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The Warnings and Lessons of Pain

None of us likes pain.  Yet it is one of the most important teachers and warning signs that we have. In normal circumstances, pain tells us that something is very wrong. And it teaches us to avoid harmful behavior. But rather than heeding the warning sign, teens today have means at their disposal for avoiding pain, or their parents continually bail them out, so they can fail to learn.

Pain comes from many sources.  When I get thrown from a horse, I want the aspirin bottle handy—or maybe a pain prescription.  But when a teenager is in emotional pain, often he or she will self-medicate with pot, illicit or prescription drugs, alcohol, or the rush of heightened adrenalin from risky behavior. It dulls the pain, at least for a little while.

What I’m saying is that teens don’t always resort to drugs or alcohol just to be rebellious.  They may not even do it just to fit in with their peers or because it may feel good.  Rather, they sometimes do it to cover up the hurt they feel inside. Unfortunately, dulling the pain this way starts a self-reinforcing cycle that can become addictive and destructive in its own right, leading to more and more risky behavior.

If you have a child who is hurting — perhaps from a breakup, bullying, a death or divorce, too much stress, losing a friend, or a move to a new church, school or city — I suggest you not see it as an insignificant setback for your teen.  It is significant to them, and it can trigger their need for self-medicating, or even lead to thoughts of suicide.  Don’t try to cover up the pain, as they would do, but help them work through it, so they can also learn from it.

Here are steps you can take when your child is in emotional pain.

1) Identify with them. You’ve made choices that led to pain in your own life.  It’s a good start to convey some of your own past experiences to tell them that they aren’t alone…and that there is hope for the future.

2) Face the problem squarely. Teens are great at shifting responsibility for their pain if they are allowed to.  And they’re great at hiding the real cause of their pain.  So be sure you are addressing the actual problem rather than the symptoms.

3) Rely on your relationship. It’s during these painful times that you need to be able to fall back on the relationship you have built through the investments you have made in their lives.  Keep the lines of communication open so that you can continue to speak truth into their life.

4) Create an encouraging atmosphere. Consider taking a trip to your teen’s favorite place to hang out, like a restaurant or cafe.  Sit down together away from home and talk about the pain they are feeling and where it comes from.  Be there to be a voice in the darkness.  Present helpful options, such as talking to a counselor or taking a break away from their current environment for a time.

5) Get help. Get them to see a counselor, who can work through the pain with them, and if they are self-medicating, get them into a drug or alcohol rehab to dry out before anything can be done with their emotional issues.

Pain Helps Us All Become More Responsible

There is also pain that a teenager brings on himself by making poor choices.  This kind of pain can help bring the child to better thinking and actions.  But until he makes a connection between the cause and the effect, he isn’t likely to make better choices.

Sometime parents can get in the way of the positive effect of pain.  For instance, I’ve talked to teens who never do any homework because their parents do it for them. Their parents don’t want them to suffer the consequences of failing, so they step in and rescue them.  With the best of intentions they are robbing their children of something they desperately need — to feel the pain of failure.  If the teen gets the failing grade for being irresponsible this time, they’re much more likely to be responsible the next time, especially if some of their freedoms and privileges are grounded. On the other hand, if they get away with it this time, they’ll do it again and again.

As a parent myself, I remember telling my kids when they were teenagers, “I am not an alarm clock.  It is your job to get up and get ready for school.  If you want to stay in bed and sleep all day, that’s up to you.”  However I also told them that if their grades dropped they would lose their car and cell phone privileges.  I knew they needed that anticipation of pain, because when if they fail to learn responsibility they’ll also fail in life when they leave home.  I’ve never yet had a boss help me get out of bed to get to work on time.  Life doesn’t work that way.  So, when parents help a teen put two and two together to clearly see the connection between their choices and the consequences; they’ll develop discipline as a result.

Pain Can Bring Us Back to the Lord

When a child is in pain, they naturally seek out their parents.  Watch kids on a playground.  When a little boy or girl falls and skins a knee they run straight to Mom or Dad for comfort.  And that’s what we do as teenagers and adults, but we turn to our Heavenly Father.  So, pain can lead us back to God.  Whether we’re seeking comfort from a hurt that was caused by circumstances, or someone else, or repenting over the pain from something we have done to ourselves, we can find help from the “God of all comfort.” (2 Corinthians 1:3)

Not all pain is the result of bad decisions.  Sometimes it is a byproduct of the ebb and flow of life but it can still bring us back to God. A young man in our counseling program has been having a hard time processing his brother’s death in a motorcycle accident.  As a result, he had slipped into a deep depression.  He had a hard time understanding why he lost his brother, but now he’s working his way back to the real Source of help and hope.

Pain Is a Natural Consequence of Immaturity

As in the biblical story of the Prodigal Son, teenagers will continue in their inappropriate behavior until the pain from that behavior is greater than the pleasure they get from it.  While none of us want pain in our lives, it is the one thing that makes us willing to change. It tends to turn on the switch in a teen’s head that says, “Why do I keep doing this to myself?”  The prodigal son questioned why he was eating and sleeping with the swine when his family was feasting and comfortable at home. It was that realization that brought about a change in his thinking.

Some parents recently told me their “prodigal” teenager story.  They said they had kept a tight leash on their son ever since he began acting out years before.  But nothing brought the teen to his senses more than when they let out the leash and allowed him, now a legal adult, to go out on his own.  The boy wanted to travel, and to have every “freedom” that adults enjoy, so the parents finally agreed and let him go (with their blessing, with some inheritance money from a grandparent, and with a lot of ongoing prayer).  At first, the boy reported how much fun he was having, but within 3 months he had run out of money.  The parents had made it clear before he left that they wouldn’t support his lifestyle or actions financially, so he knew not to ask, but they could hear in his voice that he was getting more and more desperate; his defiant words of independence were softening.  A few months later, after nearly freezing to death sleeping in his car, running out of gas and going without food for periods of time, the boy’s parents offered him grace and gas money to make the 1,500 mile trip home.  The boy had seen the light, and that’s what it took to change his thinking. Now he is on the right path in life.  The pain he experienced was brought on by himself, so he had no one else to blame.  The parents could have lessened his pain by sending him money, but doing so would have prevented the boy from learning the lesson he needed to learn. All they could do was to pray that God would protect their son through his prodigal experience.

Pain Can Get Your Teenager Moving in the Right Direction

Newton’s First Law of Motion says, “Objects at rest will remain at rest, unless they are acted on by an unbalanced force.”  Pain can be the force that gets us up and moving in the direction we need to be going. Once we start moving in the right direction, it is then much easier to stay moving in that direction. Bad choices that produce painful consequences aren’t likely to be repeated.  But if you bail your kids out and don’t enforce consequences, your teen will keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

While it is hard for loving parents to step back and watch their children experience pain, lessening it when it is a consequence for inappropriate behavior can prevent the child from learning, maturing and growing. But a parent would be wise to stay close to their teen — even while consequences are being enforced.  Helping your child work through their pain, whatever its cause, will ensure that your relationship remains strong.

We talked about this issue in depth on our radio program last week called “The Importance of Pain.”  To listen online look for the program dated May 14, 2011 at

Our topic on the weekend radio program this week is “Helping Independence Happen” – Every parent wants to see their child grow up to be a confident adult. But how do we transition out of protection-parenting in order to make room for our kids’ independence?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit, or to read other articles by Mark, visit

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.