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.

Boys to Men

Angry 15 year old boyThirty-five years ago, a pastor of the church I worked and I were eating lunch at a local restaurant and he asked me, “Mark, do you see every person in this room?” I knew there was a lesson coming.  He then said something that has been with me every since.  He said, “Each person here feels like they’re carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.”  You might not think that too profound.  Over the years I have learned that his comment was utterly profound.  I think it especially applies to fifteen-year-old boys.

Parents do a wonderful job of teaching and encouraging a young son with uplifting words and rewards for participation in every activity.  You tell him he’s great, brag on him in conversations and post his photo in your Christmas cards. Then he turns 15, and things begin to look a little different.

Life for a 15-year-old boy can be a tough time, and even more difficult when parents begin making greater demands that force him to begin taking more and more responsibility for himself.

Suddenly, it seems, he does have the weight of the world on his shoulders. Classes get harder. The pond he swims in just got bigger and he just got smaller.  His social world gets divided and distributed. He’s too old to ride a bike and too young to drive a car.  The lessons you taught him are harder to apply than first thought.  Your son’s sporting accomplishments are dissipated into an overwhelming number of other 15-year-old boys who have accomplished the same, and perhaps more.  Girlfriends move on to older guys.

You might begin to see that the pain of growing up makes your teenage son behave more selfishly.  It might make him angry because he’s getting less of what he wanted in life, and more of what he didn’t want.  He may take to “spewing” at you because there is no one else who’ll take it.  He hurts because it’s harder than he thought.  Sometimes boys retreat to a virtual world of games, hide in their room, or just crawl inside their own depression.  They may associate with a new group of kids that look like “losers” because they find that those losers feel the same way.

They might feel stuck, frustrated, and begin to lose motivation.  They might begin to use words that you only see on public bathroom walls.  They might express themselves in ways you would have never expected.  It’s a tough time.  But it’s the right time for you to help them through it so you aren’t left dealing with a prodigal at 18 or 25.

If Your Teenage Boy is Struggling

There is nothing worse than living with a teen spinning out of control, and no worse feeling than the hopelessness parents experience in the process.  It is difficult to know what to do and how to react when your teen reaches new lows in disobedience, dishonesty, and disrespect, and chooses every wrong thing.

Begin to address problems with a 15-year old son by taking time to understand his battles.  Try to understand how tough life seems, and move toward him in compassion, not anger.

Then, decide what you will and won’t do to help him get to the place he wants to be.  If counseling is needed, get it.  If medical issues arise, see a doctor. If there are academic issues surrounded by learning disabilities, get help.  If it’s a discipline issue that begins to spin out of control, take the following steps to send the message, “I understand that things are tough right now, but we’re not going to live like this. ”

1. Set the Stage

When there’s a lull in the battle, share with your son that you’d like to have a conversation later in the week about how things are going.  Don’t give him any more information than just that.  Just tell him that you’d like to wait, and talk about it when you get together.  This will help him understand the serious nature of what you’re requesting.  He’ll know something is “up”.  He may begin to think about things he hasn’t up until now, because you’ve never asked this of him before.

When you get together later in the week, make sure it’s just one-on-one.  This is not the time to have two parents meeting with one child.  Scripture admonishes us to settle any conflict by going to the person alone first; we should do the same with our child.

2. Have the Talk

At the meeting, tell him that you know it is a tough age for them. I would encourage you not to share all the details of why you know it’s a tough time.  You’ll come up short, or say something “wrong,” or say too much and take away from the real point of the discussion.  Just tell him you know it’s a tough age.

Share with him how his behavior makes you feel.  I’ve found you can never really change a person’s feelings, so expressing your own gives them something that they cannot really argue or dispute.  You feel the way you do for whatever reason.

If accusations come up about your own failures, admit them.  Agreeing with your child about your failures pulls the fuse out of his firecracker. It can no longer be used as ammunition.  In addition, admitting your own wrongdoing provides an amazing example to your child of what you might want to see them do one day…admit when they are wrong.  They never will if you never do.

Tell him that from now on there are three rules for your home: Respect. Honesty. Obedience.  In that order.

Share your heart.  “Son, there’s some things that have to change….some things that have to stop, and some new things need to happen.” Or, if your daughter,  “Sweetheart, things can’t continue the way they are.” The overall message is, “There are going to be some changes in the way that we operate from now on.”

