I’ve never been a parent. I don’t pretend to understand “what it’s like” to raise a child for 18 years and then let him go.
That said, I’ve spent a significant amount of time around quite a few teenagers from a variety of family backgrounds, investing deeply in their lives through a lot of time and effort. And I’ve observed lots of parents: those who seem to be making it through the teen years pretty okay and others who through no fault of their own really were left scratching their heads about what to do with this kid.
With that serving as my general disclaimer, I’d like to point out one thing I’ve observed successful parents of teens doing as a key factor in their parenting: Their posture toward their son/daughter combines genuine, joyful love with strength, honesty, and courage.
Let me unpack that.
The most important growth in an adolescent is his/her understanding of what it means to be a truly independent person. She is transforming from “the child of [family]” to her own identity. It’s a struggle, fraught with much embarrassment and fear and the metamorphosis takes place in a fishbowl of attention from peers and adults. And the maturation process takes its time.
Teenagers express all the variety that we see in humanity, and some teens are more combative or manipulative or hurtful than others. I’ve cringed at some of the statements I’ve heard hurled at parents by their annoyed or angry adolescents. It can be a rough time as the home turns into an emotional war zone where words become weapons and nothing you can do seems to hit the right mark.
Nearly all kids will attack parental authority like a jackhammer, pounding in every example they can find of how anyone else’s parent is doing it better.
[See note at end of post for a few more thoughts in this vein.]
In the middle of this mess, what’s a parent to do?
I firmly believe that God “parents” us in ways that can inform how we parent (or mentor or teach) our kids. He’s God, so I’m not implying we can follow His methods exactly or to the same effect. But within our experience with God the Father we find clues for how to love our teens while also maintaining a healthy relationship that helps them grow and mature… without pulling out every last hair. (Bald is not a good look for most people.)
A few key thoughts:
1. God looks on His children with love, with joy, with acceptance. When He looks at me, He sees the righteousness of Christ. I am fully accepted and totally loved…. even when my behavior or attitude falls short of being anything like Christ’s.
This is Grace and it’s where we all must start: the love of God enables us to love others as we have been loved.
Your teenager will do dumb stuff and rebel and make you angrier than you ever thought possible while ripping out your feelings and stomping on them, reminding you that you aren’t welcome or needed or wanted. Awesome.
Imagine how our daily sinful actions look (and feel) to God our Redeemer, who patiently renews His mercies every morning. Great is His faithfulness in the midst of our failures and need.
What this means for parenting: Your reaction to your teen must be grounded in a firm grasp of how much you are loved by God, even when you fail. This is the same “standard” you should apply to your parenting. Grace isn’t leniency; it’s a gift of exactly what we most need in the moment, whether encouragement or discipline or honesty.
2. God’s redemptive love anchors His interactions with us. God doesn’t change His attitude toward me based on how I feel toward Him.
Romans 2 says it’s the goodness of God that leads us to repentance. This posture of love is key to God’s work in drawing us to Himself. He can give us Grace because He sacrificed His own Son to reconcile us to Himself. He took the hit … so He can extend the relationship.
Even when He knew full well what a mess we are. His love is eyes-open, honest, in-spite-of-our-badness love.
Lesson for parents: Don’t let your moody, angry, difficult teen drag you into the same negative mindset. Your actions may have to be firm to enforce family rules or discipline, but your posture toward your child can and should be one of calm, assured love.
Delight in your teen. Choose to see that good and call it out (but not to “make a move” and prove how “nice” you are) and with genuine joy. God rejoices over us with singing (says Nehemiah); give your teen the same gift, even when she is driving you nuts. Do this because you can love them as God first loved you.
Understand that I’m not saying, “Overlook their bad behavior.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t have frank conversations about what they’re doing that’s dangerous or unwise (though you probably won’t get far in convincing them to change). Maintain your rules. Exercise discipline. But above all, fight to keep your attitude toward your teen positive. It does matter.
3. God does not return us to the role of adversary, even when we have sinned.
I hear a lot of parents (and teachers, in their contexts) ask, “But my kid is doing something wrong. I need to make sure they understand that I don’t approve. I need them to feel how bad they are!”
Look. I get it. I actually do. But feeling bad about sin? That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. He’s the one who convicts “of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 14). You can’t succeed in trying to do His job.
You can attempt to educate their consciences, but you can’t (and shouldn’t) try to make them “feel guilty.” Emotional manipulation is just as wrong a tactic for you as it is for them. Withholding your favor to punish them for their bad attitude is just revenge.
Love and honesty aren’t opposites. Love and discipline aren’t opposites. You work with your tools (natural consequences, discipline, discussion) and let God work with His. Your child is not your adversary. Don’t escalate the war (but don’t let yourself be a hostage either).
