I often talk about the trap that parents fall into when they “over parent” their teen. Of course, holding back from rescuing your teen from the consequences of their poor choices is easier said than done. After all, what parent wants to see their children in pain? But what about when your teen is causing you pain? What do you do when your teen not only rejects what you’ve taught them—throwing your biblical values in your face—but worse, they do it in a disrespectful way? Your heart is broken, your authority—trashed.
First, let me say at the outset that disrespect—in any form—should never be tolerated. Hopefully, by the time your child has reached the tween years you’ll have modeled a culture of honor and respect. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other ways, beyond simple disrespect, that a teen can cause his parents grief.
Each parent’s sensitivity level differs. What may hurt one parent deeply may be “It’s no big deal… she’ll grow out of it” to another parent. The kinds of things that can be hurtful range from something simple like a tween suddenly being embarrassed by her mother’s very existence (common), to getting a call about your son cutting a couple of classes (very common) to a far more serious issue like a teen “sexting” with a boyfriend or girlfriend—especially one that the parent didn’t even know existed (unfortunately, increasingly common).
One thing’s for certain. When it comes to knowing what pushes parents’ buttons, a teen’s words or actions can be like a guided missile. This is especially true if a teen has a deeper, unresolved heart issue that they haven’t been allowed to express in a healthy way. By “allowed” I mean if the style of parenting has either been one of “laying down the law” or in the other direction, been overly permissive. In the former case, there is no intimacy or safe place for the child to fail. In the latter case, dishonoring behavior is present because no teen respects a parent who only wants to be liked and accepted by them.
So, what do you do when your teen’s behavior causes you pain? As an example, let’s say your son and a few of his friends “paint balled” a neighbor’s car—followed by keying the driver’s door. Worse, it was that neighbor –the one that you’ve complained to the police about after one too many loud unsupervised teen parties. “I wish those trouble-makers would just move!” your children have heard you say. One day, in a fit of anger, you even told the mother off — telling her that her children were out of control and that that she needed to take a parenting class.
There are two ways you can script the inevitable encounter with your teen over this incident:
Script #1 THE “I’M HURT, AND YOU’RE GONNA FEEL MY WRATH!” APPROACH
Dad (yelling): Listen, Mister, that’s not the way your mother and I raised you … you’ve really embarrassed us!”
Son (flippantly, with an eye roll): Yeah, yeah I get it… I’m sorry.
Dad (angrily): You call than an apology? Let’s try that again.
Son (defensively) Okay, okay! I said I’m sorry… can I go now? Man, you’re always riding my back.
Dad: What’s the heck is wrong with you? You know better than to talk to me like that!
Mom: Son, you know we love you, but I’m really disappointed in you. Obviously judging by your behavior lately, you never listen in church. You certainly didn’t listen to last Sunday’s teaching about honoring your mother and father. Pleeease, tell me … why are you doing this to me … to us?
Dad: You know, I’ve had it with you! You can’t just live in this house and expect do to whatever you feel like doing. That’s it… you’re grounded for three months. And you’re paying for the damage to the car… that will teach you not to do that again!
To a greater or lesser degree this scenario plays out in American living rooms across the country every day. Yelling may or may not be involved. But guilt-inducing shame and blame is regularly mixed with righteous indignation. There are so many things wrong with this parent-teen “dialog.”
First, attempts to force an apology out of a teen rarely work. The best you’re going to get is a half-hearted apology of appeasement—as in “I’ll say what you want to hear to get you off my back.” And by the way, you need to ask yourself why you’re demanding an apology in the first place. If you’re trying to teach your teen the effect of inappropriate actions you’re going about it the wrong way. “Say-your-sorry-and-say-it-now” demands from a parent are really just a self-absorbed tactic to restore a relationship with a teen to what the parent wants. That makes it manipulative and therefore ineffective.
Second, nix the relationship-killing phrases like “you always” or “you never.” This makes your teen feel shamed about the past and hopeless about their future.
Third, don’t make it all about you—its not about you being right, you being disappointed or you feeling like a failure as a parent. Focusing on yourself makes the conflict about you when the attention should instead be on the change that needs to happen in your teen. That being said, there is a place to talk about how your teen’s actions may have impacted others —including you. Just don’t make it guilt inducing.
Fourth, it goes without saying that anger never accomplishes anything. Even if you have a right to be angry, you need, as teens are fond of saying, to just “chill.” Remember, your goal is always to build relationship, not tear it down. Even if you’re not getting what you want from your teen in these kinds of situations, don’t resort to anger.
Fifth, there’s another reason why your teen may be acting out. Simply put, they see their parents as hypocrites. Every time a parent says one thing and does another, they lose credibility in their teen’s eyes. We saw this in the above scenario when Mom kept badmouthing the neighbors in front of her teen. You only have to ask yourself: What’s worse—a teen vandalizing their neighbor’s car, or the adult parent cursing those same neighbors?
I’m not saying a parent has to be perfect to gain their child’s respect. None of us are. What I am saying is that you need to make it your aim to have a contrite heart coupled with a healthy dose of humility—yes even towards your children. Trust me, this will do more to instill the idea of honor and respect in them than a thousand Sunday sermons.
Back to our little teen drama. Here’s a more constructive way this scene could have played out.
THE “ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES BUT I BELIEVE IN YOU” APPROACH.
Dad: What’s going on … what happened to you yesterday?
Son: I don’t know.
Dad: Hmm. Do you remember when you were 11 and we were at that senior citizens home—volunteering with your youth group?
Son: Uh, yeah.
Dad: Do you remember what the volunteer coordinator said?
Dad: She said that you were the most helpful and compassionate of all the kids there—that you did really well with the elderly clients. And while I was so proud to hear it, I wasn’t surprised. Do you know why?
Dad: Because you’ve always been that way. You’re caring, smart and so capable. I’m not mad at you. To be honest, I’m scared. I’m scared that you’re losing your connection to how incredible you are. I don’t want any voice to be stronger in you than God’s and your own belief in yourself. He’s so proud of you, like I am.
Son: Sooooo… what do you want me to do? Like, I don’t know what to do about it…
Dad: Well, there is a mess to clean up.
Dad: I’m confident that you’ll come up with a good solution as to how to clean it up.
Dad: Yep. You get to make messes in this family. I’m okay with that. What doesn’t work is the mess not being cleaned up… and learned from.
Dad: Would you like my input as to how—and with whom—the mess needs to be cleaned up?
Dad: Ok. Let’s start with your mom and I. This impacts us because…
Feels a lot better, doesn’t it? In this scenario, you deliver your words in a calm tone of voice. You’re upset, but you don’t loose your cool. You want your teen to learn from what they did— not just so they won’t do it again, but also so that they can learn the nature and character of God through the whole experience. After all, the Lord may not always be pleased with our “do” but He’s always pleased with our “who!” Note also that you’re firm, but also affirming. You speak the truth in love —not in frustration, disgust or using berating or sarcastic language. You don’t preach because that’s not what your teen needs from you. They know what they did was wrong, so you don’t need to exact your pound of flesh from them. God doesn’t do that with you! Finally, you give them time to let the weight of that sink in. And always ask questions—especially self–empowering ones.
Finally, if you only remember one thing, remember this: “Forgiveness is more about you offering forgiveness to your children than them asking forgiveness from you.” Taking this approach demonstrates God’s model of radical, unconditional love that He has for each us—a love that’s embodied so beautifully in 1 John 4:10: “This is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.org. You 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 ParentingTodaysTeens.org 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. Here you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens App, a great way to listen on your schedule.