Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Mark Gregston's book, When Your Teen is Struggling: Real Hope and Practical Help for Parents Today, (Harvest House Publishers, 2007).
Is your teen failing in school, addicted to drugs, involved in a sexual relationship, or committing crimes? Does he or she lash out at you in anger, lie to you, steal from you, refuse responsibility, or threaten suicide?
These and other troubling scenarios affect many teens today, and if you’re the parent of a struggling teen, you may be sinking into despair. No matter how hard your teen is struggling right now, though, there is hope – hope for a brighter future for your teen, and a restored relationship between you.
Here’s how you can help your teen overcome his or her struggles:
Face reality. Admit and accept that your teen is dealing with serious problems. Decide to do whatever it takes to help your son or daughter pursue healing.
Don’t panic. Know that God offers you real hope to overcome any difficulty and restore any relationship. Look beyond your teen’s problems to the God you can trust to give you wisdom to deal with them. In prayer, place the situation in God’s hands and ask Him to guide you and your teen through it.
Know that you’re not alone. Recognize that plenty of other parents are facing the same issues you’re facing, and that anyone can have a struggling teen, regardless of how good they are as parents. Remember that God – who loves your teen even more than you do – sees what’s going on and cares about it. Turn to God in prayer often to ask for the strength you need.
Realize that God uses bad situations to accomplish good purposes. Understand that this time in your son or daughter’s life will not be wasted if you invite God to transform it. Ask God to use it to help your teen grow more into the person he or she is meant to be. Know that your teen’s struggles aren’t just distractions; they’re valuable tools God can use to help him or her grow. Trust that, even though you don’t see what God is doing right now, God is still at work behind the scenes working out good purposes in your teen’s life.
Stay engaged with your teen. No matter how frustrated you become, don’t abandon your relationship with your son or daughter. Recognize that your teen needs you, especially at this time. Even when your struggling teen pushes you away, remain committed to him or her. Ask God to help you persevere and continue to express love to your teen, no matter what.
Be compassionate. Don’t condemn your teen; doing so will only push him or her farther away. Ask God to give you His compassionate perspective on your teen’s struggles. Use kindness and gentleness when you communicate with your teen, seeking to let God’s love flow through you into your son or daughter’s life. Pray for the wisdom you need to express tenderness to your teen while still exercising the strong authority you need to maintain as a parent.
Figure out what’s behind your teen’s behavior. Recognize that the real issue isn’t your teen’s behavior, no matter how outrageous it is. Know that what’s most important are the reasons behind your teen’s behavior. Get to know what is motivating your teen to act the way he or she does. For example, is your teen reacting to a recent move, your divorce, or abuse of some kind? Instead of just trying to stop your teen’s reckless behavior, help your teen work through the issues that are causing the behavior.
Understand your teen’s needs. Consider how your teen may be using inappropriate behavior to meet appropriate needs, like security, validation, acceptance, value, honor, significance, meaning, and purpose. Whenever you catch your teen behaving in reckless ways, ask your teen to consider whether or not the behavior is actually working to help meet his or her needs. Instead of lecturing your teen, encourage your teen to come to his or her own conclusions about whether or not the behavior is helping your teen get where he or she wants to be in life.
Focus on three core components of character. When guiding and disciplining your teen, focus on what matters most: honesty, obedience, and respect. Do all you can to help your teen develop these qualities as part of his or her personal character.
Prepare your teens for the real world. Don’t try to insulate your son or daughter from the harsh realities of the world - know that if you do so, you’re only delaying the inevitable introduction your teen will have to the world, anyway, and you’re setting your teen up to rebel against you. Realize that once your child reaches the teen years, you need to help him or her mature by learning how to think critically and make choices for himself or herself. Rather than lecturing your teen, engage in discussions that respect your teen’s right to make decisions freely.
Allow your teen to make mistakes and learn from failure instead of rushing to bail him or her out of natural consequences. Give your teen the responsibilities he or she needs (chores at home, a part-time job, accountability for getting to school on time and completing homework, etc.) to move from dependency on you to the independence necessary to live on his or her own. On your teen’s next birthday (or at age 13, if your teen is still younger than that), celebrate his or her transition to more maturity with a special event like a ceremony, outing, or party (just as Jewish young people recognize their growing maturity through bar and bat mitzvahs).
