The Pointers: by Pastor Troy DeFeo
January 7th, 2019
There is little in life that creates more anxiety within the family unit than having a teenager who seems out of control. Experiencing emotional outbursts, being lied to, being left out of their life, worrying about all the decisions they make from day to day, or staying up all night worrying about their safety can greatly deplete your cup. As a “testy” teen myself, I can tell you first hand I was one of those kids that brought unwanted stress on my parents. Often times they did not know half of the messes I was creating for myself because I was either lying to them, or I was just trying to find myself in such a big world and they were not invited. As a pastor with two teenagers, I can tell you first hand I am experiencing my own insecurities with my wife on how to handle each situation that occurs; and to be honest, it is not easy. One girl. One boy. Both teenagers less than a year apart. We knew these days would come and I was praying after being a youth pastor for 22 years, I would have many tools in my belt to handle anything that came my way. I will tell you, using a hammer on my daughter when I needed a measuring tape, well, you could imagine how well that went. Sometimes it is hard to know what tools to use and often you look down and realize, “Oh my, I don’t have that tool at all to fix that problem!”
I have told hundreds of families throughout my ministry as a children’s director, youth pastor, family pastor, and as the senior pastor… “watch out for the 7th and 10th-grade years.” In most cases, they are doozies for most teenagers. Why those two ages or grades? It would take another five pages to write my opinions about this. In short though, two things. Hormones and Independence. Often times you have the bodies of adults raging with every hormone to mankind, but you still have the immaturity as a teen. Tenth graders have the ability to drive, work, have sex, and make informed decisions about who they are at this age. The problem is, their maturity as an adult is still not caught up to their bodies. Most brains are not even fully developed until 28 years old. That should put things in perspective.
Parents have come to me over the years, hundreds, asking for help and guidance. I will listen and I will inform them with a hopeful heart, “it will get better.” We just have to have the correct tools in place, a solid relationship early in life, and hopefully a Holy God knocking on the door constantly in that kid's life. Never underestimate the power of prayer ever. EVER!
Dealing with Prodigal Kids
You may have tried different approaches to help them---not that they are looking to be helped in many cases---- but they are just sorting out that weird in-between stage of adolescence and adulthood. In most cases, teenagers who are rebelling will often “come back home” to their senses as they mature, find love, and go to college or get a new job with all the responsibilities an adult has. (When they realize bosses are expecting them to perform or professors are asking hard questions, well, that sure helps your case.) Often though, being tough one day and showing mercy the next---well, nothing really seems to make a difference. Watching your child continue to make poor choices can leave you torn between wanting them to just learn the hard way, or loving them enough to beat the tar out of them until they come to their senses. I have seen this time after time placing kids in homes, treatment centers, calling the police, or serve as a friendly bystander while parents spanked their child for the first time in a long while. (Yes, I have had to do this. Some parents said, “be there so I don’t kill them today”...obviously joking.) What steps can you take NOW to best help your prodigal teen? Or to keep them from becoming prodigal?
Step One: Assess your Relationship
As a teen expert, Josh McDowell has said, “Rules without relationship lead to rebellion.” Considering your teen’s emotions and behaviors that are being affected by a surge of changing hormones and independence. It is vital----for you to maintain a strong relationship as much as possible in the midst of whatever they may be going through. “Whether they want it or not, being available and showing them you are interested in what they are interested in” is the key to bridging this relationship. Don’t show that you care by listening or getting involved in what they are interested in, there will be a crack in that bridge that will need repairing immediately. Often cracks get worse if they are not engineered and built correctly. Too much work or being distant at home with your teens while you are both there is the leading cause of “cracks in the bridge.”
If you have a solid relational foundation, you can build from there. It starts when they are babies and goes all the way through their senior year. You want to cry when they leave the doors for college because you are so close, not because you never spent any time with them before college. Make a decision NOW that no amount of money, job, or your personal hobbies gets in the way of you building a strong relationship with your child. They need you!
Like the story of the “Prodigal Son”, (Luke 15:11-32), having the roots in the relationship of your unconditional love and forgiveness will ultimately draw your teen back. Obviously with a lot of prayer. If they know they have a safety net or a home to come back to, chances are they will come back. Why? Because God has a way of “drawing all men/women to himself.” I believe this story was demonstrated in the gospel because of two reasons. 1) Our rebellion to God and He loves and forgives us as a Heavenly Father. 2) Because even 2000-year-old families still suffered from rebellious children. I can to you straight up, I would be standing on the driveway waiting for my kids return every day. Again, do not underestimate your prayer life. You may worry sick...but God is sick of our worrying. “Cast all of your anxiety on Him, for He cares for you.” Amen?
