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broken windows

When Kids Get in Trouble Outside the Home

Jedd Hafer

Oh Great! What Do I Do Now?

We dread these times. A call from the school. A call from an angry neighbor. “Your kid did _____!”

As difficult as it may be, the first messages we want to send are "This is your problem (vs. mine) and I am genuinely sad for you."
Not "I told you so!"
Not "Now see what a big problem this is for me?"

It may sound something like this: "Oh, no... (pause)... Suspended from school? You must feel awful."
The key, as always, is sincere empathy.

With natural defenses kicking in, some kids cope with the situation by insisting they don't care. Some adults are deterred from their empathetic response and launch into lectures about why the kid SHOULD care. Now, who is owning the problem? Who is doing all the thinking? Instead, after locking in empathy, many parents have had success with the powerful question: "Wow. That's a tough one. What do you think you're going to do?"

At this point, if your young person doesn't have a good answer, experiment with saying something like, "I'm not sure I have any good ideas right now either. Maybe we can both do some thinking and talk about it later."

Whether it shows or not, your child has now been given the gift of spending some quality time with the problem. Our brains just can't help but to crave resolution and to wonder "What's gonna happen?" This time our kids spend wondering what the results (effect) of their behavior (cause) will be is priceless. What a beautiful world it would be if kids spent more time thinking/wondering about the consequences of their behavior!

If, by chance, the young person has some splendid ideas about resolving the problem, we can listen, support and ask "How do you think that will work?" More than likely though, we will have delayed the rest of this conversation - and improved the kid's chances of learning a valuable life lesson.

At the point we come back together (ideally, when we are BOTH calm), we can offer options to solve the problem:
"Some kids use money out of savings to hire a person to stay with them during the day."
"Some kids do lots of work around the house to pay Mom for taking time off to attend the post-suspension meeting."
"Some kids dip into their college fund to hire a lawyer. I can get you some phone numbers."

Obviously, the range of options depend on the problem and what we CAN do (oh, and did I mention common sense? We're always welcome to employ that.)

In general, when kids cause problems for themselves, we hurt for them and we offer empathy and support. When they cause problems for others, we expect them to solve the problem or somehow make restitution. Consequences that have a restorative element vs. purely punitive have seemed to work best.

1) Doing lots of chores to pay for that broken window
2) Paying mom for having to drive to the police station ("I charge $15 to pick kids up... ")

When kids are given a chance to repair and restore, it is better for their self-concept than feeling punished.

Last important step: At the end of our 'options to solve the problem' conversation (which may have stretched into days), we want to send messages that say "We love you! We are on your side! We are rooting for you! We may be sad about the choice you made, but we believe in you!"

In some houses, it sounds like this: "[Parent's arm around kid's shoulder] Thanks for talking to me about this. You know we love you and we're here for you, right? Please let me know how this all turns out."

Please remember that even when kids don't give us the satisfaction of weeping repentance and swearing they "will never do that again", the messages of empathy and support are most important - along with our keeping the problem on the kid's shoulders (where it belongs).

We hope this is helpful.

There are some great pearls of wisdom on this topic in Oh Great! What Do I Do Now?


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