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.

From the Zoo to the Jungle: Allowing Your Teen the Room to Make Mistakes

It’s a jungle out there!  The world we live in is dangerous.  As parents, we bear the huge responsibility of protecting our little ones from harm.  But as they get older, it’s also our job to slowly give our sons and daughters the skills they need to to survive in the real world on their own.  We can teach our kids to live in the zoo, but more importantly, we need to prepare them to survive in the jungle.

Living in the Zoo

Life in the zoo is relatively easy.  The animals are free to roam around in safety away from dangerous predators.  They don’t have to work for their food; it’s handed to them on a silver platter.  While zoos protect and care for their animals, everyone knows that you can’t throw a domesticated animal back into the wild and expect it to thrive.  While in that place of safety, the animal has failed to develop the necessary instincts to survive in the jungle.

Ever feel like you are running a zoo at your house?  I know I felt that way many times.  It was my job as a parent to protect my kids from mistakes, keep them from harm and provide for their every need.  Up to a certain point, that’s exactly what a good parent does.  But if we continue to shelter our kids without giving them more control over their lives, we’re not preparing them for life outside the home.  In fact, we’re actually setting them up for future failure.

Discernment doesn’t come naturally.  We aren’t born with the knowledge of how to make the right decision in every circumstance.  Like a muscle, discernment has to be developed and exercised over time.  And the most common way this happens is through trial and error.

Think back to your own life.  Remember all those mistakes you made?  Though we may regret some of our decisions, they formed us into discerning, mature adults.  I would even go so far as to classify a string of ill-advised mistakes as “experience.”  It will feel unpleasant at times, but it’s important we give our teens opportunities to flex their decision-making muscles and make mistakes while they’re still under our roof and care.

Living in the Jungle

So how do you give more control to your teenager without letting chaos reign?  How do you begin training them for the jungle?

Well first, I encourage parents to start early.  The pre-teen years are an excellent time to get the ball rolling.  Every month, pick out one new area of responsibility for your child.  It could be learning to get out of bed with an alarm clock, bringing their clothes down to the laundry or making their own snacks after school.  Will there be days where your child has to wear an old shirt because they forgot to bring down their laundry?  Sure!  But this is all a part of the training program.  These uncomfortable moments are an important way of teaching your child to be independent and responsible.

As your teen gets older, continue to hand over responsibility.  Let them buy their own clothes out of an allowance.  Set the curfew back an hour later.  Have them decide what to make for dinner once a week.  Building a habit of responsible decision-making is a precious gift that you can give to your kids.

It’s only natural that teens will make mistakes.  They will bungle or blunder through bad decisions.  And that’s where one of the most important elements in this process comes in—grace.  When your son or daughter makes decisions that tempt us to gasp, shake our heads or slap our foreheads, it’s our job to consistently respond with grace.  The worst thing we can do is shame our teens, embarrass them or tighten the reins because of a failure.  Instead, we need to instruct and encourage our kids to learn from their mistakes, dust themselves off and try again.

Proverbs 24:16 tells us “the righteous falls seven times and rises again.”  (By the way, this is a good reminder that everyone makes mistakes—even parents!)  Standing back and watching our kids find their way can be a scary thing.  There’s a fear that your child will not be able to handle that type of freedom and completely go astray.  But if you give your teen the chance to direct certain areas of their life, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

I’ve spoken to many parents who told me, “You don’t know my kid, MarkHe can be really irresponsible.”  Or, “I don’t think letting her make those type of decisions is wise.  She’s not mature enough.”  However, those same parents who decided to let go and give their teens room for mistakes found that their kids responded astonishingly well!  Not only did the kids rise up to the challenges they were given, they exceeded even the parent’s expectations!  Most teenagers want to please their parents.  With the freedom to make decisions and fall down, they feel like they have an opportunity to do just that.

Now, I don’t want parents to get the wrong idea.  I am not recommending you throw your son or daughter into the deep end of the pool and shouting, “Swim!”  What I am saying is that we cannot keep our kids in the shallow end and expect them to navigate the larger end of the pool on their own.  Teaching our kids maturity and life skills involves taking them into deeper and deeper water gradually, so they feel comfortable leaving your care one day.

No one wants to see a son or daughter get hurt, fall down or make a mistake.  But those experiences are the necessary building blocks of a responsible adult.  Begin teaching your kids now how to make the most of each opportunity, and give them grace when they fail.  If you do, you will not only teach your child how to function in a zoo—you’ll give them the skills to thrive in the jungle!



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.

Independence Day

In our country, grateful Americans set aside July 4th to celebrate a grand holiday.  The festive fireworks, mouth-watering barbeques and fun with family and friends remind us about the value of our independence.  But there’s another Independence Day that most parents dread.  It’s the day your child walks out your door to begin life as an autonomous, responsible citizen.

