One vexing part of parenting is watching our kids make decisions that we know will turn out badly for them.  Children who have suffered trauma seem to be particularly prone to making problematic decisions.  How do we respond when our children insist on making life decisions that we simply cannot support?  Below are some thoughts about how to keep lines of communication open with our children when we can’t agree with their decisions.

•         Continue to Love Them Unconditionally.  There are numerous studies showing that unconditional love is essential to raising resilient, well-adjusted kids. There is no time when our unconditional love is more important than when we are disagreeing with them.  We need to be very clear in our own minds, and communicate to them, that our disagreement does not affect how we value them or love them.

•         Know What Unconditional Love Is and Is Not.  According to most definitions that you will find, unconditional love means that we recognize our kids' value apart from their behavior or attitudes. Unconditional love does not mean we accept just any sort of behavior from our kids. Part of our job is to set clear standards of good behavior and hold our kids to them. But we have to separate the kids' value from their behavior. A phrase from the Christian community sums it up as “love the sinner, but not the sin.”

           This concept of separating worth from behavior is not easy, and it can be particularly hard in our current culture. Too much of our educational establishment has taught kids (wrongly) that disagreement with their beliefs or choices is a reflection on their value. That’s a very unhealthy attitude, and our kids will face unnecessarily difficult times if they adopt it. But to convince them otherwise, we first must show them otherwise. We need to find ways of showing them that, no matter what they do, we still care about them. We may not be able to support their choices, but we continue to love them.

•         Recognize Our Kids’ Rights to Make Their Own Decisions.  No matter what our kids’ ages, they have the right to make certain decisions.  With younger kids, we have the obligation to keep their decisions within the bounds of safety, but we need to give them the right to make their own decisions about clothing styles, hobbies, and the like.  As our kids get older, they will have the right to make their decisions about life choices, romantic partners, and education.  While we may dislike, for example, our child’s choice of romantic partner, it is their life and their decision.  We need to recognize their agency and not try to override their decisions.

•         Don’t Enable Bad Decisions.  Unconditional love is not the same as enabling bad behavior. To take an obvious example, we can unconditionally love a person struggling with substance abuse while we condemn their choices to feed their addiction. Most of us won’t face such serious problems with our children. Nevertheless, the principle is the same — our job is to provide structure to our children, and part of that structure is enforcing and letting them suffer from the logical consequences of their decisions.

           I ran across a study of unconditional acceptance in the sports context that has some fascinating examples. It's a master's thesis and the research consisted of in-depth interviews of 11 former high-level figure skaters. Most of the athletes who described unconditional acceptance from their coaches also described the coaches' "not always tolerating behaviors that [the skaters] could learn to control." These skaters "described a sense of knowing that their coaches’ consequences were meant to help them become better people and athletes."

           In other words, loving our children unconditionally often requires that we let them learn from their mistakes. If we bail them out every time, they start expecting to be bailed out every time. They never learn those life lessons that they can best learn from experience. But throughout their experience of making the mistakes and paying the consequences, every child needs to know that we love them and have faith in them.

•         Show Them How to Have Respectful Disagreements.  One of the most important things we can do when our kids make decisions we disagree with is teach them how to have respectful disagreements.  That teaching starts with modeling respect for their right to make decisions and listening to their reasons.  We don’t have to end up agreeing with each other, but we do need to find the common ground of respecting and caring for each other in spite of the disagreements.

•         Keep Talking.  Finally, keep talking to each other.  You don’t have to talk about the areas of disagreement.  You can talk about common hobbies, common beliefs, hobbies, or entertainment.  The subject area doesn’t matter.  What matters is that find opportunities to remind your child that you care about his or her opinion and want to deepen the relationship.  You need to build your (and your child’s) conversation “muscles” so that, when the areas of disagreement come up, you have a reservoir of good will to draw from.  As the old saying goes, no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.


           Our children will not always listen to us, and children who have suffered trauma often are more resistant than others to take our advice.  Whether it’s general distrust of adults, reluctance to be vulnerable, or poor impulse control, they seem to rush into decisions that to our eyes seem disastrous.  Those times may be the most important times for us to remind our children that we love them, no matter how much we disagree, and that if our worst fears come true, we will be there to help them pick up the pieces.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.