by Mark Gregston
I’ve been working with families and teens since I was nineteen years old. What I’ve learned over these forty plus years is that what you do in your child’s adolescent years will make all the difference in the world concerning what your family will look like when your teen leaves home, gets married, and has a family of their own.
I often say, undesirable behaviors are simply the visible expression of an invisible issue that comes out in your home. So, when you look at the heart of your child, can you see where the behavior is coming from? Do you see any areas of improvement? And more importantly, do you know about the three areas of emphasis that create a healthy, loving, and stable atmosphere that will allow your teen to thrive?
If you’re longing to make a deeper connection with your child, keep reading to learn about the three most important things you can do and learn in the teen years.
#1: Cultivate a Relationship
It’s important that you give teens a taste of something good that they will long for during the rest of their lives. That good thing is a healthy relationship. God created us to be in relationships, and they allow us to feel valued, understand who we are, and help to give us a positive self-image. In order to maintain a relationship with your teen—no matter their choices, you’re going to need to love them the way that God loves us—unconditionally. You’ll also need to affirm their existence at the worst of times, and let them know they are loved, even when they seem unlovable.
At Heartlight, we teach parents to look for ways they can change up their relationship, and we teach them how to love their child, in spite of their behaviors. One way to change things up is to look at the flaws in your own behaviors before trying to point out the flaws in your child’s. Open up the dialogue between you and your teen, and allow your teen to speak into the relationship. Ask your teen how they’d like to see things evolve and flourish, and listen to what they have to say!
#2: Maintain a Proper Home Environment
Have you thought about the type of environment you want to create for your family? Have you defined what your home will be about—not just what it won’t be? Teenagers aren’t going to obey your rules just because you’ve told them they have to. The teen years can be a time of trial and testing so, you’ll need to map out your expectations, determine the boundaries, and set rules that encourage positive behavior and provide rewards. Be prepared to be flexible knowing that one child is not the same as another. It’s also the time to keep focused on what really matters.
If your home isn’t running the way you would like it to run, or if your child is depressed or self-medicating, step back and consider your role. Are your expectations too high? Are you an absentee parent?
It’s never too late to turn the ship around. But whatever course of action you take, examine your part first. After that, make sure your child understands that the rules and consequences are in place because you love them and you want to help them get to where they want to go.
Encourage positive behaviors and don’t reinforce negative ones. Keep your list of expectations to a manageable few. Often times it seems as if moms have about 150 rules to comply with, while dads usually hover around one or two. There’s no right or wrong number for house rules. But, remember, when you’re enforcing rules, you’re not thinking about cultivating relationships—you’re focused solely on the behavior. So, find a balance that works for your family and stick to it. In my experience, teens can only handle or remember about ten rules at a time.
#3: Deal with Any and All Trust Issues
As Gabby, one of our Heartlight residents explained, parents need to realize that whatever stressful situation is happening in the family—it’s happening to everyone—not just the parent.
That’s a good reminder for all of us. If you want to develop and maintain a great relationship with your teen, you really have to keep the lines of communication open while you deal with the more complex crud. And ignoring the issues is not fair to anyone—especially your child’s future spouse and children.
Whatever is happening in your home, you need to address it now. And that doesn’t mean trying to correct the behavior with more rules, nor does it mean just being your teen’s friend. You have to face the deeper issues head-on, and get to the heart of the matter. If that’s something you’re not prepared to do on your own, don’t be afraid to call in the reinforcements. There are some arenas in which your child may need help—and that help may need to come from someone besides you. There’s nothing wrong with seeking counseling or professional help if you think there’s a chance you’re swimming in water that’s over your head. You never know how many lives you might be saving.
Mom, Dad … Your involvement in the life of your teen is paramount to the healthiness of your family. And I’m convinced that how you are involved will determine the depth of the relationship you have with your child in their adult years. So, make sure that you’re working hard to maintain the relationship you have with your teen today. And the crucial piece of that challenge is to create a relational atmosphere that is structured by the rules and boundaries that guarantee a path that will lead your teen to success. And don’t be afraid to deal with the tough issues in the life of your child. Resolve what needs to be solved, so that problems aren’t carried into adulthood and into the lives of the next generation.