Hope in Hard Times

Hope in Tough TimesElana’s dad was a recovering alcoholic.  He had been sober for nearly a year and was diligently going to AA meetings, however he was also suffering from a bout of deep depression.  Tired of fighting the inner darkness and afraid he would slip up and go back to the bottle, Elana’s father decided to give up the struggle and took his own life.

When Elana came to the Heartlight campus, she was struggling with the pain of losing her father and felt anger at his selfish decision to commit suicide.  When I asked her how she felt when she first got the news, she told me “I didn’t feel anything, really. It felt like a movie.  I put a smile on at the funeral, but it felt like I was sleepwalking.  It wasn’t until a few weeks after my dad’s death that it finally hit me.  But I still didn’t want anyone to see how much I was hurting.”

Trying to cope with grief by herself, and seeking a reprieve from the pain, Elana turned to alcohol.  Yet getting drunk only numbed the hurt for a little while and Elana quickly realized that a dependence on alcohol was not the solution to her pain.  And so this precious young lady came to Heartlight seeking help putting her life back together and finding a healthy way to deal with her pain.

All families will go through hard times.  It could be a suicide.  It could be a rebellious teenager, a bitter divorce, or a devastating health issue.  In difficult times like these, we may try to distract ourselves from the agonizing feelings we have by seeking comfort in unhealthy avenues.  But what we really need is the compassion only God can offer.  And what I told Elana is what I will share with you.


Whether it’s through death, divorce, or rebellion, people in our lives can leave us.  The pain of their abandonment is a wound that will ache for a long time.  But as you seek comfort for your child, or for yourself, remember this; God promises never to desert us.  In John 14, when Jesus told his disciples that He would be returning to heaven, He promised that the Father would give us the Holy Spirit to help us and be with us forever (John 14:16-17).  Where is God when we feel that loss in our lives?  He is right there, filling the void and comforting us.  Though sometimes it may seem like He is far away, God assures us, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18 NIV).


In the midst of grief, parents often feel under qualified to deal with what has been handed to them.  The job of raising a child who is processing heartache is too big.  But may I lovingly remind every mom and dad that God has chosen you to be a parent to that specific son or daughter.  Your kids are no coincidence or product of happenstance.  God placed them with you because He knew you could successfully accomplish the task.  When it feels like we don’t have what it takes to even get up in the morning, God is there to whisper, “You have more strength and faith than you think!”  Philippians 1:6 says we can be confident in knowing that, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.”  You have a God-given purpose in the life of your family.  And God will supply you with everything you need to fulfill that role.


Emotions are a natural part of being human.  But some of us tend to push feelings to the side, hoping that they’ll just go away.  Part of experiencing God’s comfort means letting go of the grief that may be bottled up.  Maybe that means times of weeping, yelling, or writing thoughts down in a notebook.  It’s even okay to be mad.  God can take anything you throw at Him.  If you’re angry, tell Him about it.  If you’re disappointed with God, let Him know.  Read through the book of Psalms, and you’ll discover David chronicling his joy, sorrow, anger, and frustration towards the God who is ready to listen.  In all those songs, never once did God say, “Don’t say that!  I don’t want to hear it!”  The Lord encourages us to tell Him what is on our mind.  So go ahead and release your emotions to God.  As you learn to trust Him with your whole self, He’ll give you His perfect peace.


We were never meant to walk the journey of faith alone.  When grief is overwhelming you or your child, take comfort in the support of others.  Find a group of people who are going through the same things you are and start talking.  Or open up to people in your church and ask them for prayer or advice.  God often brings us comfort though the actions of others.  Don’t suffer alone.  Lean on the support system God has placed in your life.


My friend Gerard recently shared with me the story of how his family dealt with the suicide of his youngest son.  Burying your child is something no parent should have to go though.  When his son Alex died, Gerard, his wife and their remaining children struggled to make sense of a senseless tragedy.  Though there are never clear answers, Gerard came to realize that although we live in a broken world, God came to bring healing.  And the Lord can turn our pain into something with purpose.

At the funeral for Alex, Gerard watched as a hundred people heard the gospel message and stood to receive Christ.  Though it could never bring back their son, knowing that God could turn their pain into something beautiful brought immense comfort to Gerard and his family.

I don’t know what you’re struggling with right now, but I do know this: The end of the story has already been written, and God will make all things right.  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

The situation you find yourself in today may seem unbearable.  But don’t give up.  Remember that God loves you and will never let you fall.  It’s in Him we find lasting comfort to get us through the toughest trials.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas.  For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website.  It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent.  Go to www.heartlightministries.org.  Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at www.markgregston.com.  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.  Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.

What’s the Difference Between a Stubborn Horse and a Willful Teen?

Helping Kids Spread WingsHave you ever had a child balk at your ideas or run from your suggestions, even when you know life could be better if they followed your advice? Do you have a teen that would rather do it “their way” and not “your way?” Let me offer some advice from a lesson I learned when our Heartlight Residential Counseling Center received the gift of two Tennessee Walkers (horses). They are wonderfully spirited horses that we named Knox and Nash, in honor of their Tennessee roots.

