Me and My Struggling Teen

Written by Mark Gregston. Posted in parenting, struggling teens, troubled teens

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Have you ever asked yourself, “What on earth does God have in mind by allowing both me and my teen to struggle so?”

I often see Christians who believe that parenting according to scriptural values, taking their kids to church every time the doors are open, and promoting family togetherness means that all will be well in the teenage years. Like buying an insurance plan, they think that doing the right things will bring about the right result.

Let me tell you, based on years of experience with struggling teens and their parents, that this thinking is just plain wrong. Never assume that applying a continuous moral or religious presence in your child’s life will in itself bring about a perfect transition from childhood to adulthood. It can help and should be encouraged, but it is no guarantee. The often quoted scripture “train up a child in the way he should go” says nothing about the turbulent teenage years. In fact, you’ll want to remember that some biblical characters with seemingly perfect spiritual upbringings had difficulties themselves in their teenage years.

Stuff happens that is out of our control as parents, and even if we do everything right, stuff still happens. One angelic teenager can lead us to think that we have found the right formula, right up until we see our next child go down a completely different path. Welcome to the real world — where God gives each of our children a free will.

And, welcome to the one thing in life over which you have absolutely no control. It may be the first time in your life that you have to lean on God completely. And that’s not all bad.

Could this Time Be God’s Challenge to You?

In the heart of any parenting struggle there is usually more that we can learn. For instance, could God want us to know Him more fully? Could we benefit from a different perspective and have a better understanding of how to help other kids or parents? Could this difficult time reveal areas of our lives that need to change?

The point is, in God’s economy there is always a point to the pain. So allow God to use this time to move you along to a better place or to develop your own character.

Consider Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me oh God, and know my anxious thoughts, and see if there is any hurtful way in me, and lead me in paths of righteousness.”

In addition, think about Matthew 7:4-5, “How can you say, ‘My friend, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you don’t see the log in your own eye? You’re nothing but show-offs! First, take the log out of your own eye. Then you can see how to take the speck out of your friend’s eye.”

Do you have something that needs attention in your own life at the same time as you seek help for your teen? If so, remember this…it could have lasting benefits that go far beyond this difficult period. You will learn to trust God in a very real way.

> You will learn how to become a good listener — one who waits to be invited.
> You will grow spiritually, become more self-controlled, slower to speak, slower to anger.
> You will realize that God is still dependable, even when everything seems out of control.
> You will learn the extent of God’s great love for you.
> You will develop wisdom that is useful for the next generation in your family.
> Other parents will benefit from watching you handle your struggle in the right way.
> Out of desperation, you will stop faking your faith and make your dependence upon God real.

You see, the struggle is always partly about us, how we handle things and how we seek God’s help in the midst of the storm. It will challenge and sharpen our beliefs and help us confront our fear of losing control. Stated in another way, it will help build our faith and dependence on God’s every provision in our lives.

Aim Higher

Isn’t it somewhat comforting to know that God may have a bigger purpose in it all for both you and your teen? If you believe that, then don’t just focus on your teenager’s struggles at this time. Step in front of a mirror and look for areas in your own life that need to grow, and aim to make those changes with God’s help.

Take a moment right now to think about how God might be using your situation to reveal more about His character, and how that knowledge can help you in turn deal with your struggling teen.

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Adopted Teen Troubles

Written by Mark Gregston. Posted in parenting, Uncategorized

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Most adopted children that I’ve worked with have one question on their minds that is frankly unanswerable.  The question creates an unfillable void, especially in the teen years.  And that question is, “Why was I abandoned by my birth-mother?”

Adopted kids often carry a lot of emotional baggage and the new parents are often caught off guard by how their lovely adopted child acts out when reaching the teenage years.  Many times the “new parents” are a reminder to that child of what she has lost, what she doesn’t have, and what she misses.  Thus, anger builds up over why she was abandoned more than about anything the adopted parents did or didn’t do.  The adopted parents just happen to be the convenient ones to take the brunt of her anger.

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Dear Mark…We adopted our 16-year old daughter when she was 7 years old in hopes of giving her a better life.  We do not have much money, but we do try to reward her good deeds, which are few and far between at this point in her life.  Now she has serious behavioral (and moral) problems. We are at our last hope for helping her. Is there any way you can help us?

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Mark’s Answer: What you have done, by adopting this beautiful girl, is an honorable thing.  You are to be applauded for what you have done, as you really have had input into her life….you might just not see the fruit of your labor for awhile.  Just because she is responding the way she is right now doesn’t mean that the adoption was wrong.  It just means that you might not have been prepared for what you are facing. Most parents adopt with the best of intentions, and with a set of high hopes that they indeed are giving their child a better life.  You are doing the right thing by seeking help and not giving up.

Several of our teen residents at Heartlight are adopted children, which goes to show how prevalent these issues are among adopted kids.

Anger comes from loss or when we don’t get what we think we want.  Your daughter is angry because she hasn’t gotten what she thinks she wanted–her birth mom and dad.  She is fantasizing about a world of perfection where everything is okay.  They really do believe that if they had not been given up and had a normal natural family, then everything would be fine and she wouldn’t have the “emptiness” she feels.

I’ve seen this dynamic at work many, many times, and I can say that, eventually, your daughter will understand it as well and be remorseful for how badly she’s been treating you. This is just not a conclusion she will likely come to in her teen years.

