How I Reacted to My Son’s (Momentarily Bad) Behavior by Guiding, Not Judging

My sweet, kind and socially different son fell in love.

In his junior year of high school, he attended a semester program on a farm in Vermont. He’d been struggling in high school with several months of intense panic attacks and crippling anxiety.

He didn’t have any friends. As a Montessori kid through 8th grade, it was like he’d landed on a different planet and didn’t understand the language. So, this program was a lifeline. Forty-five kids living together, getting up early each morning to chop wood and milk cows, classes sitting on top of a mountain, and teachers who went by their first names. And Celia.  

mother and son
Here’s why I try to guide my teens and not judge them when they make poor decisions. (Credit: Kiva Schuler)

My son fell in love

Celia was a New York City kid. She read Sylvia Plath and loved Rodin. Myles = smitten. 

They became inseparable, and after the idyllic time in Vermont ended, they tried to keep things going. I wasn’t enamored of the idea of my kid driving to New York from New Hampshire so much, but he was enamored, so I breathed trust into the universe. 

We know where this is headed, right? 

Things started to get shaky. With college applications due and the stress of heavy workloads, Myles and Celia saw less and less of each other. Things grew tense. The writing was on the wall. 

One day, I came downstairs after my kids had left for school (yes, parents of littles — the day will come when you get to go to bed earlier and sleep in later than your kids!!). The kitchen was a bit messy, so I started to clean. Picking up what I thought was a glass of water, I took a gulp. 

Vodka. It’s Wednesday. What the actual?!?! 

I texted both of my kids:

(Photo credit: Kiva Schuler)

(Yes. We curse in my family. And yes, the irony that a book about “Awakening The Empowered Parent Within” is in this pic is NOT lost on me.) 

I was furious. While my kids and I have established boundaries around alcohol use (parent home, parents aware, nobody leaves), THIS was NOT in the agreement. 

And someone was lying. Also, NOT in our family agreements. 

I’ll spare you the ridiculous texts that followed…(maybe it was the house cleaners) and my daughter defending her brother (Mom, it definitely wasn’t him).  (It was him.) (She didn’t know.) (Kinda sweet, right??!) 

Yelling is not part of our family culture

Anyway, when my son walked into the house after school, I’d tire myself into a fury. But I have tools. Thank G-d I have tools. I reminded myself that curiosity is our greatest tool as parents. Ooooh, how I wanted to yell, but…not yelling is ALSO in our family culture. I took a deep breath and looked at him. 

His face. 

His body language. 

The slight quiver in his lower lip. 

“Oh, honey,” I said. “Did you and Celia break up last night?”

He crumbled. I held my 6-foot-tall, sweet, kind, socially different child as he sobbed into my shoulder. My heart broke with his. 

“Did you drink vodka not to feel…this?”

“Mmm…Mmm hmm.”

Then I talked to my son, really talked

And then we talked. Like really talked. I promised him that his heart was strong enough to handle these feelings. That he was strong enough to handle these feelings. Reaching for substances to numb ourselves from them is the worst way to process them and can lead to addiction.

And that if he could give himself the gift of letting this pain in, he and his heart would grow stronger. That his work was to feel this. And that I believed in his ability to handle it. Because if he didn’t, he’d create defenses not to feel this again. “That, my love, is not a great recipe for living a full and expressed life.”

Later that evening, I thought back to being a teenager, being screamed at, and having affection and attention withheld. Being made to feel like a complete and utter failure. 

What would have happened if that generational “gift” got loaded up and unleashed on my son when he was the most vulnerable and in so much pain? The rift would have been seismic. His mental health probably would have taken a severe turn for the worse. Self-harm would not have been out of the question, given his history. 

Parents need to guide their kids, not judge them

This is why it’s not about not yelling at our kids. It’s about seeing them in all their experiences through a lens of curiosity. It’s about not judging them but guiding them and arming them with the life lessons that will help them make a better choice next time. 

I know that there are a lot of people who believe that “this is how we raise entitled kids.” People believe that yelling at teenagers is required for them to hear. That yelling at them and making them feel awful is necessary for their growth and development. 

But what about their humanity? Their self-worth? The safety required to maintain intimacy and connection?

With no equivocations, these matter more.

More Great Reading:

Why I Urged My Son to Break Up With His Girlfriend Before They Started College

About Kiva Schuler

Kiva Schuler is the Founder & CEO of The Jai Institute for Parenting and the author of The Peaceful Parenting (R)evolution, which examines the “consequences” of traditional parenting methods and offers a more modern approach grounded in emotional intelligence, values-led leadership, and effective communication.

Read more posts by Kiva

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