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Finding the Hidden Messages In Your Teen’s Inappropriate Behavior

When new kids arrive at the Heartlight residential program we have in east Texas, we start to spend quite a bit of time looking for the motives “behind” their behavior, rather than looking at the inappropriate behavior that got them there. There’s not one of our staff that really believes that the behaviors we see are really the true issues in the life of a struggling teen. We all look to the heart of the issue. Change the behavior, and you’ve kept a teen out of trouble. Change their heart, and you’ve changed their life forever.

What does this have to do with your kids? Just this: Our teen’s inappropriate behaviors, whether it’s blatant disrespect, substance abuse, continuous lying, sexual activity, stealing, out-of-control anger, or spiraling depression, are visible landmarks that stick out in our teen’s life. But if we take the time to look underneath these monuments, we will find the true message our teens are trying to convey, but cannot find the words to do so.

All behavior, good or bad, is goal-oriented. A teen doesn’t act up without a reason. There is always a purpose and motivation behind a child’s actions. That means that inappropriate behavior is a visible indicator of an invisible problem. It’s the smoke that signals a hidden fire. It’s the warning light on the dashboard telling us to check our engine. Inappropriate behavior is a teen trying desperately to get help!

Heart Transformation Versus Behavior Modification

I get it. When our precious son or daughter is spinning out of control, our natural impulse is to correct their behavior. We want them to switch from doing wrong to doing right. We want to stop the lying, halt the cheating, curb the anger, and put an end to whatever harmful habit our teen is engaged in.

But if we only address the behavior and not the motivation behind it, we’re not truly helping our kids. It’s like the guy who went to see the doctor, because no matter what he touched on his body, it hurt. “Doc, when I touch my arm, I get this shooting pain. When I touch my leg, same thing. Even when I touch my face, I almost pass out, it hurts so bad. What’s the matter with me?” The doctor took one look and said, “You have a broken finger.”

When something is broken in your child’s life, it will affect everything else. And unless we address a teen’s heart, we’re not addressing the real cause of the problem. Focusing solely on the inappropriate actions is a form of behavior modification, but it is only a temporary Band-Aid. Aim for heart transformation instead. Investigate the reasons why your child is acting out, and address those concerns.

Jessica is a funny, compassionate, and well-spoken student in the Heartlight program. Born with a breathing disorder that made many activities dangerous, Jessica always had to work harder than most kids to stay connected to friends. And as she got older, it seemed to become more and more difficult. Jessica told us that it wasn’t easy to fit in among her school friends, who liked to party, because that just wasn’t her scene. Yet, at the same time, Jessica was finding it hard to relate to her church friends, who seemed to have perfect, sin-free lives, while she did not. As the gap widened between real connections, the lonelier Jessica became. So in order to be close with anyone, and to feel accepted, Jessica would often sneak out of her house at night to meet up with boys and engage in risky sexual activity. “I knew it was wrong,” Jessica confessed. “But those guys made me feel special, wanted, needed. I so badly wanted friends I could relate to, that I settled for boys who really just took advantage of me.

Now, to help Jessica and get her back on the right track, it would be easy to set up strict boundaries and rules, and point out the mistakes of sexual experimentation. But after listening to this sweet, young lady speak, I realized it wasn’t behavior modification that she really needed. She was desperate for connection, and in her immaturity, she was looking for it in all the wrong places. So if we take time to affirm her, set up friends who care about her, involve her in social circles with people she can relate to, those inappropriate behaviors will no longer have the same pull on her life. By addressing her heart, we’ve solved the problems with her behavior.

How to Find the Hidden Message

Now the question on the floor is, “Okay Mark, I need to look past the behavior to see what my son or daughter is really trying to say. But how can I possibly decode those hidden messages?

First, to hear a teen’s heart, we need to actively listen. That might mean withholding advice, judgment or comments for a while. I have found that most teens know when their actions are out of line. They don’t need mom and dad pointing that out. So instead of rehashing the mistakes, ask questions and sit back and listen. “What got you so angry?” or “How did that drug make you feel?” or “What made you go to that website?” These types of probing questions can peel back the layers of inappropriate behavior and give you insight into your child’s heart. Of course, in the moment, your teen may reply with the customary “I don’t know.” But don’t let their first answer stop you. In a gentle, loving and firm way, keep asking the questions that help you find the reason behind the behavior.