As he crosses the threshold from the safety of your home into the dangers of the real world, you won’t be thinking about the petty battles you fought during the adolescent years.  It won’t matter whether your teen’s room was clean, whether he watched too much television, or whether you liked his friends.  What will matter most is whether you taught him what he needs to survive in the jungle that awaits him.

In this regard, independence is earned … not granted.  It’s not enough that your teen has turned eighteen.  He needs to mature and gain wisdom in order to enjoy an independent lifestyle.

So, here’s the question:  how do we bring our teens to that point of maturation?

The time that you have with your son or daughter during the teen years allows for you to gradually manage and nurture this transition.  It gives you the opportunity to stand alongside your teen when he needs you the most and when he begins to take those first steps of independence.  It’s not unlike the earlier years when you taught him to ride a bike.  The day came when it was finally time to strip off the training wheels and let him get a taste of freedom.  You nervously jogged alongside him as the front wheel swung wildly back and forth.  He had to suffer a few spills on the sidewalk before you let him venture out into the street.

We want the best for our kids.  But many times, our good intentions prompt us to take steps that make them rely on us.  We keep them from feeling any pain, and we unwittingly employ tactics that keep them looking to us for every need.  Even though it feels good for us to be loved and needed, it doesn’t allow our child to grow up and become independent.  They remain tethered to us, and we merely protract their childhood.

Planning early to help your child become self-regulating will help ease you both into this process.  Think ahead and think about it long before they reach Independence Day.  Be intentional.  When your teen is twelve or thirteen, ask yourself:  What am I doing for my teen to help him become his own person? 

Look for practical ways to let them exercise their adult muscles.  For example, the skill of budgeting applies just as easily to going to the movies as it does to paying the rent.  So when your teen wants to go to the theatre with his friends, require that he fund the event from his own resources.  Don’t become a walking ATM machine to your teen, dispensing twenty-dollar bills on demand, because it will only delay his capacity to generate and manage his own money.

Remember that spending adequate time together is crucial to developing a good relationship so that you can impart these principles in your teen.  His liberation won’t come in a few quick chats on the porch.  You need to spend lots of time developing a quality relationship that engenders trust.  There’s no short cut.  It takes time, even without talking or conversing, to build an atmosphere where your teen is willing to openly share with you his inner feelings.

This might take some work and planning.  Think about where you spend your time together.  You may not eat dinner around a dinner table anymore.  Perhaps you get a quick bite of fast food instead.  So if that’s the case, use the time in the car to talk when you have a captive audience.  Learn about the video games that your son plays so that you can sit down next to him while he plays.  Find out what his goal is for running the 100-yard dash in track.  If you don’t show your teen how much you care about what’s important to him in his everyday life, he won’t have the opportunity to learn why you react the way you do to challenges in your own life.

Remember, too, that your teen sees everything you do.  The good, the bad and the ugly.  If you have a strong relationship with your teen and you’re modeling appropriate behavior and decision-making, then your teen will have the benefit of drawing on a good example.  But it all depends on the relationship that you build right now.  If you and your teen are distant or out of sync in your communication, he probably won’t be paying attention to what you’re doing or how you’re making your decisions.  However, if you’re intentional in building trust with your teen and in giving him responsibilities that show that you value his strengths and contributions, you can build that freedom he’s craving.

Chores are an obvious tool for building responsibility into your teen.  Don’t let him off the hook on working around the house just because you want your teen to have an easier life than you did.  Let him feel the weight of what’s required to keep a home functioning in a healthy and normal manner.

I live in the country.  Kids in east Texas are forced to do chores and participate in work early on in order to survive.  In this environment, kids tend to become more resilient and do what’s needed.  Dr. Robert Epstein holds a similar viewpoint.  Dr. Epstein is the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine, a father of six, and a researcher.  His studies reveal a time when teens entered the adult world once they were ready.  Today, however, we seem to bestow their liberation at an arbitrary age.  And many times, they are not ready for the cruel realities of life that await them.  Dr. Epstein will join us on this weekend’s radio program, Parenting Today’s Teens, to share how we can make those intentional decisions to nurture the “inner adult” in our children.

Your son or daughter is getting ready for Independence Day.  My hope is that you will begin working toward that coming transition in order to celebrate the autonomy your teen deserves.  Believe it or not, his independence will keep him coming home for years to come, because he’s learned to enjoy and respect his relationship with you.

Coming Up – Turbulence Ahead: parenting teens through the bumpy years- seminar on Saturday, May 5th. Join us at Windwood Presbyterian Church from 9 AM-2:30PM. Contact the church at 281-378-4040 or visit www.windwoodpc.org.


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.