My father was a good dad. He provided for the family, taught me valuable life lessons, and was strict in his discipline. But like all parents, my dad wasn’t perfect. While I respected my father, I didn’t have a great relationship with him. It was a loss that I carried for a long time. I had a void that craved my father’s love and friendship.
When there are emotional gaps in our lives, we have a need to fill them in. In my case, I tried to ease my sense of loss by throwing myself into swimming competitively. There I found father figure relationships with my coaches, camaraderie with teammates, and a sense of worth when I won swim meets. It was my way of easing my pain and finding release.
I am convinced that much of the good—and most of the bad—behavior in teens is fueled by a similar sense of loss. Young people attempt to replace what they lost, find something they need, or attain something they hope for. It’s not wrong to want to fill the emptiness in our lives—but for teens unequipped to handle the feelings of loss, it can result in destructive behaviors. Over the years with counseling kids at Heartlight, I found each one had the same desire: I want to be whole. I want to be complete. But I don’t know how! I can’t deal with this loss in my life!
When it seems like our teens are experiencing a sense of loss, it’s not enough to address inappropriate behavior. We have to reach for their heart.
Something I Lost
Grief is a powerful emotion. It can leave us reeling and breathless. Adults have a tough enough time dealing with grief. But for a teenager, grief can be overwhelming.
I have a friend who was devastated by the sudden loss of her father. Cheryl was only in middle school at the time, and processing her grief was not easy. Missing the love of a father, she turned to boyfriends to find male comfort and affirmation. Of course, even as a teenager, Cheryl knew that boys could never replace the need for a dad in her life. But it was an overwhelming need to find something that she had lost—to replace what was missing.
If you notice a drastic change in your son’s or daughter’s behavior and moods, chances are they’re dealing with a loss they need to fill. They’re searching for a remedy, even if it’s a part-time relief. This is where graceful communication and a listening ear come into play. Getting our teens to talk about what is troubling their hearts is a step in the right direction. Sometimes all it takes is a person listening to the sorrows in their lives to help kids filter and express their feelings in a positive way.
The grief your son or daughter is exhibiting may be the result of a major loss like death. But often teens mourn for small losses as well, like a favorite shirt thrown away, or a friendship that has fallen by the wayside. Don’t minimize the real sense of loss your teen is feeling. Instead, come alongside your child to help them talk it out, release their grief, and work through the pain in healthy ways.
Something I Need
Those empty, achy parts in a teen’s life can also be caused by something they need and are not getting. And in the consuming desire to fill their lives and find relief, a young adult can make some very bad choices.
A young girl who wants to feel valued, desired and needed can begin to use sex as a means to find what she desperately desires. It’s the same motivation that drives young men to go all out to find self-worth out on the field or court. Others might lose themselves in video game reality, where meaning and value is found in racking up points and skill in a digital world.
Is the bad behavior you see in your teen the result of a need that is not being met in their lives? Are they looking to find completeness in things that may cause more harm than good? As parents, sometimes we have to look past the conduct of our kids to focus on what is motivating them. If a young woman is hungry for a boy’s attention, it’s likely she needs male role models who esteem her and love her. When a teenage boy smokes pot, he’s probably looking for a way to feel normal. Struggling with social fears, educational disabilities, or feelings of loneliness, he turns to drugs to fill the void. He’s looking for inclusion in a community that accepts him.
Pay attention to what your child needs. Many of the bad behaviors can be prevented or curtailed by either supplying what your teen is lacking or helping them realize their goals. But with that encouragement comes a caution. Don’t rely solely on yourself to fill every void in our child’s life. It’s just not possible! Only the Lord can satisfy the deepest desires of the heart. Even if we meet all the emotional and physical needs of our children, they still won’t be complete and whole without the presence of God in their lives. Remind your kids that true and complete fulfillment can only be found in God.
Fill the Cracks with Grace
It’s natural to distance ourselves from our kids when they act out, disrespect us, call us names, and make wrong choices. But in those times, we cannot walk away. We have to draw closer, and prod their heart. For a task like that, we parents need grace—and a lot of it! Grace gives us the ability to look past behavior and see a hurting child. It doesn’t mean we excuse what they’ve done or ignore the consequences. Instead it’s loving our kids, even when they mess up big, and looking for opportunities to speak into their lives.
What is missing in your teen’s life? Find out and let them know you love them enough to help them find it.
Coming Up – Turbulence Ahead: parenting teens through the bumpy years- seminar on Saturday, August 25th. Join us at Christ Community Church from 9 AM-3PM. Contact the church at 706.565.7240 or visit www.ccclive.org.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.