Parenting Shift in the Teen Years

Do you know what needs to change about your parenting as your child approaches the teen years? So far, everything may be going like clockwork, so why change? What’s been working for more than a decade will surely continue working right up until the day your child leaves home, right?

Well, not always.  Some parents are caught off guard, baffled and confused when their teenager begins to turn their back on the family and all the values they hold dear. They thought they had done everything right, but for some reason, their teenager is spinning out of control.

So, how can this be avoided? What is it about your parenting that should change when your children reach the teen years?  Let me give you some suggestions…

Change Your Aim

Most parents aim at providing everything for their child. However, I am convinced that there are some lessons that teens are not supposed to learn from their parents. Instead they need to begin working out things for themselves. If you guide every step and give your teen every material want and need, he’ll begin expecting that for the rest of his life.

What’s more, giving your teen the answer every time life presents a difficult question may actually get in the way of all they are supposed to learn. And, it spoils the opportunity for them to flex their decision-making muscles. Instead, allow them to think things through. Move from telling them how to think to asking good questions that will help them sort through their choices.

The aim changes from solving all of their problems and meeting all of their needs to allowing them to learn how to solve their own problems (sometimes the hard way), and taking responsibility for meeting their own needs.

The method is to carefully identify what is going on in their world, and target your boundaries to teach them how to respond appropriately. And keep adjusting the boundaries for every “next new thing” that comes along, while allowing them to make decisions along the way. They will probably not make the right choice 100% of the time – maybe not even 50% of the time — but they need the opportunity to learn by doing so.

Change the Underlying Purpose of Your Rules

Move away from ruling your home, to using rules for training your teen to face the real world and building their character. In the early teen years and on through the time they leave home, the focus should be on character-building.

The aim is to change the rules that apply to your teenager to focus on setting boundaries and building character, not so much on managing actions.

The method is to develop rules that train your teenager how to think, how to make wise choices, how to keep a commitment, and how to live honestly, respectfully, and obediently. These are the most important character-building qualities you can help them develop.

Change the Way You Listen

I see two extremes in the way parents listen, and neither one is very helpful. The first is a parent who listens in order to react to every word that comes out of their teen’s mouth. The other is a parent who dismisses everything their teen says, and never really listens. Over-listening and ignoring do nothing to prepare your teen to live in the real world.

As difficult as it can be sometimes, I believe it is better to know what a teen is thinking than to not know it. But knowing it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to react or respond immediately. Sometimes a teen is just “thinking out loud” in an attempt to process the difficult things in their world.

If you are guilty of not really listening, you may see your teen baiting you and picking fights just to try to get you to really listen to what’s going on in their life — at a deeper level.

The aim is to stop assuming you know what your child is thinking, or making the same kind of demands as when they were younger, and develop strong listening skills.

The method for changing the way you listen addresses both sides of the “listening’ issues. Zip your lip and open your ears. Sit directly in front of your teen when they are talking and listen intently. It is a simple concept with staggering ramifications. Start listening. Stop reacting. Stop ignoring. If you must ask a question, ask only that which allows you to further your listening, and keep quiet while they answer. This brings me to my next point….

Change What You are Willing to Talk About

Christian parents are sometimes so protective of their values and beliefs that they send the wrong message to their teen – one that says, “We can’t talk about that – because talking about it will make it seem as if I approve.” One sure way to build a wall between you and your teen is to make them feel that there are things you will simply not discuss.

The aim is to change the way you talk with your teen and what you are willing to talk about. Build opportunities for discussion — a two-way conversation that takes interest in what each of you has to say, while exploring new ideas.

For most parents, the method involves spending more time listening and less time sharing your opinion. It also involves waiting until you are invited to give your opinion before offering it. Try, “I’ve thought a lot about what you’re saying, I respect you – so, what do you think should happen next?” You will find that the more you ask this question, without offering your own ideas, the more your teen will pursue discussing his options with you. He’ll even come up with options he’d never thought of before, just because you are listening.

Change Your Attitudes About Your Parenting

Parents believe that what they do in raising their child in the younger years will carry that child through to his older years. For example, they go to church, walk in godly ways, study the Bible, go to Christian camp or summer mission trips. It is a deceptive self-comfort that we settle into in parenting — if we just do “these things” our teen will turn out fine.

