The Paradox of Permission to Screw Up

For over 25 years, I have had the privilege and the pain of watching parents and their children learn a new dance once puberty begins. From the beginning of their relationship, parents have a strong, primal commitment to protecting their children. And children have an expectation for their parents to protect them….until they don’t want to be protected anymore! photo-1426647430637-b5f17a0c82b4

With puberty comes a new instinct by teens — the instinct to have to learn for themselves. And suddenly, the game has changed.

A few weeks ago, a bright, capable young man shared with his mom, “I need your permission to fail. I know I will mess up some things, and if I do, it’s not a reflection on you as a parent, but it is how I will learn how to be an adult.” Dang.

In truth, parents need the same permission from counselors, friends, their own parents and themselves to LET their kids make mistakes for all the same reasons. Parents want to protect their children from suffering pain, especially pain that they know about because of their own experiences. How many times have I heard a parent say, “I know how risky this situation is because I did all the same things. I know how badly I hurt because of my bad choices, and I just want him to learn from my mistakes and not have to go through all that!” Painfully, very few of us learn from the mistakes of others. Most of us have to make our own mistakes, and sometimes we have to keep making the same ones over and over for awhile before we become convinced that we’ll keep getting the same result.

My own father was somewhat famous for saying, “You know I have confidence in you, but just remember….Don’t screw up.”  Thanks, Dad. He was teasing really, but it always felt like a tall order to not screw up and have to face him later.

When it comes to the decision to use alcohol or other drugs, the majority of adolescents and young adults decide to experiment with one or more substances between the ages of 12 and 25 y/o. According to the Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health published by SAMHSA last September, 10.2% of those 12 and older have used illicit substances in the last 30 days, and 52.7% of those 12 and older have used alcohol in the last 30 days. There was no change with alcohol use compared to studies 2002-2013, but illicit drug use was more prevalent, presumably due to substantial increases of marijuana use.

As distressing as those statistics may be to parents, it is important for us all to remember the substance use only becomes risky for about 20% of the population, and only about 10% of the population end up with true addiction. And currently, the only test we have to determine if a user will become addicted is the test of time.

Only with time will the symptoms emerge. Only with time will it be clear who falls into the safer, healthier, controlled-using 80% and who falls into the risky or addicted 20%. As parents observe their teens venturing into the realms of experimentation, there are only a few things within their control, and it is essential that parents control what they can but release what they cannot control.

So what is a self-respecting, understandably-protective parent of a teen or young adult to do?

1. Remember that you already know how to do this. In all probability, you have watched your child miss tons of free throws or pitches, fall while learning how to ride a bike, skateboard or ski, or take on a mouthful of water while learning how to swim. They survived and so did you.
2. Look for opportunities to let them know that you do not expect them to be perfect.
3. Share examples of your own struggles, what emotions you felt, and how you found solutions.
4. Communicate awareness that mistakes and failures are opportunities for learning and that failure is to be expected anytime we push ourselves to the next level of achievement.
5. Actually praise their willingness to engage in safe, positive new adventures and having the courage to take chances for the sake of new opportunities to grow and learn.
6. Express understanding of the desire to engage in riskier behaviors, but let them know what they can expect from you if they choose to use alcohol or other drugs, drive recklessly or engage in risky sexual behavior. Then, by all means, if and when they test your resolve, you MUST follow through with clear consequences delivered with loving compassion for their disappointment in themselves.
7. Communicate that you love them just as much when they are screwing up and struggling as you do when they are striving and succeeding.
8. Show compassion for their disappointment, frustration or even anger when they screw up or fail to achieve even if you anticipated the outcome or have a lot of your own negative emotions. Fight the temptation to vent to them since doing so will simply add to their distress.
9. Fight the temptation to rescue them from the consequences of mistakes. Doing so actually interferes with their learning! When you follow through, you demonstrate that you can be trusted to be a parent of your word.
10. When they make bad choices or experience failure, let them know that you have confidence in them to find a solution or to tolerate the consequences. Remind them of other times they have struggled, found solutions and experienced success after failure.
11. Encourage them to take responsibility for their actions rather than blaming others.
12. And lastly, reach out for professional support to help yourself tolerate the test of time until it is clear whether your emerging adult is learning by screwing up or getting sick with the disease of addiction.

So here is the paradox. Parents want to protect. Teens and young adults say they want to learn from their own mistakes. And yet, when the mistakes and bad decisions come, the pain is very real. The teen suddenly WANTS to be rescued after all. The parents want to rescue after promising themselves and their teen that they would not. And then both parent and child must follow through with the new dance by allowing some of the most important lessons of all to be learned – those that come from screwing up.

Thanks, Dad, for loving me even when I was screwing up and helping me believe that I could persevere, learn from those mistakes, and succeed in the long run.

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