Stepping Back or Stepping In

By Tracy Hahn-Burkett Posted August 27, 2015 under Guest Authors, Talking to Your Teen

The adolescent years are a period when parents gradually hand their children’s lives over to them. As the parent of a soon-to-be adult, it’s often difficult to know when to intervene or when to let your adolescent take control over a particular part of his or her life. How do you decide when to step back and when to step in?

There are no easy answers. But a few guidelines can help:

Safety: Do you believe your child is in an unsafe situation—something that may endanger his or her life or physical or mental health? Do you have real reason to believe your child is using drugs, has been drinking, has been riding in a car with a friend who has been drinking, is planning to go to a house where a party is planned and kids who you know engage in inappropriate activities will be present, etc.? Do you suspect that your child is depressed, or that he or she may have an eating disorder? In situations where your child’s safety may be in jeopardy, always step in. This is where the limited teenage appreciation for real-life, long-term consequences could genuinely hurt your child.

Self-expression: Does your child wants to style his or her hair in an electric-blue Mohawk? Or maybe he or she wants to wear t-shirts with political messages you abhor? Step back. Your child is figuring out who he or she is and these are not permanent changes. Let your teen explore. Make sure your teen knows that even if you don’t like a particular thing he or she is doing, you are still supportive of him or her as a person. However, permanent changes and measures of self-expression that violate rules, such as a t-shirt with language that is banned in school, can be more difficult. These warrant conversations with your child. Does he or she understand what it means to have that tattoo forever? Does he or she want to wear that t-shirt to protest or support a legitimate cause? Is the issue really about something fundamental in your child’s identity? You’ll have to dig deeper to get to the bottom of it.

Decision-making in general: Seek opportunities to step back. At the doctor’s office, literally step out of the room and give your teen private time with his or her physician. Discuss courses with your teen, but ultimately allow your teen to select his or her own electives in school. As social, extra-curricular, religious, family and other obligations begin to conflict more often, help your teen lay out the pros and cons of each option, but step back when possible and let your teen make the choices and face the consequences of his or her decisions. The fundamental values of your family can still apply; for example: “You will not be rude to your grandparents” or “Unless something horrible is going on, you will not quit a team to which you’ve committed until the end of the season.”

From the beginning of adolescence, make sure your child understands the kind of adult you expect him or her to be. Show your teen that you have confidence in his or her ability to become that person. As questions arise, remember that your job as a parent is to raise an adult who can stand on his or her own, and ask yourself if stepping in or stepping back better serves that goal. It won’t be easy. But remembering the objective can at least provide a beacon as you help raise your child into an adult.

Tracy Hahn-Burkett writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, contributes to the fiction-writing blog, WriterUnboxed, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Her short story, “Cover Story,” was recently published at The Drum. Tracy recently won a grant from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, and is currently revising her first novel. Her website is, and she can be found on Twitter at @THahnBurkett. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two children.