Step Two: Only You can Answer This
*Is our relationship generally healthy or toxic when you talk? Are there just a few bumps in the road, or is it like running into a train every time you see each other?
*Am I spending time with my teen doing things he /she likes to do? Or to do together? Am I seeking out past memories like camping, playing games, going on vacations, or having talks around the table? When was the last time we did something together as a family or just talk?
*Does my child know without a shadow of a doubt I love him/her? How often do I say it? How often do I show it with my actions?
I will tell you, my living room and dinner table has become the “war room” and the “healing room” of our family talks. I set everyone down and open it up in a calm, but firm manner. I have an agenda of where I want to take the conversation and I have a goal in mind for everyone to win, feel loved and be respected. If that fails….everyone fails. (Same for marriage. If you try to win an argument, guess what? You lose. Your spouse will resent you still and it is not over.)
Again, remember the teen's hormones and independence are fighting each other and against you. Trust has to be established on all sides. Communication has to be displayed by all involved. Most importantly, everyone, and I mean everyone, has value no matter what age. (My kids when they were 10 years old got to help have a say If I became the pastor of my church or not. They were not the deciding factor, but they sure were a big part of my decision.)
If the relationship with your child is weak, then maybe it is time to sit down and explain why and how you wish to change that with their input. Even under bad circumstances, it’s not too late to change. You can earn each other's respect and trust by openly discussing everything that is bothering each other. It happens to every family in some respect, but some are worse than others due to the amount of time or damage one may have caused. Making yourself available, listen, and trying to have empathy with that person, is key to building a great relationship with your teen.
Dr. James Dobson stresses the value of routine family connections as a way to cultivate relationships. He cites in his research the positives differences parents make when they are available for their teens in the morning, after school during dinner, and at bedtime. If your current routine is making these connections difficult, it is most definitely time for a change. More importantly, what you are passing on to your children now will be very likely what they will pass on to their own family. Is that what you would want? Remember the song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” written in 1974 by Henry Chapin? It was the #1 song in 1974. This song has become a powerful reminder of how important it is to spend time with your child no matter what they are going through...even when times are great. You get one chance of life...leave a legacy of greatness!
Step Three: Be The Parent
With a degree in Family Studies Counseling, one thing that my studies and experience over the years in ministry has shown me is this: Parents need to start being parents and not equals. In many cases that I have witnessed, from the early childhood years, the parents have stopped being parents and giving sound discipline and structure. I see it in the education field as well. From past generations since the 1990s, it seems that parents are too afraid to step out and say “no” to their child or teens. Why? Because they do not want their child to be mad at them. Or they are scared they will not be good parents. This is killing our world---to the fact it is toxic and cancerous to the next generations. Stop worrying about being liked--- worry more about being respected! If you do not know how to seek guidance from parents who you do respect. Read good books. Talk with a counselor. Although, the greatest tool you got and need is a voice--- use it. It is better for your child to have a “little-healthy fear” of you than to have a “little-toxic” walk all over you. This will poison the relationship. Blow up part of the bridge, and have you singing, “Cat’s in the Cradle” each night alone in your bed twenty years down the road. I am telling you, I see it every day.
Showing that kind of authority and boundaries can be difficult for some, but it is an essential role of parenting. It can also be a challenge to direct your teen in a way that that doesn’t exasperate him or her (Ephes. 6:4) when you feel disrespected. As an adult, we are going to make decisions that have direct hurts to our children. With that, they may say or do something that cuts us to the core in response to our decisions. “Tough love they call it.” “Tougher kick-back” we may get. There is no easy response to that, unfortunately. Sin is crouching at the door with everyone, yet forgiveness should be knocking on the door as well. You are called as the parents to lovingly direct your teen through the challenges leading to adulthood. Ephes. 4:15 directs us to “speak the truth in love,” Ask God to show you when it is important to be tough, bold, and direct...as well as being gentle, compassionate, and contrite. Keep praying each night with your child. Build a routine that is positive and fun...at any age. Don’t forget, bring cookies to your family meeting. Who doesn’t like cookies?