The easy part was accepting the gift. The hard part was loading the two powerful animals into an unfamiliar trailer and keeping them calm enough to move them just a few miles to their new home at Heartlight.

The first horse, Nash, loaded up easily. She was older, and trusted me to walk her in without a fuss. We hoped Knox would load up just as readily, but as his handler approached the ramp with Knox in tow, he yanked on the horse’s lead as if to remind Knox who was “boss.” In the process he also closed Nash’s side of the trailer, so Knox couldn’t see his lifelong buddy already inside. What’s worse, the handler allowed his dog to nip at the horse’s heels to try and get him moving onto the loading ramp. Everyone there soon learned that you can’t manhandle a horse into a trailer, especially not Knox.

The handler yanked, pulled, tugged, jerked, and wrenched on the rope for quite some time, but Knox stubbornly refused, and responded by planting his feet and jerking backwards. The harder Knox was tugged, the more he resisted.

I watched with gritted teeth as a second person decided to “help” by picking up and pulling one of the horse’s legs in order to coax him onto the ramp. Knox, who was by now pretty furious about being yanked around by the head, nipped at by a dog, and grabbed at — lost it. He went berserk!

Knox lunged straight up in the air, narrowly missing the top of the trailer. The rope yanked and burned the handlers’ palms as the horse thrashed and retreated. Then Knox kicked up both hind legs at the dog nipping at his heels.

I unhappily watched as the horse-handler with a dented ego and burned hands tried to deal with Knox by yanking even more when he had caught up with him. But, Knox was determined not to go into the dark and unfamiliar trailer.

Now, I’m no horse whisperer, but I love horses, and I understand how a horse thinks. So, I intervened by suggesting we call everything to a halt and give everyone time to calm down. After awhile I took Knox for a walk, and we had a little talk. It did wonders.

Knox didn’t get over his apprehension immediately. But I hoped he would trust me enough to eventually step into the trailer on his own. I calmly walked him up to the edge of the trailer and released the tension on his lead rope. I didn’t let him back up and run away, but I didn’t yank and manhandle him either.

I gave him some feed, talked to him, patted and stroked him. I opened the door so that he could see his friend Nash. I even stood inside the dark trailer to show him everything would be okay.

After 15 minutes of calm, Knox put one front foot onto the trailer. In another five minutes, the other front foot. In another five minutes, the third. That fourth foot took the longest and a slight pat on the rear, but Knox finally stepped up into the trailer.

Knox was nervous about the sound of the trailer’s wood floor, and it was dark and unfamiliar. So I stood in the trailer between the two horses, calmly letting them know that they were going to be okay. We all calmed down together.

Patience, which the handler later exclaimed that he lacked, helped us reach the goal, but my success with Knox was not so much about patience as it was about technique, and giving control back to the animal.

Do you suppose there are any lessons for parenting a resistant teen in this story? You bet! At Heartlight the kids learn a lot from handling horses, and sometimes we learn from the horses as well. Here’s what Knox and Nash demonstrated to us that night that applies directly to parenting teens:

1. No two teens are alike. What works for one, doesn’t work for another. Just because one is comfortable doesn’t mean the other feels the same way. What feels safe for one is scary for another. It’s important to know different techniques to handle their different responses.

2. You can’t get a child to go where you’re not willing to go yourself. Hop up in that place you want your child to go. Let them know that even though it’s scary, it is better.

3. Learn to let go of the rope. When you yank and pull, you create the atmosphere for a fight. You don’t have to be in control. It is better to “give over control” to your teen, and let them focus on why they need to move in the direction you’re inviting them, rather than causing them to rebel against your manhandling techniques.

4. Try a different approach. That which you think must be yanked, pulled, tugged, jerked, and wrenched, might instead need to be lured, attracted, or enticed. Your push-pull technique might work well when making taffy, but it just won’t work with teens.

5. Call a timeout to regain calm. If the situation is out of control go for a walk and have a little talk. It works wonders.

6. Don’t take the steps for them. Create the atmosphere for them to take steps, but don’t do it for them or force them forward.

7. A gentle approach invites a kind response. Your teen’s hesitancy may be in response to the heavy-handed way that you are asking, not what you are asking.

8.A gentle nudge at just the right moment encourages progress.

9. Don’t hesitate to stand with your teen in that new place. It may be momentarily dark, and it may even stink a little … but it builds a great relationship of trust.

Many parents limit their parenting skills to those they already have “in their bag” and don’t look for new ways of dealing with a resistant teen. Teens can be like these horses (and sometimes even as stubborn as mules!). Each is different and responds and learns differently. If your teen has dug in his or her heels and you are getting nowhere, you would be wise to seek a new approach!



Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas.  For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website.  It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent.  Go to www.heartlightministries.org.  Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at www.markgregston.com.  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.  Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.

Comforting the Anxious Teen

“The good old days.”  “The best years of our lives.”  “Back when life was easy.”  Sometimes we refer to our growing up years with more than a little nostalgia.  Sure, we had things to worry about.  We dealt with shifting emotions, changing bodies, challenges at home, and the pressure to live a better life than our parents did.  But compared to the weighty responsibilities we carry as adults, the stress of our teen years was minimal.

