Moral Dilemmas for Teenagers

Being a teen is difficult for numerous reasons. Hormonal changes lead teens to act impulsively, new emphases in social environments transfer teens’ objectives to lean toward impressing peers, and natural but risky temptations test teens’ willpower. And within all of these challenges is another, more abstract test: a test of morality.

The Major Moral Dilemma

What parents see as a moral dilemma is the teenage road to self-discovery. As the teenage years are characterized by finding an identity, it is natural for a teen to constantly shift his behavior and values, experimenting with new activities, many potentially risky, along the way. This “moral dilemma” is actually a side effect of self-absorption that tends to dismiss learned family values and morals in favor of the here-and-now. Teens, naturally wanting to try new things, might end up engaging in unprotected sex, trying drugs or joining a gang, all actions contrary to most families’ moral values. This poses a problem for parents who wish to raise their teen in a moral way.

Privacy as an Obstacle

Teens need their privacy. This sudden desire for privacy comes at a time when parents are most concerned for their children’s behaviors. While parents might feel the need to intervene in their teens’ lives to assure that their sense of morality is still strong, teens don’t often welcome such invasions. This makes it difficult for parents to monitor and reinforce family values. Parents need to know that privacy will be an obstacle to the discussion of moral behaviors in specific situations and should consider finding a non-invasive way to help teens through their moral dilemmas.

Abstract Morals vs. Tangible Actions

The outright discussion of morality with a teen will probably be met with resistance. As parents know, teens typically see themselves as adults who are able to solve their own problems. But you also know that teens are certainly not adults and have a weaker sense of self-control. To avoid coming off as “teaching” your teen morals, discuss his moral dilemmas in specific terms. A parent who discovers his child has been skipping school to hang out with friends might be tempted to enter a discussion in which “responsibility” is the main topic. However, such a discussion might have little more impact on his child other than giving the implicit message that he feels his child is lazy. By avoiding such general and abstract labels, instead focusing on specific actions, you make the topic discussable without labeling your child as morally incompetent. Bringing up the indisputable fact that the school has been calling about your child’s absence and how these calls have been causing stress in your life is more likely to lead to a shared conclusion than is a conversation about the importance of academics and a hard-working temperament.

Emotion Coaching as a Moral Buffer

As John Gottman, developmental psychologist, states in his book “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child,” a teen who understands his own feelings is less likely to engage in behaviors that parents find undesirable 1. Among these behaviors are drug use, violence, unsafe sex and delinquency. Thus, in a way, teaching a teen to recognize and understand her feelings is a form of moral guidance. The moral dilemmas that most teens face are whether to act on immediate feelings or make decisions based on careful thought. An angry teen who does not understand how to recognize and control his anger is much more likely to solve a problem through violence than one who can recognize that acting on anger will often lead to a poor outcome.