We parents do a ton of stuff for our kids, but what if they still don't feel valued? Should we do even more, or less? Are we doing the right things, or all the wrong things? How can we best instill value in our teenagers? And why is that so important?
Think of it this way; there are four things you can offer your teenager to make them feel valued: your unconditional love, your experience, your time, and your wisdom. Each of these builds value. Being valued makes a teenager feel like they belong; they are accepted and they are therefore at peace with the world. Being valued builds their self-esteem and helps them have the confidence to say "No" to their peers. Being valued helps a teenager want to maintain their own sense of value and not accept anything less.
When I talk about ways to instill value, you'll notice that I'll never mention using "your money" or "your faith" to instill value. Material and spiritual things are needed and certainly valuable, but they don't build the kind of value that only a parent's attention and love can offer. They are, in fact, often used as crutches by parents not interested in instilling real value in their children. Nearly every teen that has come through ourHeartlight counseling program has either been given an abundance of material goods or spiritual guidance in their lifetime, or both, but for some reason they didn't feel valued by both of their birth parents, so they crashed in the teen years.
As children grow in independence, so does their desire to be valued as independent individuals. This desire may become so intense, they may violate their own values and destroy everything in their life in order to find it. They may even do unbelievably stupid or dangerous things to gain acceptance from their peers. If they feel neglected by their parents, or if they still have open emotional wounds from being abandoned or abused as a child, they will often seek to have their value validated outside of the family.
The point is this…does your teenage child feel valued? If not, and if they lack true identity and significance as independent individuals in your family, you may lose them to the wrong crowd.
The Roles We Play
Parents tend to play different roles in helping their children find value. Moms instill a sense of value, and dads validate it. But dads can sometimes be lax in regard to discipline and hurt the mother's ability to instill value. Things get all out of whack, because mom then needs to become the sole disciplinarian and enforcer — the bad guy — while dad becomes the good guy. It can hurt the mother's relationships and her ability to instill value. And if dad is missing altogether, problems will usually follow.
All children need their father's blessing. When dad's stamp of approval is not there, the child will look for validation somewhere else. This is especially true of teenage girls. They need their dad to meet that need for validation - something only he can really fulfill. And with 12- to 14-year-old girls, this need is greater than ever. But sadly, many dads get too busy or otherwise emotionally move away from their daughters at this time in their life. I've seen many times where a dad thinks that he's involved in the life of his daughter, but she feels something completely different.
Scripture tells us that God is like the mighty warrior, but He's also the tender loving mother who plays with her child. Is God a man or a woman? Well, He has characteristics of both. He created us in His image and He created us male and female, so He encompasses both characteristics as He both instills and validates our value. But Christian parents can sometimes undermine the value God tries to instill in us by confusing it with constant messages of guilt and shame. A teen can begin feeling as though there is no way to please their parents (or God). But that's not true Christianity. Jesus said, "Come to Me, you are weary and heavy laden." He set the standard of offering forgiveness and grace while also holding up the standard of proper living.
If you've been focusing too much on discipline, day in and day out, I have an idea for you to try. Focus on discipline just three days a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On the other days work hard to make your teen feel valued. Those are the days you tell your teen to "Come onto me." Those are the days you offer grace and build them up. Don't tell them you are doing this, or it will short circuit the whole idea, but this exercise can help to change your focus and that could be enough to make your teen feel more valued. And when they feel more valued, they'll do less to exasperate you.
It reminds me of the speed traps police often put up. Some days they are out in full force and they really hammer the speeders with tickets. Then, other days it seems like you can't find a police officer if your life depended on it. Though they are only seen in force periodically, it keeps the speeders in check throughout the week without it feeling like a police state. If your teen feels like your home is becoming a police state most of the time, perhaps it is time to back off some days and give them some breathing room. Focusing on the rules just a few days a week will keep them in check the rest of the week. And putting your attention on valuing them on the "off" days will ensure your teen feels valued even when they are making mistakes, so they'll work harder to not make the same mistakes in the future.
