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Gaining Understanding & Wisdom (Part 2)

by Mark Gregston

Embracing the truth isn’t easy, and matter of fact, it can be downright hard. But when you admit and accept what is happening within your family, you take a major step toward your family’s healing. There’s an American psychologist and philosopher William James, he said this, acceptance of what happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune. Let me say that again, acceptance of what happened is the first step to overcoming the consequence of any misfortune. Here are some families that came to their realizations in a lot of different ways.  

John and Virginia always strived for good things for their two daughters. They lived for their kids and dedicated themselves to be involved in all of their daughter’s activities. You could always find them in church, giving their kids everything, laughter filled the house, holidays were great, vacations were wonderful, pictures throughout the house reflected the depth of the relationships, and everyone in Phoenix knew them as a perfect family. Then I remember John calling me one night and his first words quivered as they came out of his mouth. He said, Mark, it’s worse than I thought. Patty, their 17-year-old daughter came home high from smoking pot. In her stupor, she shared how she’d been doing this for a couple of years, and she stated that they could do nothing about it. I listened as John shared what was clearly a double dose of bad news. The first dose was the initial shock that his daughter even knew what pot was and she was smoking. The second was that she’d been smoking it for a long time. This loving dad’s words to me were filled with hopelessness and my eyes were filled with tears. You know, John’s difficult realization came as a shock. It came to him as a shock, and it broke his heart.  

There was another family, Pete and Jennifer, they called and asked if they could meet with me. I had met with them off and on during the past year, they kept me informed about their son named Kyle, a great guy. Within the past week, they realized their son was doing a lot of drugs in his room. Then he got in a fight with his mother in the car and called her every name in the book. He threatened to leave home and wanted to drop out of school. For months I’d listen to these well-meaning parents describe the ongoing saga with their son, but they never followed any advice directly. When they finally asked what I thought, I decided it was time to give them a wakeup call.  

We’d spent quite a bit of time together and now was the time to bring some light to a dark subject and I’d won the right to be heard. This time it appeared that they were listening. I shared that I’d seen their son deteriorate during the past 10 months. At first, he was struggling through some normal teen issues, but now he was brash enough to use other drugs, and in his parents’ home. He showed signs of depression. He had wrecked two cars, he got arrested three times, lost two jobs, and now he was flunking school. He took his troubles out on his family, yelling and screaming at everybody. He turned into a vulgar and hateful young man.  

I told these parents, if they don’t wake up and do something quickly, their son would be dead probably very soon. As difficult as it was to hear Pete and Jennifer brake down, crying as their eyes were opened by someone who was able to give them perspective, they didn’t want to see the truth because it would reveal they failed somewhere. It meant they didn’t have a perfect family, a perfect child. So, where John and Virginia’s realization about their daughter came as a shock, Pete and Jennifer’s realization came as enlightenment.  

Then there’s Steve and Tanya, they adopted a little girl and a younger boy with high hopes for both. However, with their adopted son, Adam, things were less than ideal. Adam began to act out and instead of experiencing consequences for the inappropriate behavior that he displayed to everybody, he received accolades and applause for anything good. Steve and Tanya didn’t confront Adam’s unacceptable behavior. They believed in empowering him through his struggles and encouraging him to do better. Meanwhile, Adam’s occasional visits to the principal’s office, were upgraded to visits by the local police. Stephen and Tonya really believed that their son was not capable of doing anything bad. This mentality allowed Adam to continue to violate just about every rule and boundary they had set up in their home. 

As Adam’s parents believed the fantasy that their son could do no wrong, Adam plummeted in every area of his life. By minimizing the problems, they were actually allowing them to grow. I remember Steve saying to me, I can run a company of 10,000 people around the world, but I can’t figure out how to help my only son who lives in my own home. Adam paid the price for their blindness and they eventually had to wake up to their responsibility for what they would not see. So rather than a shock or enlightenment, Steven and Tanya experienced an awakening.  

Whether it’s shock and enlightenment, awakening, validation, exposure, acceptance, or agreement, all are different ways of discovering some of the same related truths. It’s the truths about damaging behavior that your child is experiencing or engaging in. Regardless of how parents come to this realization that their teen is struggling; the truth is never easy to accept. As soon as most parents accept their plight, they want to understand what’s happening and the desire to find the answers in a solution to their predicament is paramount. I’ve told people this a thousand times, now that you know the truth, you’re in no worse place than you were before you knew itYou just know now.  

Bad news is never fun to hear, but it gives you the opportunity to do something about it. I believe that it changes your perspective and perspective is such an important principle. Let me illustrate this… let’s say that a man stumbles into a room where I’m giving a talk and his speech is slurred and he awkwardly moves toward me. He falls down before me throws up all over my boots. With garbled words, he struggled to tell me how sorry he is, and he then passes out and falls at my feet. Most people in that room, their first response would be to think that he’s drunk and someone ought to keep bums like him out of the room. Most onlookers would get angry. Others might feel embarrassed, and some might get mad enough to want to drag this drunk out back and teach him a lesson. But then I’m going to tell you one small detail that might change your perspective in your response. This man isn’t drunk. He’s experiencing a brain aneurism. The symptoms of both states are the same and it’s an aneurysm, not booze causing the behavior. It changes everything. Then that understanding moves you in ways that you would not move otherwise, because we now understand what’s happening.  

