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When Teens Shut Down

At any given time, countless parents across the country are doing the same thing with their emotionally unavailable and rebellious teens: marginalizing, disrespecting, disempowering—and trying to control them from a place of fear.

That’s It… I Quit!

When your teens don’t perform as expected, telling them that they need to do better won’t help. And when arguing, fighting and pleading seems to be all that you’ve been doing with them since they were 12, then chances are good that your teen is rebelling against your control-through-fear style of parenting. However, unlike disgruntled workers on the job, your teen can’t quit his or her “job” of being your child. They can only quit the relationship. So they shut down. And the self-destructive ways they choose to do this can be pretty upsetting to parents.

I’ve said this a million times but it bears repeating: Shutting down is just a symptom of something else that’s going on with your teen. There’s a motive behind everything. And it’s your job as a parent to find out what that is —not through intimidation or ultimatums, but through a heart-to-heart connection.

Becoming a Safe Place

Think about it this way—how does God deal with us? If you asked Jesus right now, “What do you think of me?” how do you think he would answer? Would He say, “I love you very much. But you know, you’re just not doing enough! I’d love you a lot more if you towed the line, screwed up less and obeyed everything I told you.”

That’s not how God deals with us. When we mess up, we can always turn to God for forgiveness and grace. God is a SAFE place. Ask yourself, do your children feel that way about you? Are you a safe place for them?

Here’s what I know for certain: When love and freedom replace punishment and fear as the motivating forces in the relationship between parent and child, the quality of life improves dramatically for all.

Let’s Play Aggravation

A story was recently told to me about a mom and dad who changed their controlling parenting style to one of love and respect.

“For two years our son lived in his room,” the mom said. “The only time he came out was to either grunt in response to us—or fight. We realized something had to change and that change was us—how we chose to relate to him. Then a miracle happened. One evening, our son left his room, walked into the living room and plopped himself right next to his dad and I. He began to tell us about his day, and how he was starting to see how much his peers disrespected each other. Once I got over the shock of him actually talking to us, I asked him, ‘When did you start noticing this?’ What he said next floored me. ‘Because of the respect that you and dad have been showing me lately … I never knew what that looked like before.’”

“My son then did something he hadn’t done in years—he asked us if we wanted to play a board game with him. The name of that board game? Aggravation. The irony was not lost on us—we were a family that had aggravated each other almost to death, and now here we all are peacefully co-existing as we sit down to play a board game called … Aggravation.”

I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is to show respect towards your teen—even if they’re not respecting you at the time. It will allow you to make inroads into your child’s heart. And when you have inroads into their heart then eventually—in time—you’ll have a relationship. And when you have a relationship then, your teen will actually want to protect that close connection with you. But if you try to force this—if you try to control them through fear and intimidation—that will evoke a different goal on their part: to avoid punishment. Your teen’s decisions will be an offshoot of that goal—to rebel and shun you.

Captivate or Control?

As Christian parents, our ultimate goal is to introduce our children to a relationship with God. And we can do that by doing our best to relate to our teens just like God relates to us. So if you have a fear-based, distorted view of God, then you need to change that— sooner than later.

Remember, God doesn’t want to control us. He wants to captivate us. That should appeal to you and your teen. You don’t want to be controlled. And your teen is no different. What teens really need is to be empowered to make their own choices. If all you want to accomplish is outward obedience and conformity, then fear-based parenting is one option. But it’s an inferior method that will produce inferior results. You might manage to produce a compliant child as a result. But you’ll also be providing your teen a distorted view of God.

Part of empowering your teen means giving them the freedom to make mistakes. We read in Galatians 5:1 that, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” For your teen, this means that for freedoms sake you need to lovingly—and with proper guidelines—allow Christ to set your teen free. This means giving your teen freedom to make poor choices with the understanding that God is much, much bigger than your teen’s mistakes. God’s not scared of our poor choices, so why would He be scared of your teen’s bad decisions? He always has another plan—even when we get temporarily derailed.

Ask Questions. Stay Interested. Pursue their Friends.

Here are a few basic guidelines to help you when your teen shuts down:

  • Don’t give up on asking questions. I’m not talking loaded questions here. You’re intent is not to get them into trouble. Let the consequences of their behavior do that. When you ask questions, rather than providing all the answers, you’re saying, “I want to know what you think, because it’s valuable to me. I want to know your heart… how you’re put together and how you came to those conclusions about________ “
  • Stay interested in them. Even when they give you the silent treatment and would rather that you lived in Alaska and they had their own pad south of the Equator, don’t stop. Keep moving towards your teen. Because that is what God does with us.
  • Pursue your teen’s friends. No, not with a warrant. Put aside your personal opinions on the piercings, the tattoos, the grunting and bad attitude, and think of them instead as a rowdy son—perhaps your own son—who just happened to have lived in a pig sty for a few months. Sure they might be a bit “smelly,” but embracing your teen’s friends will serve a two-fold purpose: (1) you’ll gain entrance into your teen’s world, caring about the people they love, and (2) you’ll be demonstrating the love of Jesus. Put it this way. You can go half way around the world and find someone from a remote village to snatch from the jaws of Hell and bring with you to Heaven—or, you can love on a lost teen in your local high school. Both are good goals. One’s just closer to home.

In conclusion, let me say this: The restoration of the family is very high on God’s priority list. This means that Heaven is banking on your success with your shut-down teen. So am I. My greatest desire is to help restore joy and purpose to your parenting experience. To do that, you will no doubt need to make some changes—in some cases, major ones. I won’t lie to you. It’s hard work. It will take sacrifice—and patience. And sometimes a thick skin. But trust me, in the end, it will be worth it.



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.