Do you know what needs to change about you as your child approaches the teen years? Let me give you a hint…it’s something that you’ve done since they were born. And it needs to grow and evolve into something new, just as your teen is growing into a new person that only vaguely resembles the child they once were.
Many parents arrive at the teen years with everything going like clockwork, so why change? What’s been working for more than a decade will surely continue working right up until the day their child leaves home, right? But then they are baffled and confused when their teenager begins to turn their back on the family and all the values they hold dear.
So, what is it that needs to change about you, the parent?
Change Your Aim
Most parents aim at providing everything for their child. However, I am convinced that there are some lessons that teens are not supposed to learn from their parents. Instead they need to begin working out things for themselves. If you guide every step and give your teen every material want and need, he’ll begin expecting that for the rest of his life.
What’s more, giving your teen the answer every time life presents a difficult question may actually get in the way of all they are supposed to learn. And, it spoils the opportunity for them to flex their decision-making muscles. Instead, allow them to think things through. Move from telling them how to think to asking good questions that will help them sort through their choices.
The aim changes from solving all of their problems and meeting all of their needs to allowing them to learn how to solve their own problems (sometimes the hard way), and taking responsibility for meeting their own needs.
The method is to carefully identify what is going on in their world, and target your boundaries to teach them how to respond appropriately. And keep adjusting the boundaries for every “next new thing” comes along, while allowing them to make decisions along the way. They will probably not make the right choice 100% of the time – maybe not even 50% of the time -- but they need the opportunity to learn by doing so.
Change the Underlying Purpose of Your Rules
Move away from ruling your home, to using rules for training your teen to face the real world and building their character. In the early teen years and on through the time they leave home, the focus should be on character-building.
The aim is to change the rules that apply to your teenager to focus on setting boundaries and building character, not so much on managing actions.
The method is to develop rules that train your teenager how to think, how to make wise choices, how to keep a commitment, and how to live honestly, respectfully, and obediently. These are the most important character-building qualities you can help them develop.
Change the Way You Listen
I see two extremes in the way parents listen, and neither one is very helpful. The first is a parent who listens in order to react to every word that comes out of their teen’s mouth. The other is a parent who dismisses everything their teen says, and never really listens. Over-listening and ignoring do nothing to prepare your teen to live in the real world.
As difficult as it can be sometimes, I believe it is better to know what a teen is thinking than to not know it. But knowing it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to react or respond immediately. Sometimes a teen is just “thinking out loud” in an attempt to process the difficult things in their world.
If you are guilty of not really listening, you may see your teen baiting you and picking fights just to try to get you to really listen to what’s going on in their life -- at a deeper level.
The aim is to stop assuming they know what their child is thinking, or making the same kind of demands as when they were younger, and develop strong listening skills.
The method for changing the way you listen addresses both sides of the “listening’ issues. Zip your lip and open your ears. Sit directly in front of your teen when they are talking and listen intently. It is a simple concept with staggering ramifications. Start listening. Stop reacting. Stop ignoring. If you must ask a question, ask only that which allows you to further your listening, and keep quiet while they answer. This brings me to my next point….
Change What You are Willing to Talk About
Christian parents are sometimes so protective of their values and beliefs that they send the wrong message to their teen – one that says, “We can’t talk about that – because talking about it will make it seem as if I approve.” One sure way to build a wall between you and your teen is to make them feel that there are things you will simply not discuss.
The aim is to change the way you talk with your teen and what you are willing to talk about. Build opportunities for discussion -- a two-way conversation that takes interest in what each of you has to say, while exploring new ideas.
For most parents, the method involves spending more time listening and less time sharing your opinion. It also involves waiting until you are invited to give your opinion before offering it. Try, “I’ve thought a lot about what you’re saying, I respect you – so, what do you think should happen next?” You will find that the more you ask this question, without offering your own ideas, the more your teen will pursue discussing his options with you. He’ll even come up with options he’d never thought of before, just because you are listening.
Change Your Attitudes About Your Parenting
Parents believe that what they do in raising their child in the younger years will carry that child through to his older years. For example, they go to church, walk in godly ways, study the Bible, go to Christian camp or summer mission trips. It is a deceptive self-comfort that we settle into in parenting -- if we just do “these things” our teen will turn out fine.
In reality, this attitude sets some parents up for disappointment, and it can become a rigid wall to run into when a teen begins to struggle. In my work with Christian parents and teens, it is usually harder to get the parents to change, than it is to change the behavior of the teenager. But both must go hand in hand when it comes to working through a time of struggle.
The aim is to change your attitude about how successful you’ve been in parenting, and learning to view parenting as a more fluid, more accessible, and more grace-filled position in the life of your child that evolves over time. There is no perfect parent and no perfect parenting plan. So, you shouldn’t always expect a perfect child.
The method involved in changing your attitudes and expectations is two-fold:
1. Move from seeking justice for their mistakes to giving more grace. Focus on finding more of what is right in their life, instead of always focusing on what is wrong. Pick your fights wisely and avoid nitpicking. There are important things and values you need to care about, but there are less important things that are best left to the teen’s discretion. When given discretion over those less important things – like clothing, as long as it is modest -- your teen will feel a sense of responsibility and may surprise you with how well he chooses. Or, he may admit later that his choices were really childish – but he’d probably dig in his heels and not come to such a conclusion if it was a point of contention between him and you.
2. Allow for the struggle, should it come. Struggles are opportunities for change. The struggle does not invalidate all the work you have done in the life of your child, nor is it an indictment on your parenting. Just because your teen is experiencing difficulty right now doesn’t mean God’s thumbprint is no longer on his life. Usually the struggle is for a short time, so don’t make things worse than they are, or make your child feel as though they are no longer loved or accepted. The two words I use most when encouraging a parent through such a time as this are: “Struggle well.”
The fact that you care so deeply about your teen is no guarantee that everything in their life will be all right. Other factors may affect your teen – factors that are completely out of your control. That’s why many Christian teens today go through periods of struggle. Through it all, their parents need to keep adjusting, training, listening, and caring. Teens want more and more freedom, but that freedom shouldn’t be without interaction, boundaries and guidance from their parents. Be there to coach them as you allow them a little more autonomy, so they can learn responsibility and grow in maturity through the triumphs and mistakes they’ll make along the way.
Mark Gregston is the host of Parenting Today’s Teens radio and the Founder and Executive Director of Heartlight Ministries, a residential counseling program for struggling teens which can be reached at 903-668-2173.
Mark’s Podcast: parentingtodaysteens.org
Mark’s Blog: markgregston.com
Mark’s Books and Tapes: heartlightresources.com