Celebrity screwups can send the wrong message to tweens and teens. It's up to parents to turn celeb transgressions into teachable moments and help kids learn the true meaning of character.

By Stephanie Emma Pfeffer

Whether they're athletes, movie stars, or musicians, big names keep pushing the boundaries of bad behavior with sex, drugs, and violence. And our kids have a front-row seat, no less mesmerized than the rest of us. Sure, they're savvy — they know about the difference between image and reality — but they're still kids at heart, desperately seeking role models and ground rules to live by. So what's a teen to think when, often as not, celebs who cross the line are granted Survivor-like immunity, their fame not merely intact but enhanced?

"Every time kids see yesterday's superstar become today's liar, they tend to get more cynical," says Frank Farley, PhD, a psychologist and adolescent specialist at Temple University in Philadelphia. That means parents can't sit on the sidelines. There are valuable lessons to be salvaged from even the tawdriest celeb dramas — teach your children well, and they'll be able to draw on them for a lifetime.

Outrageous Outbursts

Tirades, temper tantrums, hissy fits, giving the finger — hardly a day goes by without some celeb acting up like a spoiled brat. Remember Serena Williams threatening to shove a tennis ball down a line judge's throat at the U.S. Open, or Christian Bale's movie-set meltdown that contained 39 F-bombs? Everyone from Lindsay Lohan to Jude Law has brawled with the paparazzi at some point. Stars sometimes even turn on their fans, like the time singer Avril Lavigne unleashed a torrent of curse words at autograph seekers as well as photographers.

Our kids aren't appalled, but amused — for them it's just another TMZ or YouTube moment. In part, it's because they identify with celebs as cool rebels. "That's why kids troll the Internet and turn these incidents viral," says Farley. "They also do spoofs and parodies of celeb screwups online, since being funny is a sure way to impress their peers."

But beneath the smirks and sniggers, teens need public figures they can emulate. "Kids do take cues from their parents, so it's important to help them decode all that bad behavior," says Celeste Gertsen, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Adelphi University in New York. "Talk to them about how to distinguish professional accomplishment from personal integrity. Ask whether the celeb made a one-time slipup and seems genuinely sorry, or if the mistake is part of a larger pattern that shows a sense of arrogance and entitlement."

Parents can point out that in the case of both Williams and Bale, the outbursts weren't just rude; they were abusive and tantamount to bullying. And while celebs often escape fallout — Williams was smashed with an $82,500 fine but not suspended — your kid won't be so lucky. Tell him that if he pulled the same stunt at Friday night football he'd be booted off varsity for good.

Finally, give your teens a step-by-step plan for staying levelheaded in tense situations. "Remind them to stop and think things through when they feel themselves getting upset so they can control the impulse to act out," advises Gertsen. "It's really all about teaching your kids to have empathy and respect for others. If they realize how someone else is affected by their words and actions, they're much less likely to lose it and get aggressive."

Sports Scandals

Physical talent, drive, and discipline — those qualities abound in star athletes, which is why so many kids identify with them and put them up on pedestals. Problem is, they can't seem to stay there. Whether it's Yankees star Alex Rodriguez finally fessing up to taking performance-enhancing drugs, or Andre Agassi admitting he got high on crystal meth while on the pro tennis circuit, the playing fields these days are littered with scandals of every stripe. "So many stars have failed or fallen off the wagon in some way, and it's really had an impact on kids," says Stanley Teitelbaum, PhD, author of Athletes Who Indulge Their Dark Side: Sex, Drugs, and Cover-Ups (Praeger). "The younger they are, the stronger the sense of disappointment. With older teens, the response is more like 'Whatever' or 'Who cares?' They're not even surprised, just disillusioned and indifferent."

There are many lessons for parents to drive home here. "Start by having a conversation with your child about human frailty and imperfection, and how we all succumb to temptation," suggests Teitelbaum. Even the most cynical teens, he adds, still connect with sports figures on some deeper, subconscious level; when their heroes succeed, kids bask in the glory and feel good about themselves. So it's natural for them to want athletes to be strong and flawless in every way. "I call it the halo effect," says Farley. "It's part of a parent's job to take it off and teach kids that athletes often do destructive things despite their accomplishments."

Then move on to the issue of steroids. Doping is illegal, and it undermines everything that sports is about by giving an unnatural advantage over the competition — whether it affects a game, a championship, the record books, or the Hall of Fame. "Simply put, it's living a lie," says Farley. "So if your teen says what's the big deal or that everybody's doing it, you've got to help him grasp the larger legal and moral repercussions." Make like Socrates and ask lots of questions to help him get the big picture. Is bulking up on steroids any different from cheating? What about fair play and everybody sticking to the rules? Is winning really the only thing that matters? Your end goal is for your kid to come up with the right answers on his own.

Tainted Love

No one can forget the 2009 photo of R&B star Rihanna — her face swollen with bruises, a bloody nose, and split lip, the result of a beating by boyfriend Chris Brown, who was convicted of felony assault and sentenced to 180 days of community service.

On a scale of transgressions this one's a 10, so serious that it can't go unaddressed. "The bottom line here is clear," says Farley. "Abuse is never acceptable, and girls who find themselves victims in any way have to get out, fast."

Experts agree that parents need to recognize the negative, often violent, messages and images being projected to kids, especially young boys. "There's a lot of garbage coming at them that manhood is all about sexual conquest, material wealth, power, and arrogance — what I describe as the bad-ass syndrome," says Kelly H. Johnson, author of A Better Man: True American Heroes Speak to Young Men on Love, Power, Pride, and What It Really Means to Be a Man (Brandylane Publishers). "I have a daughter and five sons. The older boys are in their 20s and the younger ones are in middle school, so I know what I'm talking about. There's definitely less sensitivity these days, while their coarseness is rising."

A lot of that has to do with the movie and music stars kids worship — they're simply not worthy. But parents can provide a counter-balance by strongly voicing their disappointment and disapproval. "Kids have to know the qualities you value and why," says Johnson. "Use precise language — words like dependable, selfless, loyal, which have more depth and content and really get to the heart of a person's character. You want your children to think in those terms, not simply right versus wrong or good versus bad, when they make their own decisions."

Be sure to point out when celebs do something right, as Rihanna finally did. "She scared us all when it seemed she was going to reconcile with Chris Brown," says Johnson. "To her credit, she pulled away and ultimately walked away. I like that it took her months and a false start or two, because it revealed her humanity and showed girls what a tough decision it was to stand up for her dignity and self-worth. She chose the hard right over the easy wrong."

And don't forget to talk about the road to redemption. "For example, if you tell your kids that Brown has a long way to go to regain respect and trust, you're conveying a deeper message as well — that if your kids do something wrong and get caught, they can also make amends, and that you'll be there for them," says Johnson. "That's something they need to hear."

Finally, help your kids find heroes who truly deserve their respect. "There's a wealth of good people out there — fathers and uncles, neighbors and friends, teachers and coaches — who, as opposed to shallow, empty celebrities, have real accomplishments," says Johnson. "Just be sure to take a subtle approach, since teens don't want to feel like they're being lectured. You can't force-feed heroes to your children. They have to find and embrace them on their own."

Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.