In reality, this attitude sets some parents up for disappointment, and it can become a rigid wall to run into when a teen begins to struggle. In my work with Christian parents and teens, it is usually harder to get the parents to change, than it is to change the behavior of the teenager. But both must go hand in hand when it comes to working through a time of struggle.

The aim is to change your attitude about how successful you’ve been in parenting, and learning to view parenting as a more fluid, more accessible, and more grace-filled position in the life of your child that evolves over time. There is no perfect parent and no perfect parenting plan. So, you shouldn’t always expect a perfect child.

The method involved in changing your attitudes is two-fold:

  1. Move from seeking justice for their mistakes to giving more grace. Focus on finding more of what is right in their life, instead of always focusing on what is wrong. Pick your fights wisely and avoid nitpicking. There are important things and values you need to care about, but there are less important things that are best left to the teen’s discretion. When given discretion over those less important things – like clothing, as long as it is modest — your teen will feel a sense of responsibility and may surprise you with how well he chooses. Or, he may admit later that his choices were really childish – but he’d probably dig in his heels and not come to such a conclusion if it was a point of contention between him and you.
  1. Allow for the struggle, should it come. Struggles are opportunities for change. The struggle does not invalidate all the work you have done in the life of your child, nor is it an indictment on your parenting. Just because your teen is experiencing difficulty right now doesn’t mean God’s thumbprint is no longer on his life. Usually the struggle is for a short time, so don’t make things worse than they are, or make your child feel as though they are no longer loved or accepted. The two words I use most when encouraging a parent through such a time as this are: “Struggle well.”

The fact that you care so deeply about your teen is no guarantee that everything in their life will be all right. Other factors may affect your teen – factors that are completely out of your control. That’s why many Christian teens today go through periods of struggle. Through it all, their parents need to keep adjusting, training, listening, and caring. Teens want more and more freedom, but that freedom shouldn’t be without interaction, boundaries and guidance from their parents. Be there to coach them as you allow them a little more autonomy, so they can learn responsibility and grow in maturity through the triumphs and mistakes they’ll make along the way.


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.

Which Parent Are You? (Part 1)

Student Story: Megan

Every parent has their own unique parenting style. But not everything we say or do for our teens is actually helpful! This weekend on Parenting Today’s Teens, Mark Gregston presents six stereotypical parenting profiles—and candid advice for overcoming their flaws. Which type of parent are you?

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

Peace in Parenting At-Risk Teens

When your teen is spinning out of control it is frightening to think about the damage he may be doing to his 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.

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…

We can learn much from the philosophy of a man struggling with terminal cancer. Talk about a hopeless situation! He said, “I try not to stand too long on the mountain, and I don’t sit too long in the valley. I live one day at a time, and try to keep my attitude somewhere near the middle.”

He continued, “I really enjoy the mountaintop days, when the cancer or the chemotherapy don’t bother me too much. On bad days God gives me peace, and I learn dependence on Him I probably wouldn’t learn any other way. The days in between, I pray for strength, and my hope in Him keeps me going.”

Life can be nearly as traumatic for parents watching helplessly as their child spins out of control. There are good days and there are terrible days. They try this and they try that, and each time they think they’ve got it figured it out, their teen throws a curve ball and they sink to a new low.

I’ve found that those who are successful seek God’s peace in both the highs and the lows of life, as well as the muddle in the middle. They survive by keeping their faith strong and they spend more time on their knees. They let each day bring what it will, realizing that tomorrow may or may not look anything like today and that in most cases their teenager will eventually come around.

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)

Most parents describe the struggle with a 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 relationships 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.

And, 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.

I’ve said a million times that consequences are the best tool a parent can use to teach maturity? I mention it because God, your heavenly parent, may be using this situation with your teenager to also teach you a thing or two. If so, take heed. Take a close look at your life to see if there is anything that needs changing. Most parents I deal with in our Heartlight residential program say that they, too, had to change before any real progress could be made with their teen.

The bottom line is that parents can do no good for their teenager if they are caught up in despair and are constantly on edge. Learn early from others who have gotten to the other side of this struggle and actually survived! 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, even as God also loves us.



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.

You can find out more about Heartlight at www.HeartlightMinistries.org, or you can call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our Parenting Today’s Teens website at 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.  The Parenting Today’s Teens radio program was recently awarded the 2014 Program of the Year by the National Religious Broadcasters.