fbpx

Finding the Hidden Messages In Your Teen’s Inappropriate Behavior

When new kids arrive at the Heartlight residential program we have in east Texas, we start to spend quite a bit of time looking for the motives “behind” their behavior, rather than looking at the inappropriate behavior that got them there. There’s not one of our staff that really believes that the behaviors we see are really the true issues in the life of a struggling teen. We all look to the heart of the issue. Change the behavior, and you’ve kept a teen out of trouble. Change their heart, and you’ve changed their life forever.

What does this have to do with your kids? Just this: Our teen’s inappropriate behaviors, whether it’s blatant disrespect, substance abuse, continuous lying, sexual activity, stealing, out-of-control anger, or spiraling depression, are visible landmarks that stick out in our teen’s life. But if we take the time to look underneath these monuments, we will find the true message our teens are trying to convey, but cannot find the words to do so.

All behavior, good or bad, is goal-oriented. A teen doesn’t act up without a reason. There is always a purpose and motivation behind a child’s actions. That means that inappropriate behavior is a visible indicator of an invisible problem. It’s the smoke that signals a hidden fire. It’s the warning light on the dashboard telling us to check our engine. Inappropriate behavior is a teen trying desperately to get help!

Heart Transformation Versus Behavior Modification

I get it. When our precious son or daughter is spinning out of control, our natural impulse is to correct their behavior. We want them to switch from doing wrong to doing right. We want to stop the lying, halt the cheating, curb the anger, and put an end to whatever harmful habit our teen is engaged in.

But if we only address the behavior and not the motivation behind it, we’re not truly helping our kids. It’s like the guy who went to see the doctor, because no matter what he touched on his body, it hurt. “Doc, when I touch my arm, I get this shooting pain. When I touch my leg, same thing. Even when I touch my face, I almost pass out, it hurts so bad. What’s the matter with me?” The doctor took one look and said, “You have a broken finger.”

When something is broken in your child’s life, it will affect everything else. And unless we address a teen’s heart, we’re not addressing the real cause of the problem. Focusing solely on the inappropriate actions is a form of behavior modification, but it is only a temporary Band-Aid. Aim for heart transformation instead. Investigate the reasons why your child is acting out, and address those concerns.

Jessica is a funny, compassionate, and well-spoken student in the Heartlight program. Born with a breathing disorder that made many activities dangerous, Jessica always had to work harder than most kids to stay connected to friends. And as she got older, it seemed to become more and more difficult. Jessica told us that it wasn’t easy to fit in among her school friends, who liked to party, because that just wasn’t her scene. Yet, at the same time, Jessica was finding it hard to relate to her church friends, who seemed to have perfect, sin-free lives, while she did not. As the gap widened between real connections, the lonelier Jessica became. So in order to be close with anyone, and to feel accepted, Jessica would often sneak out of her house at night to meet up with boys and engage in risky sexual activity. “I knew it was wrong,” Jessica confessed. “But those guys made me feel special, wanted, needed. I so badly wanted friends I could relate to, that I settled for boys who really just took advantage of me.

Now, to help Jessica and get her back on the right track, it would be easy to set up strict boundaries and rules, and point out the mistakes of sexual experimentation. But after listening to this sweet, young lady speak, I realized it wasn’t behavior modification that she really needed. She was desperate for connection, and in her immaturity, she was looking for it in all the wrong places. So if we take time to affirm her, set up friends who care about her, involve her in social circles with people she can relate to, those inappropriate behaviors will no longer have the same pull on her life. By addressing her heart, we’ve solved the problems with her behavior.

How to Find the Hidden Message

Now the question on the floor is, “Okay Mark, I need to look past the behavior to see what my son or daughter is really trying to say. But how can I possibly decode those hidden messages?

First, to hear a teen’s heart, we need to actively listen. That might mean withholding advice, judgment or comments for a while. I have found that most teens know when their actions are out of line. They don’t need mom and dad pointing that out. So instead of rehashing the mistakes, ask questions and sit back and listen. “What got you so angry?” or “How did that drug make you feel?” or “What made you go to that website?” These types of probing questions can peel back the layers of inappropriate behavior and give you insight into your child’s heart. Of course, in the moment, your teen may reply with the customary “I don’t know.” But don’t let their first answer stop you. In a gentle, loving and firm way, keep asking the questions that help you find the reason behind the behavior.

Second, don’t wait to address the behavior itself. You can search for the motive behind the actions at the same time that you are dealing with the action itself. While you’re taking away the car keys, you can say, “I don’t want to take the car privileges away from you again. So let’s talk about why this happened and how we can keep it from happening in the future.” The longer you wait to speak to the behavior, the harder it will be to deal with it correctly. By confronting the behavior, you’re also letting your teen know that, while you do care about the reasons behind those actions, you love them enough not to sweep the inappropriate behavior under the rug.

Lastly, be open to what God wants to teach you through your child’s behavior. Often, it’s the times of struggle, or hardships, or conflict that strengthen our relationships and deepen our character. I Peter 1:6 says, “Though for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trial… these have come so that the genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold—may result in the praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

Look behind the trials of parenting a teen to see the faith, grace and hope God is building into your life. Underneath all that inappropriate behavior you may find a map to the eternal treasures of peace, grace, and hope God has in store for both you and your teen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.


When Your Teen is in the Wrong Crowd

If you swim with the sharks, you’re bound to get bit. One bad apple spoils the whole bushel. Bad company corrupts good character. Many parents have added these phrases to their lexicon, because they illustrate the dangers of running with the “wrong crowd”. As moms and dads, we know how susceptible kids are to peer influence. You’ve likely spent many sleepless nights worrying about the people your child is hanging around. What are they teaching my son? What are they pressuring my daughter to do? Are these friends that will give needed support and encouragement to my teen, or are they the type of people who will bring my child down?

