Teen Spin Control


Are you dealing with a struggling teen in your home? Are emotions running high and hope running low? I’d like to offer you some advice to help you find peace in the midst of this struggle.

There is nothing worse than living with a struggling teen who is spinning out of control, and no worse feeling than the hopelessness parents experience in the process. It is difficult to know what to do and how to react when your teen daily reaches new lows in disobedience, dishonesty, and disrespect, and chooses every wrong thing.

Your teen is caught in “The Spin Cycle,” and he or she needs you to intervene.  The downward spiral can have tremendous destructive potential with lifelong consequences, or even bring a young life to a quick end.

It is frightening to think about the damage he or she may be doing to his or her future.  But that’s just what we parents do…we worry about our child when we see the warning signs (grades dropping, hanging around with the wrong crowd, drug use, depression, defiance, sexual promiscuity).  The unknown is always scary, but we cannot watch over our teenager every minute.  We also personalize our teen’s struggles as a direct reflection of who we are as people and how good we have been as parents.  This personalization often causes more pain and anger within us than the current situation should cause.

When teens spin out of control, they need a responsible adult to respond, not react.  In responding to a spiraling teen, you offer calmness, honesty, love, grace and support.  If you are instead reacting, you are emotional, angry, hurt, quick to judge, and often harsh.  These knee jerk, seemingly instinctive interactions are almost always counterproductive.

Reacting to your teen’s misbehavior or lack of respect is probably never going to give you the response you intended or wanted.  Responding correctly in the midst of chaos is difficult, but parents of teens must learn to stop their mouths, think about what is to be said or done, and only then speak or act – Stop, Think, Go.

Most people in times of crisis are in Go, Stop, Think mode, which will only bring more pain and chaos.

So, Where Do You Begin?

You can start with a simple truth and consequences message, “Honey, we’re not going to live like this anymore.” or, “I will no longer stand by and watch you destroy yourself. We’re going to address what’s going on, get some help, and get through this together.”  Make the message clear, “The negative behavior we’re seeing will no longer be allowed or tolerated in our home.”

Don’t expect your teen to like the new rules, nor the related consequences.  And they probably won’t appreciate your attempts to deal with their bad behavior.  Their first response will most likely be anger or resentment.  Be prepared for their behavior to get worse – more screaming, more name calling, etc.  They are upping the ante; forcing you to back down.  They want to see if you are really serious about these new rules.

The time your child may spend hating you is short, and compared to the entirety of a life, it’s just a blip on their radar.  Secretly, he or she may feel relieved and thankful you cared enough to intervene, giving them a good excuse to say “No” to their peers when asked to participate in the wrong things.

Usually, a teen figures out that life will be much easier if they change their behavior so they can work things out with their parents, but not always right away.  And sometimes they simply don’t figure this out at all, or this behavior is too entrenched to handle it all on your own.  You may need the help of a counselor, or may even need to place your teen in a program like Heartlight for a time.

Then What?

Once you start down the path of responsible parenting, don’t stop, and don’t be pulled down to their level with childish fighting.  Stay calm and focused on what you want for them and deal with the heart of the issue.  There will be days when you mess up and yell back.  After you calm down again, go to your teen and apologize for yelling.  Don’t turn it into a lecture or blame her for you losing your cool.

There’s never a good time in our busy lives to be faced with a crisis like dealing with a teenager caught in the spin cycle.  It can be very difficult, but keep in mind that more parents of teens are going through the same thing with their own teenager.  Seek them out and find a place where you can share your feelings and gain strength and support from each other.

Most parents describe the struggle with a troubled teenager as a “roller-coaster” or a “powder keg,” and for many it can either be a time of the family banding together, or it can tear them apart.  With what is at stake, the most important thing you can do for your teenager is to keep your relationship strong and prevent the struggle from becoming the focus of your life.  You’ll have those “valley” days.  Walk through the valley, and keep on walking, for as long as it takes.

Do not stop to build monuments to your grief, anger, or fear.  One thing that can help at the low times is to pull out old pictures and videos to remember the good old days when your teen didn’t treat you like dirt.  It will give you better perspective and strength to keep fighting for what’s right for your teenager even though it may be a totally one-sided and unappreciated fight for his future.  Celebrate the good days.  They’ll likely be few and far between for a time, but that’s okay.  Let them prop you up.  Enjoy each victory.  Laugh with your teen.  Reflect on the good, and hope for a future filled with more days like it.

Do not worry about anything, instead, pray about everything.

Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.

If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which

is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand.

-Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)

Be sure to give the reins to God, and He will give you peace, strength, and the right perspective to deal with your teenager. Look at what may need changing in your own life.  And finally, no matter how they’ve hurt you, and no matter what they’ve done, love your teen unconditionally, as God loves us.

The Difference Between Rule-making and Ruling

The Difference Between Rule-making and RulingSome parents mix the idea of rule-making with ruling their home. Reasonable rulemaking and proper boundaries will help a teenager mature into a confident adult, while living under a “ruler” can lead to frustration, rebellion and eroded self-esteem. Which kind of home is yours? One that has rules or one that is ruled?

