Raising an adolescent comes with its fair share of challenges, but one of the greatest rewards is their growing ability to comprehend complex thought. 

From the ages of 12-18, children stop seeing the world in “black and white” and begin exploring their own identities, thoughts, and opinions. This is a psychological stage known as cognitive growth, and while it can be a positive period of independence for a teenager, it can also be a time of potential risk. 

This is because the part of the brain that is responsible for rational thinking has not fully developed yet. Although many stereotypes associated with adolescents are very broad and don’t apply to every child, there is actually research to prove that impulsive behavior is normal for growing teens. 

But how do we approach them when their brains literally cannot even understand us? How can we let them make healthy mistakes without putting them at risk? 

Although adults are past the stages of understanding what they’re thinking, empathizing with developing teens can prevent life altering mistakes later on. Here is some advice to help you guide a growing adolescent, especially between the ages of 12-16. 

Encourage a Healthy Home Environment

Teens think and act very differently than younger children, but they will never stop looking up to you as a role model, even if they won’t admit it. Every family dynamic is different, whether you are a single-parent household or consist of a blended partnership. What matters is how you make your home a safe and positive environment.

For example, simply telling your child not to drink alcohol or relying on teachers to do the work for you will not stop them from doing anything. This is not just because they want to rebel, it has everything to do with their psychology. Since they do not know why it is bad for them to drink prematurely, they do not see any reason not to other than a bunch of adults keeping them from doing it. 

Instead of relying on punishments to keep your child from going to parties, make it a safe place to rely on if they make a mistake. They will inevitably do things that neither of you like, but instead of making it a completely negative experience, offer it up as an opportunity to grow with your child. 

If your teen comes home past curfew, save the discipline for later and make it clear that you’re happy they’re home safe. Listen with empathy, practice fair discipline, and be a positive role model. 

Be Honest

As mentioned previously, simply talking to your teen won’t prevent them from trying risky things. However, being authentic about these dangers may stop them from participating in permanently damaging behaviors. 

Have deeply authentic and open conversations about sex, alcohol, and drugs. Be very clear about what can happen if these actions are taken without using it as a fear tactic. 

However, part of honesty is also being clear about your boundaries. Make it very evident that these kinds of behaviors cannot happen in your house, and establish boundaries that they and their friends must respect when under your supervision. 

State the consequences that will follow if they choose not to listen and why they must be set (e.g. when you are leaving this house, you cannot drive with more than one person under the age of 18 because it is against the law, and you may risk someone else’s life as an inexperienced driver). 

While it is out of your control what happens away from your house, you should also encourage your teen to recognize dangerous situations on their own (e.g. I will not get in a car with a drunk driver. If this happens, I will call a trusted guardian). 

However, you can still make it clear what you expect out of your child when they are under your roof, which can greatly prevent them from wanting to engage in risky behavior. 

Be Supportive

Although you may not always be aware of what your teenager is up to, if you set your parental boundaries in an empathetic manner, they may respect you enough to consider your advice.

Mistakes can and will happen. Your teen is human, just like you, which means that they may do things that they regret. However, instead of using it as a way to ridicule them, take these opportunities as a chance to bond. 

The greatest way that you can teach your teenager rational thinking is by allowing them to trust you. This does not mean that you don’t set firm boundaries, but it can include offering your child a safe place to turn to when they know they have made a mistake. 

These crucial years may be hard, but they can also be extremely rewarding. Cherish these memories, teach your child with compassion, and be patient.