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What Do You Expect?

Do you ever wonder if you expect too much from your teen? Acting like you know what will help them, instead of truly learning how to best help them is like trying to become someone’s friend when it’s clear they have no interest. In that scenario, your cheerful invitations to get together with your friend are puzzling, because they refuse. Your phone calls to check-in or catch up with them are met with a cold shoulder. And any suggestions you make for having fun together are dismissed. You keep trying, and they keep refusing. In truth, they don’t want to be friends with you, for whatever reason.

The same can be true in your relationship with your troubled teen. You may be trying to connect with them in ways that simply make things worse, because you don’t know what you don’t know, and refuse to acknowledge that things in your relationship have changed.

Your denial about the truth of their problems is a big problem. Your unrealized expectations may be exactly what’s killing the relationship, or any possibility for one. In dealing with a troubled teen, parents do well to adjust their expectations in the face of their disappointments – not to support their wrong-doing, but to move forward in building the kind of relationship that will endure the troubled times.

Reframing your expectations for your teen should begin with you – ask yourself what you should and should not be handling on behalf of your troubled teen. For example, do you set yourself up for disappointment when trying to remind your child of an important work or school appointment, even though she has run away from home, been missing for two days, and you have to communicate the information by text because she won’t speak to you?


Does it bother you and make you more upset each time your child does not live up to your expectations in the areas of academics? So instead of letting him fail, you set the clock, wake him up, put his school bag into his hand, and drive him to school even though he’s skipped the last week of school and is failing in most of his classes?


Has your child lost your respect because she has an obvious problem with sexual purity, while your goal for her was to marry as a virgin and be monogamous, and in your way of thinking there is no way to regain a lost innocence? The truth affects your relationship so much, you act like nothing happened?

If this sounds like you, then it might be time to back off, and reconsider your expectations – for your child and for you.

When you expect someone to do something, and then that person doesn’t do it – it makes you disappointed, and even angry.

And when your child refuses to acknowledge their part in the failure, a parent’s anger can turn to bitterness. I’ve seen desperate parents set themselves up for repeated disappointments simply because they refuse to acknowledge the truth of a situation, and adjust their expectations accordingly.

The best help I can offer is to say that it’s really about acknowledging who is in control. Your teen is using his behavior to tell you – you are not in control anymore. And perhaps you are beginning to understand that this is true. Fortunately, God is in full control, and sees it all. So instead of fighting that losing battle, begin to decide what you can and cannot control in your relationship with your teen.

For example, you can’t force a child to believe what you believe, you can train them as best you can –but ultimately their choices are up to them. Just like God didn’t force Adam and Eve to choose differently, you cannot force your child to meet up with your expectations when they so clearly have no intention of doing so.

And at their point of failure, it is not your job to make things right for them. It is your job to adjust your expectations to meet with the real world consequences for how they choose to behave – and leave the decision to pursue a better path to them.

I’m not saying lower your standards. I am saying be more functional in your approach to your relationship to your teen. Don’t rescue them in their bad behavior; Don’t force their choices, or normalize their wrong-doing; Don’t tolerate manipulation, and above all – don’t act like you can rise above it on their behalf. You cannot.

All you can do is set the arena for which it becomes inviting for them to engage in the right ways. If you find yourself unable to stop rescuing, reminding, and reinventing the story to match up with your preferred version of history – then you have to ask yourself what it is about your own life that is affected by their refusal to comply? What is your motivation for having a certain expectation to begin with, and what is your motivation for refusing to acknowledge the truth of the problem you are dealing with?

As you look into your own heart, you may discover that being wrong about how you have parented, or missed something in your child’s heart is hard to embrace. Or, that being incorrect in your approach to their struggles is humbling, and admitting that you don’t know everything about your child takes supernatural strength. Rescuing when you should be holding to a higher standard of love causes you fear instead of telling the truth.

Whatever your motivation, ask God to help you get the expectations for your relationship with your teen in line with his expectations. He knows your heart, and he knows what needs to change. It’s a more humble approach to parenting, and one I believe works best for the long haul.

“People may think they are doing what is right, but the LORD examines the heart” (Proverbs 21:2 NLT).



Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.

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.