A woman is brought into an emergency room yelling and screaming, cussing like a sailor and throwing objects. Does it matter? Are we going to correct her? Do we refuse her? Maybe she just broke her back in a car accident and whatever behavior she displays is born out of pain, not rational thought. These situations are similar to a teen struggle. Their behavior is not right, but the behavior is not the issue. It’s a symptom of something that’s greater. When you understand that the behavior is a reflection of something deeper, you’ll change the way you respond and offer yourself to them in a different way

You see, understanding and wisdom help you see with the eyes of your heart to look beyond the surface in order to discover that which is hidden or unseen. Our first response to the realization that your child is messing up is usually anger and anger is an emotional reaction to hurt and confusion. It’s a response to what is triggered in us by someone else’s actions. But once you realize it’s not about you, but about your child, you allow a new understanding to capture these negative emotions. When your anger dissipates, you can love and respond with your heart, a new understanding of your child. It brings a new sense of appreciation.  

Okay, Now let me get back to my son. How did I handle my son during the struggle? Not well. No one really has any idea how to respond to a tragedy with their child. The responses tend to be more of a knee jerk reaction and spontaneous than thought out. This is what I told my son when he first told me about his affair and his desire to divorce the young lady that we love. Are you ready for this? This is what I said. Okay. I looked at him and said, Adam, when you can call your father-in-law and share with him how you screwed up his daughter’s life and what you’re going to do to fix it, then I’ll talk to you. That is the reality. What I said to my son all his life was, there’s nothing you can do to make me love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make me love you less. And now my words came back to bite me.  

I’ve said those lines a hundred times, I’ve used them in seminars and conferences. I’ve advised other parents to make sure that their kids know the truth. Now I joke about it when I speak sometimes, because the truth of the matter is I did love Adam a lot less. And during my sleepless nights, I sat thinking about the conflict I was experiencing between what I wanted from Adam and how I really felt. When I told Adam I would talk to him after he did what I knew was the right thing. I thought it would surely motivate him to change his way, stop his foolishness and get his life back in line… but it didn’t truth be told. All I accomplished was to abandon my son at the time that he needed me the most.  

When he got lost, I didn’t go after him. I thought drawing the line was great wisdom, but quite honestly, it was pure foolishness. I shamed Adam only to discover that shame pushes people deeper into their shameful behaviors. I thought I was doing a wise thing. I told my friends not to house him in hopes that living in a rotten hotel would help him see his ways and turn things around. I talked with his friends and we shared how we would pursue Adam and help him get the right perspective. And those friends even met and told him that he was going to burn in hell if he got a divorce. I talked to people and from most of the council I received, they thought I did the right thing. Friends and pastors, and many others didn’t really offer any wisdom, they offered what sounded good, but it wasn’t wisdom, not for your life. 

Then finally I shared with a dear friend, a guy named Paul Overstreet, who writes songs about love and difficulty in hardships who had experienced a divorce himself. I tell him what Jan and I were going through with our son. I shared with him what I told Adam and I kind of expected that he’d give me a high five for holding my son accountable, but I didn’t get one. Paul looked at me and said, well, why did you tell him that? At the time that he needed you the most you threw him under the busIs that what God would have said to you?  

You know, I thought about the adulterous woman. What did Jesus do? He didn’t demand shame or hurt her. From that moment on everything changed in me. I saw my son differently. I started to pursue him. I began the process of healing rather than creating more alienation and disgrace. 

If you knew how to fix everything, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. I have to go a step further and tell you that in order to get out of the situation, you’re going to have to rely on more than your best efforts and your thoughts and your plans and your strengths. What sounds good and feels right, is not always what’s best for the new situation that you find yourself in. 

Proverbs 12:15 says “The way of the fool is right in his own eyes”. My paraphrase of that would be… just because I think it’s right, doesn’t mean that it is. If it’s not, there must be another way found through the wisdom of God and others. Proverbs 19:20 says, listen to the counsel and receive instruction so that you may be wise in your latter days. Many ask how I’ve been able to accomplish what I have in the development of Heartlight and Parenting Today’s Teens and radio programs and books and seminars and more. The answer is easy. I’ve surround myself with men and women who are wise and who’ve given me various perspectives in many varied situations, but here’s the clincher. I trust them when I think that they’re right. That’s the easy part, but I also trust them when I think that they’re wrong and that’s the harder part. But because I surround myself with wise folks, I don’t have to rely on my own foolishness. 

Here’s my encouragement to you. Seek counsel from wise people, seek advice from those who gained their wisdom through observation, reflection and experience. Wisdom and understanding coupled together, usher in a new sense of hope and assurance that you will get to the end of this current trial. I guarantee when you apply the wisdom of God and others to the traumas you’ve experienced with your teen, instead of just your own knee jerk reactions from your own pain and shame, you will sleep far better at night. Your relationship will start on a path of healing rather than remain mired in the hurt that you now feel.  

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.