“… You were so glad when the storm died down, and He led you safely back to harbor.” (Psalm 107:30 THE MESSAGE)
You may remember the story of Abby Sutherland, the plucky 16-year-old from Southern California, who bravely attempted to become the youngest person ever to circumnavigate the globe solo. Setting off in a small sailboat named “Wild Eyes”, Abby faced broken equipment, unpredictable storms, and threats of pirates during her voyage. Just off the coast of Australia, the teenager’s trip was cut short as gigantic, 3-story swells capsized her boat, and destroyed her mast. Thankfully, she and her boat were rescued three days later. Can you imagine Abby’s relief as her bruised and battered little boat was pulled into a safe harbor? Away from all the dangers and pressures of the high seas, Abby could finally relax and recuperate from her long journey, as her family tearfully welcomed her back into the harbor with joy.
You may not realize it, but your teenager is on a journey no less perilous or dangerous than the one Abby Sutherland ventured. Every day, their tiny boat is buffeted by storms of a permissive culture, the pirates of constant media, the pressures to perform, and growing gales of pessimism about the world they live in. As a contrast, our homes should be a safe harbor for tired teens. The family should be a place where they can repair, refuel, and be re-sent, prepared to weather the world. Kids need a quiet and peaceful place of protection from the elements. If they don’t find it at your home, they will find it somewhere else.
So how can we make our home a safe harbor for our kids?
A Harbor of Friendship
Not to wax nostalgic, but youth culture was different back in my day. I remember viewing coaches, teachers, police officers, and (most) politicians as admirable symbols of authority, whose commands were something to be obeyed. Yet, it seems in recent times these pillars of respectability have lost their luster. As reports pile up about the failures and abuses by those in authority, today’s youth see positions of power in a more negative light, and tend to write off what they say. Whether this is good or bad is another topic altogether. But since kids don’t respect authority as they once did, we have to change our parenting style to reflect this change. Imposing rules don’t change kids; loving relationships do. To make our home a safe harbor, we need to offer our teens the hand of friendship rather than lowering the arm of authority.
I’m not saying that parents should strive to be their child’s friend to the exclusion of boundaries and rules. Moms and dads are parents, first and foremost. But too often we allow our position of authority to excuse running our house like dictators! Unfortunately, this doesn’t make for a home where teens feel comfortable, accepted, or loved. It’s in the confines of a relationship that our kids will not only enjoy being at home, but also listen attentively to what we say.
The Harbor of Conversation
In addition to making the home a harbor for relationships, we also need to make our home a place for conversation. And it’s not just general dialogue about sports, grades, and what’s on TV. A safe harbor is a place where your teen feels comfortable talking about issues that matter. It’s about developing consistent one-on-one conversations with your kids, so they know you want to hear from them.
Set aside time at the dinner table to ask your teen in-depth questions. Or take time out of your schedule to take them out to coffee and see what’s on their mind. By engaging in purposeful conversation, you’re giving your child the freedom to share and open up about their lives in a safe place.
Also, think carefully about the exchanges in your home. Are there more commands than conversations? More lectures than discussions? Constant criticisms and negativity don’t draw kids to the home; they push them right out the door! Let’s face it. Would you want to spend time with people who constantly nagged you? I know I wouldn’t! So make a choice to tone down the criticism. Designate a couple days every week where you don’t critique your kids at all. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday can be days where you focus on the positive in your child, rather than on what they are doing wrong. Allow those days to be a time of rest for both you and your teen.
The Harbor of Laughter
Life is hard. You’re fully aware of this reality, and your teen is just discovering it. Mark Twain once wrote, “Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.” When it comes to building a safe harbor for your kids to come home to, make sure laughter, fun, and humor are major cornerstones.
If the family dynamic resembles a funeral home, then all you’ll create is a cold and lifeless kid. But if you’re purposeful in making your house a place of joy, you’ll discover that your family will appreciate being there. One way to inject some fun into your family is to find out what your teen likes to do, and join them. That might mean playing video games with them. Or taking them outside to race RC cars. Or joining them in painting a mural on the garage wall.
Try to bring the whole family together for events, as well. Plan a movie night, with a buffet of junk food. Or sponsor a trampoline competition in the backyard with prizes. Be creative and spontaneous with bringing a level of humor and enjoyment into the home. It makes for a welcoming harbor that kids can’t wait to come home to.
On the temperamental sea of our culture, teens and parents alike get battered and tossed around. After a day battling the storms that seek to divide families, we all feel like a ship in desperate need of repair and respite. That’s why our children need a safe haven to toss out the anchor and find rest. As parents, we have the opportunity to build and provide a harbor like that. Instead of teenagers looking to escape as soon as possible, our home can be a place where kids look forward to being welcomed.
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.