Second, don’t wait to address the behavior itself. You can search for the motive behind the actions at the same time that you are dealing with the action itself. While you’re taking away the car keys, you can say, “I don’t want to take the car privileges away from you again. So let’s talk about why this happened and how we can keep it from happening in the future.” The longer you wait to speak to the behavior, the harder it will be to deal with it correctly. By confronting the behavior, you’re also letting your teen know that, while you do care about the reasons behind those actions, you love them enough not to sweep the inappropriate behavior under the rug.

Lastly, be open to what God wants to teach you through your child’s behavior. Often, it’s the times of struggle, or hardships, or conflict that strengthen our relationships and deepen our character. I Peter 1:6 says, “Though for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trial… these have come so that the genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold—may result in the praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

Look behind the trials of parenting a teen to see the faith, grace and hope God is building into your life. Underneath all that inappropriate behavior you may find a map to the eternal treasures of peace, grace, and hope God has in store for both you and your teen.

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.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 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. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.


Hope for Healing

Some time ago we remodeled our home.  A project that was to last 6 months went on for nearly 30 months and the costs soared.  Throughout the project we met workers that did a great job, but others who took advantage of us.  They lied to us, conned us, made horrendous mistakes, broke promises, and caused much pain and hardship.

I asked a number of questions throughout the project… questions like:  “Why in the world does this need to be done this way?” or “I thought we had planned for that?” and ultimately, “Why has something that was supposed to be so quick and easy, now become so drawn out and hard… will it ever end?”  Sound familiar?

Maybe your relationship with your teenager feels like my home remodeling project.  Perhaps what you thought would be a momentary struggle has turned into open wound that won’t heal.  Maybe your plans for your teen are seemingly going awry, and they are lying, conning you, and making horrible mistakes.  If so, I want to challenge you to a different perspective.

Conflict and Struggle With Your Teen Can Bring About Change

What’s that perspective?  That conflict and struggle can bring about change.  I know that statement is true in my life.  And, I believe it can be true in yours. So, look for the positive purpose in the conflict you are having today.

Consider this… if you have ever prayed to be the parent God has called you to be, that’s just what He’s doing!  This is a time of tremendous opportunity to build into your child’s life… trusting God to direct your path along the way. Now’s your chance to be used when you’re needed the most.

Don’t back off from the role that He’s called you to.  Your understanding of your parenting role is necessary.  Your willingness to hang in there during this tough time is perseverance at its best. Your commitment to be a part of God’s plan for your child, seen or unseen, is godly.  Your love for your child when it isn’t so pretty is true love.  Your knowledge that God is involved in your family is an anchor of hope that will keep you reflecting His love to your child.

And if you will keep the perspective that conflict can bring about change, there is genuine hope… hope that your child can get on the other side and that your relationship can be healed.

The Bigger Picture

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”   So don’t give up.  And keep a proper frame of mind.”

Galatians 6:9

When you begin to think about your child and what they’ve been involved in behaviorally, more times than not, it’s usually worse than what you think, but never quite as bad as you can imagine.  But no matter what you think or what you imagine, there is nothing that can’t be overcome, and there is no relationship that can’t be restored… none.

Understand that what is happening right now in the life of your child and your family is not the whole story.  The whole story is what God is up to… His “bigger picture” which entails a whole lot more people than you or your child.  And the breadth of that picture is spread far beyond your timing.

I know that it’s hard to think about the bigger picture when you hurt for your child now.  But there’s a lot more going on than your situation and your child’s behavior.  It doesn’t mean your struggle is any less important, but it does help with keeping your situation in a proper framework.  Use this difficult time as a prod to deepen your relationship with your child, and you’ll shorten the amount of time that your child remains in their darkness.

Finally, don’t panic and don’t try to “fix” your child.  Fix the boundaries, fix the consequences, and maybe even change the environment, but you’ll never fix your child.  Only God can change your child’s heart.  Instead, focus on what you can fix in your parenting, and get out of God’s way to do what He needs to do.

Over the years I have found that parents usually get pretty scared when a child begins to struggle.  Their fear is based on the realization that they may not be ready to tackle these new challenges.  Some may “awfulize” the situation and make more of it than they should.  Others may do nothing and hope the fire will extinguish itself.  Or, it may be that they are just exhausted.