Takeaway: Be honest with your teen when they’ve done something wrong. But do not allow yourself to treat your son or daughter like he/she is your enemy. It won’t help.
Also, remember that your kid will grow to fit the mold you build for him/her. Want a rebellious teen? Make sure you assume that her actions are rebellious before you hear an explanation. Assume she’s only a liar. Make him feel as if his trajectory has been set, and it will be way easier to just live up to bad expectations than forge new ones.
God’s mercies are replenished every morning. So should yours.
4. God, in His mercy, often softens the impact of consequences on our lives. But for the most part, He allows us to experience the natural effect of our actions.
Your best tool for allowing teens to understand the impact of their actions is getting out of the way of the natural consequences of their actions.
Teens are big enough to make big decisions that can carry life-long impact. They can get pregnant or become fathers; they can make mistakes that kill someone or themselves; they can destroy relationships or earn a criminal record or get themselves addicted to drugs.
I’m not saying “So let ’em!” Not saying that at all. Part of the Grace you bring into the life of your children is protection from the worst that foolishness can bring. Some problems demand radical intervention.
But parents, you need to come to grips with the reality that your hardest job is getting out of the way of Life as it slams into your child with all the force necessary to teach some of the hardest lessons. Failure is the best teacher when we’re willing to learn from it.
It’s hard to step aside and let your kid earn an F because she won’t do her homework despite all your efforts to intervene and help. That might mean she goes to community college for a couple years instead of your private liberal arts alma mater. But she needs to own her failure (and be offered a hand up to dig out of it once the lesson sinks in).
It sounds mean to say, “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to earn and use your own money if you want to buy that.” I see a lot of teens holding their parents hostage through guilt and emotional slash-n-burn tactics. Don’t fall for that. They can’t refuse to contribute AND complain about what they want but you won’t buy for them. A good lesson for all of life.
It’s impossible to monitor who your son is spending his time with or doing in his spare time. You can guarantee that your kid has probably smoked it, tasted it, drank it, or kissed it. Model responsible (and enjoyable) adult behavior for your kids, and resist the urge to put a GPS tracker on his shoes. In my experience, when parents love their kids and are trying to be reasonably involved in their lives, “bad stuff” tends to come into the light before too long. Be sure their sins will find them out. Hopefully before the damage is permanent.
Oh, and don’t be afraid to get absolutely livid if the occasion demands it. Like if your kid nearly hurt someone by being stupid. There are times when your anger – driven by your fear for their wellbeing and your better understanding of how this world works – can be very effective as a natural consequence. But it only works if your kids rarely see you angry.
A final word:
When the times of conflict hit — and they most certainly will hit every parent-teen relationship at some point — it doesn’t have to turn into a nuclear war.
What I’ve seen from the best parents I’ve known is patient, quiet, calm love combined with the courage to speak honestly and the wisdom to know when to say something and when to just be quiet. These parents may weep or rage on the inside, but toward their children they are gracious, firm, and proactive. They refused to let their buttons get pushed.
And you know what? Around age 19 or maybe 21 or 24, every one of their kids has come to them with joy and deep gratitude for the gift of love and grace their parents gave them.
A few more notes about adolescents:
I’ve noticed that girls hit their most difficult years around age 15 while most boys really go head-to-head with their parents a year or two later. Of course, individual experiences vary; I’ve known 12 year olds who’ve zoomed straight into the worst of puberty while others pass through all 8 years with nary a fight. But the typical patterns are labeled that for a reason — you should expect to hit a few patches that are rougher than others. [Personally, I’m convinced the only reason 17 year old boys survive is because adults decide not to murder them. I’ve had to hold myself back a few times. lol]
Teens sometimes push the boundaries of this process by doing anything bad they could imagine (drugs, sex, theft or shoplifting, recklessness, sneaking out) altering with rank foolishness (usually non-malicious but often just plain dumb). Both boys and girls will lose all common sense in their quest to impress a crush.
And all of our teens are now awash in way more social media and text connectivity than we ever had to deal with. At least my landline had only one connection, so I could hold only one conversation at a time. And my parents yelled at me if I tied up the phone all night. Not so when everyone has their own personal phone-in-pocket and communications device. Star Trek might have foreseen personal communicators, but I never saw Kirk caught in the midst of conversations with Spock, McCoy, Uhura, and Scotty all at the same time, with Sulu and Chekov sending over random Snapchats of their drinking party below decks. You and I had a way to escape the prying eyes of our peers; our teens never ever ever stop talking with their peers. Never.
Find yourself some parents who’ve made it through, whose kids are in college or married and relatively okay, and talk to them. You need people in your life who can remind you that this is just a phase, that you’re going to make it through. 🙂