Ways to Make Your Teen Feel Valued
1. Make sure there is structure and rules. Structure says, "You are the one I am concerned about…and I value you enough to work with you and love you through the times you step out of line." Discipline is all about them, and even though no teen outwardly likes it, it says you value them enough to help them. When kids come to Heartlight and meet me, they really don't like me at first. But eventually they come around to respect me because I don't mince words or give them wiggle room on the rules, but I also strive to develop a relationship with them and avoid making them feel like heels when they do make a mistake. They understand that my goal is to help them, not badger or demean them. As a result, I can't tell you how many calls I receive from kids who have graduated our program, and the college graduations, weddings and funerals I've attended or lead because these kids wanted me to remain in their life, even years later.
2. Ask questions and collaborate with them. When parents convey that what their teen has to say is important, it also conveys value. We parents share our opinions far too often in the teen years, because we don't want our teens to make the same mistakes we did, but we need to back off and offer our wisdom only when they ask. And though we may be shocked or not like what they are saying, we need to listen to what they have to say anyway. They're probably just thinking out loud, and doing so in their immature way. They may just be echoing what their friends said — not really buying into it themselves. But if you react too harshly, it can sometimes cement that idea in their mind and cause them to go that direction. So, be sure to talk with your teen and do so mostly with your eyes and ears, not your mouth.
3. Give grace. Grace is an act of kindness. It is offering them something that's undeserved. It affirms them with a message that says, "I love you when you are doing well, but I will also love you when you aren't." I recommend that all parents memorize this key statement: "There is nothing you can do to make me love you more. And there is nothing you can do to make me love you any less." Share it with your child on a regular basis. Post it on your refrigerator door, attach it to the bathroom mirror, write it in soap on the windshield of their car. You cannot deliver this message to your teen too often. And, they need to hear it every day.
4. Give of your time. If you are giving part of your valuable time to your teen, they'll feel important and valued. In my counseling, the most often mentioned desire of teen girls is, "I want more time with my dad." They want time together, even if they don't act like they do. Whether you are a mom or a dad, take your teen to lunch, grab a snack after school, attend all games or school events, find things you can do together, and communicate with them online. Send daily text messages to say "Hi" or, "I love you." Make sure your teen knows your desire to continue to be involved in his or her life. Do it, or they'll seek validation from someone else, and that can lead to bigger problems than you ever want to have with your teen.
Even teenagers who are feeling totally valued by their parents will seek acceptance and value from their peers as well. If like chameleons, they begin looking more and more like their peers, this is why. But if Mom and Dad bristle against their teen's change in dress or looks — something teens do to gain acceptance by their peers - they will lose out, because the teen will gravitate toward their peers instead. In fact, teens tend to be fiercely loyal to their friends — even ones they barely know — if they are receiving a sense of value from them or from being a part of that group. It's kind of like the poles of a magnet. Once a parent turns on a teen in regard to their looks or their friends, the teen feels like they are being attacked and devalued personally, so the poles reverse and the teen is pushed away, toward their friends.
Now, I'm not talking about accepting immodest dress or inappropriate talk or activities; and a parent shouldn't feel obligated to keep their teen in the latest fashions. There are ethical and financial boundaries that need to be established. But every teen needs to feel like they can fit in with their peers and their culture, so parents would be wise to allow their teen to work for and spend their own money in regard to how they look and dress.
Here is the bottom line…it's important for your teen to know that they needn't look or act a specific way, or perform at a certain level in order to maintain your love. Your relationship with them won't stop if they mess up, and your love will survive the tough times. Having a relationship that offers significance and value means remaining involved in their daily life and accepting their growing need for independence.
For all of us, value and security comes from knowing we are valued by God and our family. Your teen needs to sense that they "belong" and are valued regardless of what they do. Giving a sense of value is the most valuable gift you'll ever give your children…and it's free! So give it away, freely.
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, national radio host, and the founder of the Heartlight therapeutic boarding school, a residential counseling opportunity for struggling adolescents, which houses 50 teenagers. Learn more at http://www.heartlightministries.org or call 903-668-2173.