So, could this be a good time to place these things in God’s hands… into the hands of the one who promises that He will cause all things to work together for good?  You bet it is!  If you do, you will be on the pathway to restoration.

True Hope for Healing

The only true hope is that God is involved in what is going on with your child.  Whether you see it or not isn’t going to change God’s plan for you or your child.  So, if God is at work in the life of our child, we’d best understand what He’s doing.  That understanding comes through prayer; prayer to understand His will and prayers of submission to God to do whatever He needs to do in your life and the life of your child to turn things around.  The older I get, the more I understand that prayer is meant to help us get in line with and understand God’s perfect will, versus trying to influence or change it.

You and I know of God’s hand in the past… we know of it in the future… but our difficulty comes in believing in His involvement in what is happening today.  So, pray.  And keep a daily diary; it will help you maintain perspective.  Look for ways that God is working in your teen’s life, and record those; being sure to thank Him as you see His hand at work.

Yes, there is hope…if you will hang in there with your child… trust God to fulfill His plan… keep a right perspective… and understand that there is indeed a path to restoration. Depend on His promises to remain true.  God, the Creator, is fully capable to fashion a new life and a new relationship between you and your child… so allow Him to heal your relationship.  He’ll amaze you, as he does me, as He creates abundant life and perfection out of dust and confusion.

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.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 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.  Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.


A Journey to Hope

Pain is the pen that writes the song that calls us forth to dance. –Michael Card

Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the season when we celebrate life and the goodness of God. We give gifts, attend parties, and make an effort to spend time with family.

If all is well, we feel happy. But for those of us facing the holidays with a struggling teen, this time of year may bring more pain than bliss. After all, it is difficult to be joyful when the negative atmosphere in our home is in stark contrast to the happy and celebratory nature of the season.

When you have a teen whose life is spinning out of control, you may ask yourself, “Where did we go wrong?” Or, “Will we survive this?” Or, “Will life ever be the same?” You may even begin to question your own sanity or wonder what demon or alien may have invaded your once happy and contented child.

If this sounds like you, allow me a moment to offer encouragement. I say this often, because it bears repeating often. As a parent you have probably done the best job you knew how. You most likely did a better job than your own parents. Fact is, even the most intelligent and godly people I know have had teens who struggle. That’s because there are often other factors at work that have nothing to do with your parenting skills, nor the level of love and care you provided your child. And these same factors are mostly out of your control.

Where Does Hope Begin?

So, where does a parent turn to find hope when things seem so bleak? Scripture gives us two fine examples of people who found a place to turn when everything seemed to be going wrong. In the stories of Job and King David we learn that that there is a pathway toward hope, even in the midst of despair. Both had honest conversations with God about their suffering, their sorrow, and their need for relief. Each sought to understand what God was doing in their life through their suffering. In the end, both found hope–not because He or they were able to solve their problem, or because their suffering ended, but because through it they also found a nearness to God.

For the frazzled parents of a troubled teen, the journey of hope entails a journey back to the presence of God, where you can know without a doubt that He is there, even when your life remains difficult and your teen continues to struggle.

Tell God Your Troubles

Let me to urge you to not despair and certainly not to quit. Instead, choose to have an honest conversation with God about your struggle. Ask Him your questions, and tell Him how you feel. Ask Him what you are supposed to learn from this struggle. Stop worrying about how it looks to everyone else, and rest assured that it’s not a problem to have a problem. Be okay with life not always making sense. Celebrate being needful of God’s care. Doesn’t scripture confirm that our Heavenly Father shines best when our life is a mess?

How Does That Help?

When you invite God’s presence to invade your life, then you no longer have to fix the problem yourself. You just have to hold on and trust that He sees it all. You can work through your struggle knowing that God is very near, that He loves both you and your child, and that He will use every single bit of your current dilemma for His good purposes.

Trust me. The pain you are feeling at this moment will eventually come to an end. In the meantime, a renewed hope will come from recognizing that this temporary suffering is a part of God’s plan, and that He is not only aware of the struggle, He is right there in the midst of the struggle. He hasn’t abandoned you and He hasn’t abandoned your teen, no matter what you or they have done.

May you find peace in knowing that God is in it, no matter what the outcome may be.  And for that, we can all be truly hopeful, and thankful. To that end, I pray that you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

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.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 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. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.