My Teen Lied to Me. Was I Right to Ground Him?

Our Adolescence columnist, the psychologist Lisa Damour, responds below to a question that was recently posted anonymously by a parent on the Facebook group of Grown & Flown, a site for parents of teenagers and young adults. The question is lightly edited and is being published with the consent of the person who posted it.

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Q. My 16-year-old son sneaked out of the house the other night. Around 1 in the morning I noticed that his door was open and the covers were pulled all the way up — he had stuffed his bed with clothes. I tried to trace his phone and call but it was completely off. Of course I waited and worried until I got a text from him at around 6 a.m. that he was out for an early run. I told him to come home right away.

He walked in the door panting (as if he had been running). I told him that I knew he had been out all night, and he admitted he had gone to a party. He didn’t seem very sorry for the charade or lies and felt like he was justified since he thought “you wouldn’t have let me go.”

He is grounded with no privileges and I have given him a final warning that if anything like this happens again, he will not be able to get his driver’s license on time, since we have trust issues between us now. I never expected him to lie to me like this. Did I take the right approach?

A. I’m always quick to say that there’s rarely a single right way to do anything in parenting. Family life is far too complex for one-size-fits-all guidance and there are typically many ways to get it right. Indeed, there’s much to admire in how you’ve already responded to your son’s sneaky behavior.

For starters, you demonstrated impressive restraint in the middle-of-the-night hours you spent worrying about him. Plenty of parents in your position might have been tempted to call the police or drive around the neighborhood in a frantic search. I trust that you had reason enough to think that he was safe and thus gracefully endured one of the inevitable discomforts of parenting a teenager: We often don’t know where they are or what they are doing.

Next, when he came home, you played your cards face up. Instead of asking, “Were you really out for a run?” or “How long have you been gone?” you told him that you knew the truth. Doing so kept him from digging himself into an even deeper hole of dishonesty and minimized the damage done.

Finally, you came up with a penalty. It’s impossible to know if it will work as hoped until you see how it plays out. But not punishing your son at all would have been a sure mistake. Even when teenagers play off their bad behavior, they know when they’ve crossed a line and fully expect that adults will hold them to account. They find it frightening when we don’t, and may continue to act out just to see out what it takes to get the grown-ups to act like grown-ups.

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Going forward, you have two goals. You want your son to think twice before pulling a stunt like this again, and you want to rebuild a trusting, positive relationship with him. You’ve probably covered the first one by taking away his privileges and leveling the potent threat that he won’t get his license on time if there’s a repeat performance.

As for the second goal, do not despair that you are raising a reckless ingrate who cares little about the impact of his behavior on you and your relationship with him. Teenagers, by their nature, are of two minds. They make poor decisions in situations that are socially charged (such as when they desperately want to go to a party) or emotionally loaded (such as when they fear they might be in trouble).

Their reasoning improves when they are calm and centered. When you both have clear heads, take the lead in repairing the relationship. To begin, you might clarify that grounding him comes from a loving place.

“Look,” you might say, “I’ve got you on a short leash because what you did showed really poor decision making. Obviously, you won’t be grounded forever, and obviously, I don’t have the power to stop you if you really want to go out. But your safety means everything to me and it depends on your good judgment. When you act responsibly, you can have lots of freedom; when you act irresponsibly, it’s my job to keep you close to home for a while.”

Whether in the same conversation or at later time, consider adding, “I don’t think you were trying to hurt me or our relationship. I think you just really wanted to go to that party and did what you needed to do to get there. I can see the situation from your perspective, even though I strongly disagree with what you did. It would help me feel better about the whole thing if you could see it from my perspective, too. What do you think went through my mind that night?”

We want to have good relationships with our teenagers because we love them, and also because strong ties to adults help young people to thrive. Healthy relationships do not require that we get along all the time. In fact, some of the most growth-giving interactions we will have with our children occur when we repair a relational rupture. Once a fracture has healed, a bone is strongest at the point of the break. The same can be true for our connections to our teenagers.

This column does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The founders of Grown and Flown, Lisa Heffernan and Mary Dell Harrington, are the authors of a new book, “Grown & Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family and Raise Independent Adults.”

Lisa Damour is a psychologist and the author of the New York Times best sellers “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood” and “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.” @LDamour Facebook

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