These are valid concerns if you suspect your child is hanging out with the wrong crowd. But let’s pause for a moment and ask just who is the “wrong crowd?” Here’s a simple definition we can use: The “wrong crowd” includes anyone who influences your child in ways that are contradictory to your values, systems, and beliefs as parents.

When parents observe changes in their teen and note the actions and attitudes of their friends, they may arrive at the conclusion, “my teen is in league with some bad seeds.” When this happens, how do we gently guide our teens away from negative influences? My advice may not be what you might expect.

Teach Your Kids

As parents, part of our job is to protect our kids. We try to shield them from negative influences as much as possible. We’re not going to let our 12-year-old daughter hang around 18-year-old girls who smoke pot and sleep with their boyfriends. We have to shield our child’s innocence until they are mature enough to make wise decisions on their own. It would be foolish to let young children spend time with people who have serious hang-ups. But at some point, we must stop protecting our kids and start preparing them to make wise choices when choosing friends. If all we are doing is holding our kids back from this or that person, we are not equipping them to make smart decisions once they are free of our control.

While every child is different, here is a basic guideline for starting that relational training:

  • 0–13 years old: Get to know and closely monitor your child’s friends. If your son or daughter is running with the wrong crowd this early, change schools, move houses, or pull your child from certain activities. At this age, they still need to have their innocence protected.
  • 14–17 years old: Continue to monitor your child’s friends, but begin to slowly back off from controlling their relationships. If you have concerns about the people they are spending time with, talk with your kids about the problems you see. Also, set personal and family boundaries regarding the kind of behavior that is acceptable among friends and the kind that is not.
  • 18+ years old: At this age, young people must be responsible for their own choices, including their choices in friends. If they are living with you, they must follow the rules of the house. But if they are on their own, all you can do is let them know you are available to talk and give advice if they ever feel they need it.

As you train your teen to use discernment when choosing friends, you can help them along by asking good questions. For instance, you can ask, “I’m curious; would you ever drink and drive? Do you know someone who has? Did they think it was a good idea? Do you?” Or you can ask, “Has anyone offered you drugs? What crossed your mind in that moment?” These types of questions are effective because they help your child articulate their values, beliefs, and convictions. And if they ever get into a situation similar to the one you have discussed, chances are they will remember, “Hey, I remember telling my mom (or dad) that I don’t believe in drinking and driving. I’m going to pass.” By asking good questions, you are helping your child build up those decision-making muscles that will serve them well, whether they have good friends or not.

Embrace the “Bad” Kids

We have welcomed more than 2,500 teens to the Heartlight campus over the years. All of the teens that walk through our doors would generally be included in what most people consider, the “wrong crowd.” But I love them all to death. Despite the numerous kids who have come through our program, I have yet to meet a “bad kid.” Now, I have met some strong-willed kids. I have helped teens with deep-seated problems and issues. But there isn’t one child who is beyond help. As moms and dads, we may spend a lot of time avoiding the “bad kids” and encouraging our children to do the same. But as Christians, we are called to minister to people in need. And who needs a helping hand more than a teen who is hurtling off the tracks at 90 miles an hour?

I remember taking a group of my Heartlight kids to church one Sunday. As our large group walked through the doors, I could feel the eyes turning in our direction and I could sense the shuffling in the seats. The congregants knew I was coming with teens who carried a lot of baggage. We sat in the back, and tried not to disrupt the service. But my heart broke when the pastor starting talking about a mission trip to Africa and their upcoming service to an orphanage in that part of the world. I felt like standing up and saying, “But there are kids RIGHT HERE who you need your compassion!” I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with mission trips to Africa. What I am saying is that there are kids who need to be the focus of our “mission” right here in all of our back yards.

Instead of running from the wrong crowd, let’s run towards them! Turn your home into a safe, loving, and fun place where teens can hang out and interact. Provide alternatives for your kids and their friends. Invite them to watch a ball game. Pack up enough supplies, and take a group fishing. Let them set up their band in your garage. Set aside a weekend, and go camping with your kids and their friends. In this way, not only will you be providing a healthy outlet for teens to have fun, but they will be under your watch and protection. Rather than cautioning your teen to side step the problem kids, take initiative and be the mentor, leader, or life coach they need.

Maybe your son or daughter has some friends with emotional, physical, or spiritual issues. To pull away from these kids may mean we are running from the mission field God has for us! The Proverbs 31 woman is a role model for all us. God’s Word says that “she opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy” (Proverbs 31:20). Are there hurting and needy kids in your teen’s circle of friends? Open up your arms, and embrace that “wrong crowd.”

Be The Change

When you began to read this article, you probably thought that I would offer some suggestions about how to avoid the wrong crowd. Maybe you are a bit surprised at my approach to this topic. But please hear me out; no matter where you go, where you live, or who you know—there will always be a “wrong crowd” to worry about. So rather than spend all your time playing defense trying to block the bad kids from your teens, start playing the offense. Start influencing the “bad kids” yourself. And teach your teen to do the same. In that way, you won’t avoid the wrong crowd, you will change them!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.

 


Broken Parents Helping Broken Teens

Parent Story: Mickie

You’ve heard the phrase: “Hurt people hurt people.” So if you’re still harboring unhealed wounds yourself, how can you help your teen get past their own pain? This weekend on Parenting Today’s Teens, Mark Gregston explains how being honest about your pain can bridge understanding and encourage openness with your teen.

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