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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.

 

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.

 


Damage Control for Teens of Divorce

When parents split up, it can cause a number of problems in the life of their children; especially if the children are in the pre-teen or teen years.  I would never say divorce is responsible for every problem for the kids from split families who come to our Heartlight teen counseling program, but it is a major factor for many.  Divorce piles on emotional problems for a teen a little higher than there would normally be for an already emotional adolescent.

While there is no real way to fix the problems that divorce can bring into a teen’s life, there are ways to do damage control to help them through one of the most painful experiences they will ever encounter.  Since half of all marriages end in divorce, I thought it may be helpful to provide a few ways for the parents to address the after-effects of divorce on a teenager. It can help them better deal with the hand they were dealt.

Feelings of Isolation

First, it helps for parents to understand that teens who have experienced divorce in their family will feel isolated and left behind.  A split in the family may even make a teen feel as if he is no longer a whole person. And, when the parents remarry, teens respond to the change as a signal that they really are now all on their own.  After all, the parents who came together to create them have each gone their different ways, and may have already connected with someone new.  Younger kids are pretty resilient and can cope, but the older the teen is at the time of the divorce, the more betrayed and disconnected they may feel when separation becomes reality.

I encourage parents to address this disconnected feeling by making every effort to help their teen feel included in as many things as possible.  A teen who feels excluded and disconnected will often act out on that feeling through rebellion, self-harm, depression or promiscuity. They’ll be prone to seek a sense of “family” elsewhere, usually with a negative peer group where it is easy to find acceptance and form attachments.

So, counter those feelings of isolation and disconnection. Invite your teen into your discussions and decisions, even when the invitation doesn’t seem necessary.  And don’t take your teen’s heritage and childhood away from them by hiding it.  They can feel as though their earlier life before the family split was a dream and a fraud, so counter that by displaying pictures of you and your teen around your home. Get out the old baby pictures and videos of your family, even though it will be hard for you to see you and your former spouse in some of them.  Talk to your teen about the good times you had as a family; about how great it was the day they were born and the funny things they did when they were a toddler.  This all adds validity to their past and helps them understand that “family” can be a good thing.

Then, be sure to double the number of times that you tell your teen you love them, even when they’re acting in a way that makes them hard to love. Let them know that they are still part of your family and nothing can change that — nothing.

Claim Responsibility

When you have a good moment, admit your own mistakes to your teen in regard to the marital split.  I said “your own mistakes,” not your former spouse’s.  Teens are good at deciphering who is responsible for what went wrong in the marriage, so there’s no need to tell them about your spouse’s mistakes.  A parent willing to admit their own mistakes may see their teen being more honest and taking responsibility for their own mistakes. And it can open a dialogue for you both to work through the hurts and feelings of isolation together.

Don’t Turn Negative in Front of Your Teen

It is critical to refrain from negative comments about your former spouse and his or her new martial partner in front of your teen.  This may be one of the most difficult things to commit yourself to avoid following a difficult divorce.  In those moments when you are tempted to fall into the trap of saying negative things, no matter how factual they are, bite your tongue.  Pray for patience.  Put on a smile, and ask God for strength. Give your son or daughter what she needs to hear from you, not what you think your “ex” deserves to hear vicariously through your teen’s ears.  Remember, the only person negatively affected by biting comments about your ex-spouse is your teen, so just don’t do it.

Be There More… and More

If you are the noncustodial parent, double your efforts to be there whenever you can for your teen. If you feel you are already doing everything possible to be there already, then double it!  The amount of time you spend with your teen transfers a sense of value that no one else can give. If you only see your child every other weekend, then ask for more time. If you have the freedom to do it, take them to lunch, grab a snack after school, attend all games or school events, and communicate online. Send daily text messages to say “Hi,” or, “I love you.”   Make sure your teen knows your desire to continue to be involved in his or her life, or they’ll seek validation from someone else, and that can lead to bigger problems than you ever want to have with your teen.

Don’t Stop Being a Parent

Many divorced parents change their parenting behavior as a way to get back at their “ex.”  They give their children unnecessary gifts and unwarranted freedoms in order to make them like them more or like being in their home more.  Comments like “Mommy gives me money” or “Daddy doesn’t make me do that” are warning signs that the child is being pulled in two different directions.  In this case, some consensus needs to be made between the parents, for the child’s own good.  So swallow your pride and look out for your child’s best interests.  Get together with your “ex” in a neutral public setting and hammer out your differences.  Come up with a discipline plan for your kids that you can both agree on and stick to in regard to the rules for parenting your children. Include agreements about what you will and won’t spend money on, curfews, freedoms, methods of discipline, etc.

Better Yet, Stick Around If You Haven’t Split Yet

I have grown to think highly of couples who, knowing that they’re headed for a split, stay together until their teen graduates from high school or college.  Many will argue this statement, but you will never convince me that a child is better off with parents living in separate homes, and this is especially true with teenagers.  I realize this works only when both parents are able to work out a mature and amicable arrangement where contention is not displayed in front of the children.  Mom and dad may feel as if they are better off to split up, but that’s not always the case when adolescent children are involved. Teenage sons need their moms. Teenage daughters need their dads. Sons need their dads. Daughters need their moms. Will you consider just staying under one roof at least until your teen becomes more independent?

Divorce is a harsh reality of our culture.  While it is not my place to condemn a divorced person for being so, I encourage anyone considering divorce to think long and hard about the long-term consequences before engaging in the process — especially if their kids are in the adolescent years.  Should it not be possible to avoid a split-up, or if already divorced, then it’s good to remember to practice “damage control” in the life of 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.   Here you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens App, a great way to listen on your schedule.

 


Loving the Sinner is Harder When It’s Your Teen

Student Story: Josh

While parenting is rarely an easy task, there’s something about the hugs and laughs that seems to make it all worth it. But what about when your source of joy suddenly becomes your greatest source of frustration? This weekend on Parenting Today’s Teens, Mark Gregston discusses how to get through to “hard to love” kids in a way that offers hope and healing after broken trust.

If you listen on a mobile phone or tablet, please download our Parenting Today’s Teens app available for Apple or Android. If you listen on a desktop or laptop computer, press the “play” button above to enjoy daily parenting advice.