Always be available for guidance when your teen needs to talk.

Teaching Teenagers Ethics

by Rosenya Faith

Ethics is a tricky topic to teach your teen because it's subjective and the "right" answer often varies depending on circumstances. However, you can help your teen learn how to use critical thinking skills to sort through issues and view issues from different perspectives to understand ethics and apply what he learns to his life.


Whether you role-play with your teen one-on-one or turn it into an activity with her siblings or friends, it gives her the opportunity to look at circumstances and dilemmas from more than one perspective. Provide a variety of scenarios that are relevant to your teen such as, “What would you do if you found money in the school hallway and there’s nobody around?" or “What would you do if you caught your friend cheating on his girlfriend -- and she’s your friend, too?" Have her take turns playing each side of the ethical debate, such as the founder of the money in the hall and the person who lost their lunch money. Talk about how each party would feel in the scenarios and how to use that information to consider other perspectives in daily life.

Ethical Examples

Encourage him to find examples of ethical issues, and individuals who have made ethical decisions now and in the past. First, have him consider current celebrities, looking for examples of ethical behavior they have demonstrated, such as supporting charitable causes and speaking out against negative behavior and stereotypes. Next, turn to other public figures, individuals in history and then peers and family, finding as many examples of ethical behavior as he can. You can provide a contrast between ethical and unethical behavior by having him look for examples of each. When he’s finished, have him compile a list of the top four or five people he believes to be the most ethical and why.

Ethical Exceptions

Doing good or doing right is not always a straightforward, black or white choice. Sometimes a decision falls outside of what is considered the ethical norm. Talk about these circumstances with your teen to get her thinking about the complexity of ethics. Start with some basic ethics that she’s probably known for years, such as “Is it wrong to lie or steal?” While the consensus is these acts are not ethical, the answer can be more difficult at times. Ask your teen, "Is stealing wrong in every circumstance? What about a starving person stealing food?" or “Is it always wrong to lie? What if you’re hiding a surprise party?" Delve into more complex or charged issues as you feel your teen is ready, such as human rights issues and bioethics.

Just Talk

While formulating activities and lessons for your teen can help him understand ethics and engage his critical thinking skills, sometimes it’s worthwhile to set aside the lesson plan. Your teen's life is probably full of examples of ethical and unethical behavior, both on his own part and on the part of peers, teachers and family. Encourage your teen to pull up a chair at the kitchen table and talk about what’s going on in his life. Acting as his sounding board gives him the opportunity to talk out his troubles and gives you a front row seat as your child engages the thinking skills and ethics you’ve taught him to start solving problems all on his own.


  • Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing; Michele Borba Ed.D.
  • Raising Teenagers: 52 Brilliant Ideas for High-Performance Parenting; Lynn Huggins-Cooper

About the Author

Rosenya Faith has been working with children since the age of 16 as a swimming instructor and dance instructor. For more than 14 years she has worked as a recreation and skill development leader, an early childhood educator and a teaching assistant, working in elementary schools and with special needs children between 4 and 11 years of age.

Photo Credits

  • Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images