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Empowering Teens: Talking About the Do’s Instead of the Don’ts

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From a very young age, children and teens are constantly being told “no.” While kids need rules for protection and safety, parenting is about far more than setting limits and keeping children safe. Rather than only talking about the “don’ts,” offering positive guidance and wisdom and empowering teens to make their own decisions can foster a strong parent-child relationship throughout the years. Teens can benefit even more when parents talk about the “do’s” as well as the “don’ts.”

Circumventing Negative Responses

As part of the journey to adulthood, teens often react negatively when they are told no. Typically, whatever limitations or restrictions are placed upon them by a parental figure, they will try to break the rules — a developmentally appropriate response that can put stress on their relationships with family and other adults in their lives.

Choosing to focus on positive directions and guidance can help parents avoid that rebellious reaction, empowering teens to consider different points of view. When parents approach a topic from an encouraging and nonjudgmental viewpoint, teens often consider their ideas more readily and are more open to a conversation. With the focus changed from “do not” to “do,” teens are more likely to shift their thinking and behavior.

Building Positive Rapport

The teenage habit of reacting in rebellious ways can be divisive in family relationships—not only because of the way that teens react, but also because of how parents and caregivers react. In contrast, positive messages can set off a chain reaction of positive reactions. Friction is often replaced by mutual respect, and a positive rapport between parents and teens can develop where there was once acrimony.

More than just sharing wisdom and guidance, talking to teens about the “do’s” can open the conversation to talking about other topics as well. The respect that can grow out of positive discussions can build a foundation of trust that helps when challenges arise between teens and parents. Hence, focusing on the positives while keeping communication lines open helps teens avoid maladaptive behaviors, improves reactions and responses within families, and strengthens overall family harmony.

Opening Doors of Possibilities 

How can parents deliver guidance in a form that teens will accept and even welcome? Positive “do” messages can come via little notes, texts, attaching messages to surprise treats, or just bringing up ideas in casual conversation while driving or cooking together. Some ideas of “do’s” include:

  • Have fun now! Adulthood is filled with responsibilities and tasks that are not always fun. This is the time to be spontaneous, carefree, and silly. FaceTime with a friend while wearing silly outfits or have a “kid day” by playing hopscotch, drawing with chalk, and blowing soap bubbles. There is more to life than school and social media.
  • Build strong friendships. Many friendships begin in middle school or high school and last a lifetime. Teens can find the people now that they want to be able to laugh with and confide in as they mature into new experiences. Research shows that teens with good friends have a higher level of well-being.
  • Try new things. The teen years are the perfect time to try all kinds of things, before choosing a college or a career. Teens can experience the arts, take a robotics class, volunteer at a hospital, learn a new craft, and so much more. Trying new things helps teens learn more about who they are and what they’re passionate about.
  • Make the most of free time. Free time can be a precious commodity in adulthood. When there is downtime, teens can look for an activity that makes them truly happy. Rather than see the limitations of what is not available, what can they find to do instead? Pull out a paintbox, build something with Legos, or make a list of dreams.
  • Explore dreams. Astronaut, ballerina, professional athlete, movie star—these are all common dream vocations of childhood. Why not revisit those dreams and explore what it takes to make those dreams a reality? Or teens can consider what they love about these options, and then look at other types of careers that offer those same exciting attributes.
  • Put mental health at the top of the to-do list. Sometimes a 10-minute mindfulness meditation break helps more than two hours of studying. Taking a walk to get fresh air and clear your mind can be a better choice than finishing those last few math problems or spending time on social media. Learning self-care habits at this stage will benefit teens for the rest of their life.

Removing Limitations

Perspective can create freedom, or it can create limitations. Focusing on the “don’ts” limits a child’s perspective and catalyzes negative reactions, which can ripple throughout family and relationships. A positive perspective focusing on the “do’s” can remove barriers, empowering teens to explore new possibilities, both in life and in relationships. Talking to teens about these “dos” often can encourage teens to live happy, emotionally rewarding lives, both now and in the future.


J Youth Adolesc. 2019; 48(9): 1707–1723

Soc Neurosci. 2015 Dec; 10(6): 592–604.