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Allowing Teens to Break Out of the Box

teen-in-a-boxTeens develop in maturity by doing, seeing, and experiencing. They crave freedom and they want to show the adults in their life that they are capable of making their own decisions. They want to break out of the box and have some control over what they do, where they go, and how they look.

But some parents prevent their teens from making mistakes at all costs (especially the same kind of mistakes they made when they were a teenager), so they apply more and more controls. This excessive sheltering can lead teens to a life of sneakiness (doing what they want to do behind the parent’s back), frustration, anger and eventually rebellion.

I can hear parents everywhere asking, “Isn’t this the time in their life when we need to rein them in? This culture is horrible!” I agree. In fact, it is precisely because the culture is so difficult that it is important for Christian parents to prepare their teen by helping them develop discernment. An overprotective parent accomplishes just the opposite, and the bud of discernment never develops into full-bloom.  

I’m not recommending suddenly becoming an overly permissive parent. You can never just cast your concerns about your teen to the wind, nor let them make foolish decisions again and again. Instead, I am talking about looking for ways to help your teen develop discernment through expanding their freedom and through learning responsibility.

The best way to offer freedom is to couple it with responsibility. For instance, a sense of freedom can come from having a responsible job. To have some hours away from home, to make some money, and to think on their own will give them more freedom while still being responsible to a boss. On the other hand, an unwise freedom is to allow your teen more time to simply hang out with his buddies at all hours, aimlessly thinking up the trouble they can get into. 

From my years of training horses I have learned to let the rope out a little at a time. I loosen the reins as the horse and I develop more trust in one another. There is a big difference between letting out the rope a little, and letting the horse out of the corral. Likewise, when I talk about giving your teen more freedom, you still need to maintain the “fences” or boundaries, but gradually loosen the reins so your teen has more freedom to operate within those boundaries.

I admit, it takes a leap of faith to get both you and your teen to the next level. However, finding a way to give your teen more freedom allows them to develop in maturity, before they become an adult and leave home altogether.  A wise parent will see a teen’s need for more freedom and find a way to give it them before they ever ask for or demand it, and even if they are still reticent to experience it.  So, look ahead, and develop a test of their mettle that is age-appropriate. Explain the boundaries, rules, and consequences in advance, and then let them go.  

Will they fail? Of course they will! They’ll make mistakes, and when they do, your job is to apply consequences, so they learn from those mistakes. Expect failure, and plan for how to address it.

  • Don’t shame them when they fail. We all fail.
  • Don’t purposely put them in situations where you know they’ll fail.
  • Don’t let your fears keep you from allowing your teen to try appropriate things.
  • Don’t fix the messes they make or lessen the consequences.
  • Don’t resort to, “I told you so,” or, “I should never have trusted you,” statements.

I love Chuck Swindoll’s definition of failure. He said, “Failure is the backdoor to success.” No parent wants their child to fail on purpose, but there are times when failure really helps a teen learn to be more discerning. As for me, I have been more blessed and learned more from the failures of my life than from the successes.

On the other hand, when a teen doesn’t fail, reward them! Give them some positive feedback and reasons to continue making right choices. Thank them for thinking it through and coming to the right conclusion. Use their good decisions as an opportunity to give them more freedoms and therefore, more opportunities to make right choices.

You’ll provide your teen with the strength and discernment they need later in life by spending less time sheltering and hovering, and more time helping them learn important lessons on their own. Appropriate freedom along with responsibility can be the catalyst to develop discernment and maturity in your teen.

Ultimately, you’ll have to put your teen in God’s hands.  He loves and wants to protect your teen as much as you do. So pray, trust God to direct your child’s path, and believe that He will make all things work toward His higher good. Pray for your teen’s protection, for the right people to come into his life and for the lessons he’ll learn as he begins to experience more freedom.

microphoneLEARN MORE ABOUT IT ON THIS WEEK’S RADIO PROGRAM!  Parenting teens is risky business. Moms and dads need to transition from having complete control to letting the rope out for their teen. Special Guest: Terence Rolston.  LISTEN ONLINE NOW >>

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, national radio host, and the founder of Heartlight, a residential counseling opportunity for struggling adolescents, which houses 50 high schoolers. Learn more at or call 903-668-2173.


Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.