If there’s a teenager in your house, chances are that you have become accustomed to the slamming doors, the tears, the cursing, and the zero-to-60 mood swings. (To say nothing of your teenager’s behavior — ba-dum-CHA!)
However, it turns out that teens can’t really help themselves, for purely physiological reasons. Their emotional outbursts and poor decision-making are due to the fact that their brains, and the neural pathways within them, aren’t yet fully developed. You see, an adult brain uses the prefrontal cortex — the area responsible for rational thinking — to process information and make decisions, while the teenager relies on the amygdala, or the seat of emotions. It’s not until about age 25 that the connections between these two areas in the brain are fully established.
Of course, this doesn’t give your child license to behave badly without repercussions, nor does it provide a get-out-of-jail-free card when their less-than-stellar behavior gets them in trouble. So how should you respond when your teenager ends up on the wrong side of the law, whether it’s experimenting with drugs or drinking alcohol, vandalism, theft, or driving-related infractions? Read on for a no-nonsense guide to getting your kid back on track.
When a police officer knocks on the door at midnight with your son or daughter in tow, your first response is likely to be anger. A flurry of other emotions immediately follows: embarrassment or shame, incredulity at how your child could make such a stupid decision, relief that they are now safe and relatively unscathed, fear for the consequences they will soon face, disappointment, and naturally, wondering where you went wrong in your 13+ years as a parent.
It’s important to summon up some compassion and kindness in the midst of all these negative emotions. If nothing else, take a few deep breaths and refrain from flying off the handle. By giving your teenager a tongue-lashing, you aren’t going to accomplish anything productive; worse, you run the risk of saying something you’ll regret later or alienating them at a time when working together to solve the problem is imperative.
Give yourself and your child some time to cool off, think things over, and regroup. When you do sit down to address the issue at hand, you can convey your feelings of anger, hurt, and frustration, but also discuss the next steps and how you can learn from this experience.
Consider Getting Legal Help
Naturally, whether or not to consult with an attorney will depend on the nature of your teenager’s wrongdoing. If she or he has tried illegal drugs or become intoxicated, there’s no need to involve anyone else; everyone makes mistakes, and plenty of teens dabble in drinking or drugging as a part of growing up, without any lasting issues or repeat offenses.
If the situation is a bit more serious — getting caught buying or selling drugs, driving while under the influence, shoplifting or stealing, being involved in a fight or another type of crime — you would do well to schedule a consultation with an attorney. Of course, if your teenager calls you from jail, your first step should be seeking out legal assistance.
Look for an attorney who specializes in juvenile offenses. There are plenty of factors at play for underage offenders, and there are also more options when it comes to settling a case or sentencing. Attorneys who don’t regularly handle juvenile cases simply won’t have the knowledge necessary to make certain your child’s charges are handled in the most expedient manner.
“If there are mitigating factors, if the teenager has never gotten into any kind of legal trouble before, and if the crime was relatively minor, the attorney may be able to get the charges dropped or negotiate for a lesser sentence,” explains David Hunter, a Fort Bend juvenile lawyer. “In many jurisdictions, there are special programs in place to get teenage offenders back on the straight and narrow, without having to do time in adult facilities.”
Look for the Positives
Given their druthers, no parent would wish for their teenager to get into legal trouble, begin using drugs, or otherwise derail their bright future. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t valuable life lessons to be learned from a lapse in judgment.
After the dust has settled somewhat, talk to your teenager about what has happened and how things could have been handled differently. Encourage them to find some positive outcomes and opportunities for personal growth.
As to whether or not to dole out your own punishment, that’s a difficult decision. It’s one you may want to make jointly with your child. In many cases, whatever legal troubles they have gotten into could very well suffice as a punishment as well as a deterrent to prevent them from making that mistake again. Provided that the offense was a one-off or a result of youthful indiscretion and not part of a pattern of troublesome behavior, it’s quite possible that this incident could serve to bring your family closer together. Your teenager will get a glimpse of the unconditional love you feel for them and will be grateful for your support. And with any luck, you will learn that your child is more resilient and capable of change than perhaps you gave them credit for. Someday, the two of you may even look back on this troubled time and be able to laugh about it!