right and true for your kids. Don't veer from that. Even if the other parent is letting them do all sorts of crazy things. You don’t need to criticize the other parent. The kids know your rules and all you need to say is it's hard. The rules here are different. When you walk into my home, this is what happens. It's just the way it is. And it'll take a little time for them to get back into that.

Eventually, they'll start to get it. But they're going to play you and they're going to say, the other parent, the more fun parent loves us more. They're going to manipulate you because if you weren't doing something right, they wouldn't need to manipulate you. If you were letting them do all the stuff they want to do, they wouldn’t need to manipulate you. 

How do we gauge age appropriate and personality based discipline?

The younger the kid, the more immediate the consequence has to be. The worse the offense, the more severe the consequence has to be. But the other way of saying that is different things bother kids to different degrees.

Here's the key. Other than age appropriateness, find out your child's Achilles heel and the Achilles heel is going to be different for every kid.

What is it that really bothers the child that they don't want to be taken away or they don't want it to happen? I'm not talking about violent mean things. It's all different things, but the personality really plays into it because defiant kids, they'll say, I don't care. And that's a personality issue. 

With younger kids, you also have to look at their motive. Did they do this to defy me and to try to take me down? Or did they do it because they didn't know any better or they thought it was fun? 

I will say conscientious parents tend to air on the side of being too soft because they don't want their child to feel uncomfortable. And so many times parents will say, “I've tried everything and nothing worked.” And I’ll say well, no, you haven't. You've done one of two things wrong. Either you haven't found what really bothers them or you implemented it, but you didn't carry through. You took it away for two or three days and then your kid made your life so miserable, you threw the phone back at her. 

And the parents will respond, “Well, I know, but if I take the phone away, they won't be able to talk to her friends.” Well, there it is. That's what you found, but you don't want to implement it. 

It’s usually one of those two things. You haven't found the Achilles heel or you're not willing to stay the course. 


Don’t parent out of guilt. We need to feel empathy for our kids but enforce age-appropriate consequences for bad behavior. We don’t cultivate a victim mentality in our kids by pitying them. Part of loving our kids is telling them no sometimes. 

Find their Achilles heel.

Teach defiant kids to use it for their good, not against us.

Remove yourself emotionally. Think about your kid’s behavior as if it was someone else's child. Whatever advice you give another parent is what you need to do.

Modeling is the best way to teach. Our kids take cues from us and our friends.

Listener Question

I've prayed about it and ended my last relationship because I felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit telling me, “You two are completely unevenly yoked.” How do you discern between those who are genuine, and who genuinely share your faith in those that are less committed?

There's a phrase that says, “Listen with your eyes.” So someone can say a lot of things and tell you they're a believer and that they share a lot of similar values as you, but you have to see the behavior. You have to be able to watch for it in their lives. And so listen with your eyes. Also, ask prompting questions and pay attention to the answers. Some questions are, “What is important to you?” “How do you prioritize your faith?” “What are your values?” Those are valid questions and then listen with your eyes to see what they do. 

Ask God to show the red flags in your dating relationship. Ask friends about it. Seek outside wisdom too.

Also, take it slow. Don’t be in a hurry to commit. Or don’t be in a hurry to bail. You can wait and see. Find a partner that you're connected to and have similarities with, and that has shared values and faith. 


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