Feel free to use these helps that let them know change is inevitable:

“I can’t allow for the following behavior to happen anymore.”

“Beginning now life will be different in our household.”

“Yelling at your mother has to stop.  It is disrespectful and I can’t allow anyone to speak to my wife that way.”

“We have some new rules about money, chores, and helping around the house.”

“You may not demand everything all the time. “

“We will no longer do “these things” (laundry, driving you everywhere, paying for everything, cooking every meal, and jumping every time you say ‘frog’).

“Your cussing must stop.  Your younger brothers and sisters are being affected.”

“Our home will be safe for everyone.  You cannot get physical or be threatening.  If you do, we will call the police.”

“We will come to agreement about the way you dress.

“You’re on the computer quite a bit, and it’s keeping you from interacting with others.  We’re going to limit it’s use.”

“I love cell phones, but you have to turn it off during meals, after 10:00 pm, and when we’re having a discussion.”

“When you get your car next year, and I’ll put up the same amount of money that you give for its purchase, you’ll have to pay for gas or insurance”. (This is for future use. You’re saying it now to help get their expectations in order.)

Hopefully you understand what I’m proposing.  You are detailing what you would like to see in your home and what you want to be different.  You are lining out expectations, changing the rules of the game, establishing boundaries, developing new rules of engagement, and giving definition to acceptable and unacceptable behavior for your home.

3. Lay Out the Consequences

This is also the time to identify and express the consequences.  Then, when it comes time to enforce the consequences, your child already knows what to expect.

Here are a few helpful bits of wisdom that I’ve found are essential as you change the laws of your home, and move into new territory.  Know which battles you want to fight, and which ones you can let go.   Don’t try to correct everything at once.  Don’t keep hounding your child to change everything all at once.Tell him that you owe him nothing, but want to give him everything.  It’s a message that bears repeating to the point that he can say it back to you.  Plan for special times where the only boundary for the time together is “no sermons and no cell phones.”  You don’t preach, and he won’t talk or text on the phone.

And surprise your 15-year-old occasionally by bringing him the computer game or CD or DVD that he’s always wanted.  Not because he’s demanded it, but because you know that he wants it.   It’s a lot easier to require something of him when he knows that you are willing to also give to him.

To the harshest of situations, approach with humility, but carry that “big stick” of parental authority.  If you just don’t know what to do, then don’t lean on your own understanding.  Find help from others who have been there.  Let your 15-year-old son know that you will stop at nothing to change his heading in the wrong direction.

Most of the challenges you encounter during your son’s (or daughter’s) 15th year, are just bumps in the road and will soon pass.  It’s important that you not wait for that to happen but help make it happen.  Now is the time to be engaged in the life of your kids; they need you now more than ever.

Merry Christmas, everyone!!!


A special message from Mark

I do hope and pray that this Christmas season is a wonderful time of celebration and reflection for you and your family.  It’s a special time for all of us at Parenting Today’s Teens, and the only time that we ask folks to partner with us financially to help support our work with teens and families.  If these newsletters, or any of the Parenting Today’s Teens resources have been beneficial to you, would you consider a gift to our ministry in your year-end giving?  You can do so by clicking here.

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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.  To find out about al the resources available through Parenting Today’s Teens, please visit www.parentingtodaysteens.org.  To find out more about the Heartlight residential counseling program that Mark founded, visit www.heartlightministries.org  You can also call Parenting Today’s Teens office directly at 1.866.700.FAMILY (3264)  And, hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org.


The Wrong Crowd

Dad's BlessingIn school, kids are always trying to fit in with the crowd. Everyone goes through that and feels peer pressure from that. I know I did when I was growing up. I definitely wanted to hang out with the cool kids and tried to be something I’m not.”  ~Joe Jonas

There is a group of kids that parents fear most.  Moms and dads spend a great deal of time and energy cautioning their kids against this motley band of miscreants.  It’s most commonly referred to as “the wrong crowd.”  The group is usually made up of the kids who smoke the things they shouldn’t, boast about sexual conquests, bully others, or get involved in other harmful or destructive behaviors.  These are the kids that you warn your children to avoid at all costs.