Expect your teen to respect your boundaries (such as not taking your things without your permission and not expecting you to drive him or her to activities you don’t have time for). Respect your teen’s boundaries, as well, by giving your teen as much privacy as you can while still making sure that he or she is living a healthy lifestyle. Instead of trying to control your teen, build a home environment that will empower your teen to thrive in his or her next stage of life.
Express unconditional love. Ask God to help you avoid basing your relationship with your teen on performance (what your teen does or doesn’t do) and instead realize that your teen’s value is based on the fact that he or she is God’s child, as well as yours. Let your teen know clearly that you won’t take your love away if he or she doesn’t perform the way you hope. Remember that God loves your teen unconditionally and expects you to do the same. Ask God to help you keep forgiving your teen and continue to extend grace to him or her. Give your teen the confidence he or she needs to grow beyond his or her mistakes – confidence that’s rooted in knowing you will be there for him or her, no matter what.
Appreciate your teen’s uniqueness. Don’t pressure your teen to become someone that he or she wasn’t created to be. Ask God to help you understand and appreciate all that’s unique about your teen. Replace your own agenda for your teen’s life with God’s vision for your teen’s life. Give your teen the freedom to be himself or herself, and encourage your teen to discover and pursue God’s purposes for his or her life.
Don’t run from pain. Understand that God can use pain in powerful ways to motivate your teen to reconsider options, reflect on choices, and reevaluate the results of his or her current choices. Allow your teen to feel pain so it can motivate him or her. Give your teen guidance and options as he or she goes through pain. Set clear boundaries and don’t be afraid to follow through on consequences for wrong behavior. Use temporary discomfort to move your child toward repentance and change. Realize that the pain you want to avoid may be the very means God wants to use to connect your teen to Him and to you in stronger, deeper relationships.
Help your teen deal with losses. Consider what losses your teen has suffered that caused a need he or she may be trying to fulfill through reckless behavior. Give your teen permission to fully express his or her thoughts and feelings about losses, and go through the process of grieving them. Get your teen connected to a counselor, pastor, or support group to help in the healing process. If your teen is spinning out of control despite all efforts to help, consider placing your teen in a residential facility temporarily for intensive help. Ask God to help you express the kind of tough love your teen needs to turn his or her life around.
Establish a belief system for your home. Think and pray about what you want most in life, and what you would like to see changed in your home. Consider such areas as: academics, spiritual, social, behavioral, character, medical, possessions, entertainment, responsibilities, privileges, and family. Write down a list of values you believe in, rules for how your family should function based on your beliefs, and consequences for breaking the rules. Choose to highlight values and rules that are most important to you now, so you don’t overwhelm your teen (remember that you can add more to your list later).
Clearly communicate your belief system to your teen so he or she knows what to expect. For example, an academic belief could be, “Our children should be able to pass all their classes throughout their high school years.” A corresponding rule could be, “There will be no failing grades in school.” A consequence could be, “No computer time at home other than for homework until all grades are passing grades.” Come up with a plan for incorporating your belief system into your family life, and regularly check to see if you’re on track.
Hold on to hope. Remember that God is always available to give you the strength you need as you go through this crisis with your teen. Know that the way you relate to your teen during this time when he or she needs you the most will determine the quality of your relationship with him or her in the future. Stay connected to God through prayer and ask Him to let His love flow through you into your teen’s life. Then wait with eager anticipation for the much better days that may lie ahead for both your teen and you.
Adapted from When Your Teen is Struggling: Real Hope and Practical Help for Parents Today, copyright 2007 by Mark Gregston. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Or., www.harvesthousepublishers.com.
Mark Gregston is the founder and executive director of Heartlight Ministries, a residential counseling facility for adolescents in crisis. He is also a popular radio host and speaker and leads Dealing with Today’s Teens seminars across the country. He and his wife, Jan, have served and counseled youth for more than 30 years. They have two grown children.