Rules for your home should fall into three main areas of concern, which are foundational to all other character and maturity issues. They are honesty, obedience, and respect. After all, isn’t the ultimate intent of creating and enforcing rules in your home that of keeping a child’s poor choices from consuming him and destroying his relationships with others?

So, when you think about the rules that govern your home, you might want to ask yourself two questions. The first is, “How much will this rule matter after I am gone or when the child is out on his own?” The second is, “Will this help build my child’s character and cause him to become more mature or responsible?” If the rules for your older teenagers are not centering on character, then you’re most likely ruling your home instead.

“Ruling” works and is necessary when kids are younger, but as your children reach the teenage years they naturally begin weighing decisions on their own. When they choose to break the household rules, they need to deal with the resulting consequences. Teenagers understand consequences. That’s how they learn, not from lecturing or parental anger.

When a teenager butts heads with a “ruler,” conflict and frustration will result. The only thing they’ll then learn is either how to better hide their improper actions or how to scream louder than the ruler does. Neither of these modes are productive and can also lead to a legacy of poor parenting.

Rule-making in Your Home

Rules need to make sense. We can all think about rules set down by our own parents that made no sense at all and others that were beneficial to us (even though we may not have liked them).

Rules also should be relevant, attainable and beneficial, not a source of shame, frustration, or failure.

And rules need to be communicated in advance, right along with the consequences for breaking those rules. Think of it this way. If no one knows the rules, then your teenager will have to learn them by trial and error and will constantly get into trouble. Likewise, if consequences for breaking the rules aren’t known, then a teenager has no way to weigh those consequences against whatever pleasure they find in breaking the rule. This balancing of actions versus consequences is a critical skill for adolescents to learn and exercise.

Finally, rules need to evolve over time, as lessons are learned, kept in line with the growing maturity of your teenager. I’m not talking about “giving in.” I’m saying that out-of-date, irrelevant or demeaning rules will lead to animosity, loss of respect and rebellion by your teenager. They can also lead to consequence confusion, since outdated rules are often not enforced. So, regularly update your rules and restate them to your teenager (before they break the rule, not after), awarding them with freedom and added privileges for the progress they make.

Rules Are Enforced Through Reasonable Consequences

Consequences for teenagers should never hurt physically (other than aching muscles from work assignments). They should never be demeaning or undermine the child’s self-esteem. For teenagers, the loss of a privilege is the most reasonable and powerful consequence. Sometimes they don’t realize how many privileges they enjoy — at least not until they lose them for a time.

Think about some reasonable consequences for your home. And keep in mind how important it is that they are communicated well in advance so the teenager doesn’t attribute the consequences they receive to your poor mood or a bad day. When they break a rule they should know exactly what the consequence will be. And just like laws in our society, parents need to build in progressively stronger consequences for rules that are broken again and again (since the initial consequence was obviously not enough of a deterrent).

Setting up rules and enforcing consequences — more than any other thing you manage as a parent — is the best way to help your child learn right from wrong and to change from selfish to unselfish thinking.

Don’t Cut Off Relationship When They Do Wrong

When you line out the rules, make it clear that they are developed in the context of longing for your child to do well in life, more than a selfish need for you to be in control or your home to be pristine. Above all, keep in mind that your relationship with your child is more important than their breaking any rule.

Don’t correlate your teen’s rule-keeping or rule-breaking to your love or acceptance of them. Regularly let them know that you will continue to love them, even when they mess up. Express your sorrow when your teen experiences consequences, but take care not to express your disappointment in them. There’s a big difference between those two sentiments. One is caring and the other is destructive of your relationship.

The Parent’s Admonition: “There is nothing you can do to make me love you more, and nothing you can do to make me love you less.”

When your teenager breaks a rule (and they will!) show your deep love for them by refusing to let them off the hook. Teenagers mostly learn from consequences. So avoid taking the consequences away or lessening them. When consequences are known well in advance, it shouldn’t damage your relationship when they are handed out. Surely, your teenager weighed the consequences at the same time they chose to step over the line, and chose to do it anyway!

HOME ASSIGNMENT: If you have teenagers in your home, line out some rules for your home, and begin to think about what consequences to apply. Decide things like: who pays for what, what time frame is expected for certain things like curfew and chores, what you expect from them for school and grades, work, their spiritual life, their friends. Address issues like respect, honesty and obedience, with clear rules — no lying, no cheating, everyone gets respect. Call a family meeting and work on the rules and consequences together, so everyone is part of it. You’ll be surprised. Your teen will often suggest penalizing bad behavior with consequences more severe than you were thinking.

Remember, “ruling” your home is not a good measurement of the effectiveness of your rulemaking.

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 39 years, has two kids, and 4 grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, 2 llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.  His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with over 2,500 teens, has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.

Visit www.HeartlightMinistries.org to find out more about the residential counseling center for teens, or call Heartlight directly at 903. 668.2173.  For more information and helpful other resources for moms and dads, visit www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org, It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Here you will also find a station near you where you can listen to the Parenting Today’s Teens radio broadcast, or download the podcast of the most recent programs.