Now, I don’t enjoy being the bearer of bad news, but the truth is this “wrong crowd” is inescapable.  I have listened to parents who believe that taking their kids out of public school, or moving to the country, or limiting social interaction will protect their family from the dangers of bad influences.  But that’s just not the case.  Christian schools have the “wrong crowd” as well.  So do rural areas.  The fact is, there will always be peers and friends who steer your children down the wrong path.

Since stopping all interaction with all negative influences is impossible, perhaps it’s time to change our strategy.  As parents, how can we make sure our kids don’t assimilate into the wrong crowd?  Or how can we help our teen who maybe is the wrong crowd?

Turn the Tables

I’ve spent 38 years hanging out with the wrong crowd.  Every one of the twenty-five hundred kids who have stepped through the doors of the Heartlight campus are what most people consider the “bad kids.”  But frankly, while I have dealt with teens who have battled serious issues, I have yet to meet a bad kid.  There is no such thing as a teenager who is beyond hope.  Even those kids who make up the wrong crowd can turn their lives around with the right motivation.  In fact, the teens that lead the pack are often highly charismatic, intelligent, and have great leadership skills.  Unfortunately, these amazing gifts are misapplied, which leads to the “wrong crowd” mentality and destructive behaviors.  Yes, troubled teens can unduly influence others, but that influence can be turned around and redeemed.

Instead of looking at the teen across the street as a perpetual troublemaker worth avoiding, view that troubled kid as a mission field.  Perhaps the reason God placed you in that specific neighborhood is so that you could be an influence on that particular young man or woman.  Or maybe that sketchy friend your son or daughter is hanging around with needs you to be a voice of reason and righteousness in their lives.  Jesus told us that if we see one lamb has gone missing, we’re to leave the others in the pen and go after the lamb that was lost (Luke 15:1-3).  God is passionately involved in going after the “lost,” and so should we.  Instead of fearing and avoiding those “dangerous” kids, let’s take the opportunity to reach out to the kids who may need our help.  You can flip the tables, so to speak, and begin to influence them.  If your teen has friends who are part of the “wrong crowd” who are lost and looking for direction, it’s a great chance to give them the direction they are looking for.

Lead, Don’t Follow

We can also help our kids avoid the traps of falling in with the wrong crowd by teaching them to lead, and not follow.  What teenagers crave more than anything is a sense of acceptance.  They want to feel validated and appreciated.  And when they find that in a particular group, they tend to stay in that group.  Unfortunately, there may be a price to be paid for joining certain cliques or crowds.  As my friend Paul Coughlin says, “cruelty is currency” in today’s youth culture.  Many of the groups roaming the halls at school or hanging out at the local skate park operate on the basis of bullying.  It’s a form of power that allows them to buy popularity.

Teaching our kids to stand out from the pack and stand up for others goes a long way in preventing our kids from becoming part of the wrong crowd.  I have written about the dangers of bullying in other articles [Recognizing and Preventing “Mean Girls”], but there are also hazards of allowing bullying to happen.  Recent studies by the American Psychology Association reveal that passive witnesses of bullying or cruelty show a sharp decrease in empathy, have higher cases of depression, and perform poorly in school.*  Even if our children aren’t the tormentors, the impact of watching others being injured can still harm kids indirectly.

As parents, we can also help our children avoid following the wrong crowd by teaching the “hows” and “whys” of bad behavior.  It’s not enough to say, “The Bible says don’t do that.” It’s about engaging your teenager in a conversation of why they should stand up to bullies, how drugs can damage your health and future, why pre-martial sex is not a good idea, and how the principles of the Bible are written for our good.  Curiosity is a powerful drive, especially in teenagers.  They are interested in (and probably questioning) everything, as they attempt to understand how the world around them works.  And many times the forbidden fruit is often the sweetest—that action or behavior that other kids are doing but they aren’t allowed to participate in.  But if we take the time to explain why that seemingly delicious fruit is rotten and bad, we start taking the power out of following the wrong crowd.

We can’t escape the negative influences surrounding our kids.  There will always be a “wrong crowd” that will attempt to bring our teenagers down.  But by being active in positively influencing those kids and coaching our teenagers to lead and not follow, we can break the power of these enticing groups and break the fear that our children will be drawn into them.

*Observing Bullying at School: The Mental Health Implications of Witness Status 



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.