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Wandering Off the Path

Do you ever look across the room at your teen and wonder, Who is this kid?

When living with teens in the home, most moms and dads come to a point of confusion when they wonder how their child veered off track and became a virtual stranger.  You can’t figure out what happened to your sweet, compliant fun-loving child!  Sound familiar?

As parents, we have the responsibility and privilege to teach our children how to move from dependence to independence.  But when we allow our kids to make grown-up decisions, they might not always make the right ones.  It shouldn’t shock us when our child experiments with newfound freedoms and struggles to balance successes and failures.

Every child is faced with distractions, temptations, and choices they aren’t prepared to make.  This leads them away from the path we taught them to follow.  And when that happens, they get lost.  Our role as parents is to teach them how to find the way back home.

Families rely on one another.  They look out for one another.  And you can’t have one person in the family lost while the rest of the family is thriving.  It just doesn’t work that way.  Instead, the entire family feels the strain when one member is struggling.  In those moments, families have three options:  to ignore the situation, wait for the teen to find his way back on his own, or go after that teen like a search and rescue team.

So let’s deal with this important reality.  Teens make mistakes.  They’re going to get off the path.  In fact, when I’m driving I get lost all the time, but I have a GPS that helps me get back to the route that leads me to my destination.  Parents, you are that GPS to your kids.  You have the perspective, the sophisticated wisdom, to guide your child safely to their destination.

Unfortunately, very few kids are told how to get back on course.  Instead, parents tend to ridicule, rebuke, or micro-manage a straying teen.  But none of that is very helpful.  When a teen is lost, he or she truly does not know how to get from point A to point B.

When’s the last time you have heard a teen say:  I want to be messed up.  I want to be on the wrong path?  When teens are really lost, deep down they really want to be found.  They are looking for direction, even when body language and attitude doesn’t reflect it.

Rarely, if ever, will a child ask for help when he’s lost.  Sort of like the husband who doesn’t want to pull into the gas station for directions on the family vacation.  Pride keeps us from admitting that we’ve lost our way.

In like manner, the lost teen is afraid of being chastised or having their faults pointed out by friends and family.  They already know their faults.  What our teens need, instead, is reassurance that they can come to you for help to find their way back.

This is what makes your relationship so important.  Parents, even when you are frustrated with your child’s behavior, they need to know that you want them back.  And more than that, they need to know their failures are not a barrier to coming home and talking to you.  In fact, they want to know you will come looking for them with a spirit of compassion, not because of anger or frustration.  Families care about one another, and these are the times they need to know they can be rescued by those they love.

Wandering is not just difficult on the child.  Parents feel it, too.  It’s painful to watch your teen suffering with the consequences of his own poor choices.  When you’re waiting for your child to come home to you, or to come back to the path that is right for his life, it can feel like an eternity.  In those weeks, months, and years, it’s helpful to gather with a small group of parents who understand.  They can reinforce your convictions and share the burden that weighs heavily on your heart.

Eventually, the straying teen begins coming to his senses.  When things don’t materialize for him, the journey home begins.  It always happens in small steps.  So it’s important he sees you as a safe place.  Your family may be the only beacon of hope in his life, and it will allow you to welcome him back and support him through the long journey ahead.

When your child returns, his issues aren’t fully resolved.  The Scriptures say train up a child.  Your child needs boundaries and structure to help him succeed, so if this has been an issue before, you may want to build some new boundaries around him that will help him stay on the right path.  Help your teen understand the boundaries you are setting, as well as the consequences he will face when he chooses not to stay within those boundaries.  There’s a reason why this is a discussion instead of just a list of rules that you give to him.  The relationship of trust you’re building will be one of the key elements for success.

This weekend on the Parenting Today’s Teens radio program, family expert Jim Burns will share some of the tools you can use to help your child come back to you.  He’ll talk about the importance of listening to our kids and learning about their culture.  Jim will share what this looks like in a teen’s life and how you can help them in their journey.

Teens don’t want to be lost.  They want to be found.  Our job as parents is to help our teens know how to find their way back and to embrace them when they return.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas.  For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website.  It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent.  Go to  Or read other articles by Mark, at  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.  Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at

Mark will be coming to St. Louis, MO on March 8th and to Parker, CO on March 10th.  Go to for more information.

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.