Times have changed.

A recent study shows that 48% of young adults these days are diagnosable for a behavioral disorder like anxiety.  It’s no understatement to say that teens today aren’t facing the normal “angst” that we all went through.  In increasing numbers, modern teens are experiencing an overwhelming sense of unease, worry, or fear about upcoming events or activities with an uncertain outcome.  While a little anxiety can be a good thing—pushing us to study harder or excel a little more—severe anxiety is devastating to a teenager.  We’ll talk about ways we can deal with the problem later on.  But first, it helps to know what we’re up against.

Causes of Anxiety

Earlier this month, a news article reported that a high school teacher was fired for showing a video of a real life violent murder to his class.  His rationale?  The kids were probably going to see it anyway.  While seriously misguided, this irresponsible teacher has a point.  Kids from kindergarten on up are bombarded with images and ideas that are way beyond their emotional levels.  There are over 4.2 million pornographic sites on the Internet, all easily accessed.  Current television programs and movies portray emotional dilemmas and social concepts that even adults have trouble dealing with.  During the growing up years, kids don’t have the maturity to treat and filter what they are exposed to on a daily basis.  Add to this mixture the stress of keeping up with all the social pressures from friends and peers, and it becomes too much to handle.  Unequipped to manage the events around them, teens feel like throwing up their hands and shouting, I can’t handle this!  This world is too intimidating for me!

Unfortunately, our teen’s anxiety doesn’t always end when they head home.  Parents have certain expectations for their kids that are required and needed.  But taken too far, those expectations can drive anxiety to the brink.  We have educational expectations—get good grades, take AP classes, prepare for college.  But we also want them to have outside goals—join the football team, make first chair violin, become the next chess Grand Master.  Then, because we care about their walk with God, we carry spiritual report cards around and take inventory of church attendance, youth group activity, moral behavior, and Bible study.

No wonder so many teenagers are trying to escape the constant overload of pressure and expectations!  Too often they are over-scheduled and under-prepared.  Reminds me of the verse in Ephesians 6:4 that says, “Fathers [or mothers], do not exasperate your children.”

Signs of Anxiety

To cope with the overwhelming pressures of life, teens often turn to alternative avenues of relief.  It could be losing themselves in video games or Facebook.  It could be finding temporary relief in drugs or alcohol.  Or it could be expressed in outbursts of anger and harmful activities like cutting.  Some of the typical signs of serious anxiety include:

  • Disengaging from most activities
  • Sleeping in more
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Severe change in behavior
  • Breaking off relationships with friends or family
  • Spending large amounts of time alone

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it can give you telltale warning signs that your teen is spiraling further into anxiety.

Solutions for Anxiety

Anxiety is a real problem.  But as a parent, you can help your teen relieve their stress levels in a healthy way.  Be prepared for it to take patience, understanding and grace as both teens and parents strive to keep things under control.

It all starts with a well-framed question.  Carve out time to sit down with your son or daughter and ask them about their fears, their worries, what they are looking forward to, what things they are excited about.  Discover the triggers and switches in your teen’s life that cause them to feel anxious.  The more you spend time talking together, the more your teen will open up and confide those things that are causing them pain and worry.

In addition to asking good questions, give you teen permission to say no.  It could be that the tuba lessons, math tutor, soccer practice, or youth group is overwhelming your kid to the point that they feel like dropping everything.  It’s okay to allow your son or daughter to back away from certain activities if they cause him or her stress.  Tell your teen, Hey, it sounds like your plate is really full right now.  Is there something that you can give up that would lighten your load?  This is not an excuse to relinquish all responsibilities, but it’s allowing your teen the freedom to unload their lives a little.

Moms and Dads, don’t forget your kids need you.  Spending quality time together is crucial to helping them unload stress.  This might mean giving up your weekly golf game in favor of having breakfast with your son.  It could mean letting go of that committee you’re a part of to go shopping with your daughter.  There will always be time after the kids are out of the house to invest in your hobbies.  But in these critical formative years, kids need their parents desperately.

Finally, do your best to make the home a sanctuary.  After a long day of being exposed to a thousand different ideas and influences, make your house a place where your kids feel safe and protected, free of anxiety or undue pressures.  Tell stories and jokes at the dinner table, instead of quizzing them about their day.  Encourage them when they walk in the door.  Play games or watch TV together after chores and homework is over.  Let your home be a welcome stop for your teen on the careening highway of life.

Teens aren’t the only ones who struggle with anxiety.  Raising up children can be a stressful task!  If you’re dealing with anxieties of your own, I encourage you to bring those burdens to the God who loves you.  Set the tone for your family as you release your worries and cares to Him.  We serve a God who is bigger and stronger than anything this world can throw at us.  And that’s a truth that will serve us throughout our lives.



Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas.  For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website.  It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent.  Go to www.heartlightministries.org.  Or read other articles by Mark at www.markgregston.com.  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.  Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.