Recently, on our Parenting Today’s Teens radio program, my guest and good friend, Dr. Melody Rhode commented that the death of a child is such a catastrophic experience in the life of parents; it leads 90% of those marriages to fail. A shocking statistic, isn’t it?
In my years of working with thousands of struggling teens and their parents, I’ve learned that parents of troubled teens experience a similar sense of grief and loss, and also a profound sense of betrayal from their teen. Perhaps their teen has run away or otherwise has totally abandoned the family and everything they hold dear. To these parents it may seem as though a “death” has occurred, and as such, it similarly puts a great deal of stress on their marriage.
Often, the crisis with a teen amplifies the true condition of a marriage, revealing its areas of weakness. A teen’s acting out may actually be his unintentional way of forcing the adults in his life to deal with their obvious marital problems. It may be a relational problem that everyone in the family already knows exists – but is never talked about or addressed – or, it could simply be a lack of real love or respect in the relationship. Unfortunately, a parent who tends to be always absent, angry, too submissive or too strict may demonstrate these traits even more as they also have to deal with their teen’s behavior. It can be overwhelming for any parent.
On the other hand, I’ve seen many parents (even parents who had previously divorced each other) band together when their teen experiences troubles. Contrary to the hopelessness of a death, these parents are hopeful that something can yet be done to help their teen. They know that more is at stake than their own needs. They know that this issue with their teenager is bigger and more important than their own issues. Therefore, they know they had better get their own act together, or their teen may be lost forever.
For married parents who want to help their teen through this crisis, it is critical to understand that dealing with a struggling teen can be hard on your marriage. Really hard! And the failure of your marriage in the midst of the turmoil can lead to even more dire consequences for your teenager. To help you avoid these destructive forces, I encourage you to take these proactive steps:
Preventing Marital Jeopardy for Parents of Troubled Teens
- See the experience as something you must manage together. Attend couples counseling, get outside help specifically for managing your stress. If one of you tends to choose isolation from the problem, or expresses anger inappropriately, address it with a professional. If you’ve never had reason or motivation to improve your relationship, keep in mind that saving your teen is a really good reason.
- Begin to share your feelings about what’s happening in your family. Hiding your feelings from your spouse, or not talking about your fears, anxieties, or worries only isolates you from the problem.
- Present a united front to your teen, and one that insists your child treat both of you respectfully. This is a time when parenting comes from a love that is tough and remains strong, like that of a warrior ready to fight to keep a child from self-destruction. Treating each other respectfully is a first step.
- Identify how your teen’s out of control behavior is specifically hurting your marriage relationship, and express your feelings openly to your spouse. Protect your spouse’s feelings and don’t share them with others.
- Don’t expect your spouse to fill the void left by your teen’s wrong choices or absence.
- Don’t expect your spouse to change. Instead, focus on changing yourself.
- Don’t vent your frustrations on anyone else in the family, especially your spouse. Find other ways to vent that don’t include relationship-bashing.
- Don’t blame each other for the trouble you are experiencing with your teen. Blame will help no one at this point and in fact will feed your teen’s problems.
- Find other parents who are experiencing similar issues with their teen, and spend time with them. Relate your struggles and give them the chance to do the same. It may be difficult to find others who are willing to engage in such a private discussion, so you be willing to start the discussion, if needed. Attend conferences, like our Gathering at Heartlight, to help you gain insight and understand that you are not alone in this struggle.
- Respond instead of react to what comes your way. Take time to think it through before you make a decision, and make certain the decision is one you both support. Ask God’s help in finding the right answers, and strength to do what’s necessary.
- Don’t avoid the pain – if you avoid dealing with the pain, you avoid finding a solution. Examine the feelings of loss, betrayal, sorrow, or anger, and ask God to come alongside to bear your burdens
- Make decisions together as much as possible in regard to your teen, but don’t undermine your spouse’s decisions even if they are not discussed in advance. Recognize that there are things your spouse will do differently, and let it become a strength. Try to support their style of parenting, even if it’s not always what you would do, or how you would do it.
- Keep looking to the other side of the struggle. Be patient. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and it is God. Find hope in your relationship with God, and move in the direction He leads, knowing the struggle with your child will eventually end and the teen who gives you the hardest time is often the one you’ll end up relating to best down the road.
Above all, know this: Teens in crisis are experts at pitting one parent against another, creating a wedge in order to deflect attention away from their own bad behavior. So, at a time like this, be aware that you will be challenged with more marital problems. If you keep in mind where those stressors are coming from and also take to heart the steps I’ve outlined above, it could save your marriage.
Don’t let the temporary struggles with a teen damage your lifetime relationship with your spouse. Think about it. Hopefully, your spouse will be around your house a lot longer than your teen will be. Hold on. Stay the course. And don’t loose sight. This thing called adolescence will soon pass. But take advantage of those things you can learn during the struggle. These lessons can actually improve your marriage.
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 39 years, has two kids, and 4 grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, 2 llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy. His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with over 2,500 teens, has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.
Visit www.HeartlightMinistries.org to find out more about the residential counseling center for teens, or call Heartlight directly at 903. 668.2173. For more information and helpful other resources for moms and dads, visit www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org, It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Here you will also find a station near you where you can listen to the Parenting Today’s Teens radio broadcast, or download the podcast of the most recent programs.