Meanwhile, you still have to deal with and control her behavior.  Just keep in mind that while behavior has to be contended with, it is a symptom, not the main issue with an adopted child.  And usually, you have to handle the real issues and the symptoms at the same time.

So here are some suggestions:

1. Your understanding of your child’s issues will help you respond differently to your child’s actions.  Perhaps this would be a good time to meet with a counselor yourself to get some direction and input.

2. Your child needs some outside reinforcement.  She needs to meet with someone outside of your family who she has or can connect with, and get some perspective that is supportive of your love, concern, and longings for her.

3. She’s capable of handling her behavior.  At some point (and it sounds like you are now there) some lines must be drawn.  She should be told that you will no longer allow the type of behavior you are currently seeing.  Issues of respect, honesty, and obedience are key.

4. Reward the good behavior, and allow consequences to have their full affect for inappropriate behavior.  Give her an IPOD on some good days, so you can take it away on the bad days.  Pay for her cell phone when you have good weeks or months so that misses the privilege of a phone when you take it away during the bad weeks or months.

5. Moral issues are secondary at this time and may be more fluff than reality.  Most of the time, these issues pass and will “right” themselves.  It is something that should be discussed with her counselor.  She may be saying shocking things to get back at you or just to show everyone that she has control of her life.  So many times, teens will pick lifestyles that are their choice, just to try to prove that they can control their out-of-control life.

6. It takes two to fight.  Don’t fight!  Let her know that this is not what your family is about and that you will not engage in the childish fighting that she is trying to draw you into.

7. Lastly, hang in there.  No act of kindness goes unnoticed, even when you don’t think that she is seeing it.  Remember, the Bible teaches, “…you will reap from what you sow….in due time.”  We all get frustrated with the part about “due time.”  It never seems to be on our schedule….and never quick enough.

If you do nothing more than give your child a taste of what it means to have a normal life, then you are doing a good thing.  If she only learns that God is one who loves her and will never give her up, then you have created an environment for her to learn some pretty significant lessons.

God has a bigger plan than what you see…pray that He will show you a little more of what He’s doing. He will.  And as always, thank you for adopting this child.  No matter how hard it is right now, realize that you have already had a huge positive impact on her life and she will come around, eventually.

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Parenting Teens with Grace

Written by Mark Gregston. Posted in consequences, parenting, struggling teens, troubled teens

IMG_2507When a teenager’s behavior is way out of line, when he or she crosses established boundaries and offends us and makes us angry, it is easy to think he or she doesn’t deserve grace. But that may be exactly the right time to give it.

Grace – given at just the right moment – has the power to change the direction of any struggle, and may ultimately bring it to an end. Grace can bring healing, restoration, and redirect your teen’s path.

A biblical definition of grace is this: God’s undeserved favor and forgiveness when we’ve chosen the unforgivable. In human terms, grace is an act of kindness, love, and forgiveness in the face of bad behavior or poor choices. For your teen, it can even extend to outright rebellion and rotten attitudes.

I recently worked with a teen who rarely received grace at home. He was angry, all the time, and spewed anger on everyone and everything around him, including the side of my van. Instead of having him arrested for bashing my vehicle with a baseball bat, I sat him down and told him he was forgiven, he wouldn’t be arrested, and that we were going to work things out differently from now on.

As we began to talk, tears came to his eyes. He had never experienced that kind of forgiveness in the face of his anger, and he couldn’t believe I didn’t have the police waiting to take him to jail. Giving him grace, at just the right moment, went a long way to change the direction he was headed, and in the end, after a lot of work, he successfully completed the Heartlight program.

Grace When it is Least Deserved

How do you know exactly the right time to extend grace? How about when it’s least deserved? I guess that’s how you’ll know it’s grace – because it won’t feel good – in fact, it may be enough to put you in a really bad mood. I didn’t enjoy having a smashed-in van. I didn’t like having to pay for the repairs. But that’s the nature of grace. It doesn’t feel good when you’re giving it, it’s costly, but you are never more like Christ than when you offer it.

As believers, we should understand grace-giving. After all, didn’t God love us so much that while we were sinners He sent His Son to die for us? He took our place for the penalty of sin. That kind of grace didn’t come easily, but we can learn from it and imitate it.

Grace is Not Meant to Enable Bad Behavior

Seeking grace in parenting doesn’t mean we allow bad behavior to continue unchecked. That’s not grace. That’s enabling or empowering our child to keep up their bad behavior without fear of consequences. As I’ve talked about many times, the pain of consequences is what causes all of us to take notice of our bad behavior -so we make a change. Some say that pain is a terrible part of God’s creation, but the fact is, without it we’d never change. Pain keeps us in check and tells us when something is wrong.

Grace Can be Misunderstood by Others

The biblical story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-22) is a good illustration of a father who extended grace without enabling. It wasn’t easy to see his son leave, and as the story goes, the son only came to his senses when he had wasted all of his inheritance and hit bottom. The father still welcomed him back into the family, but to our knowledge, he didn’t offer the son more money or enable him to go back to an unfruitful lifestyle.

But giving grace isn’t always popular. Remember the sibling in the story – the good son? He questioned his father’s decision to extend grace to his prodigal brother. After all, he had stayed behind to help the family while the prodigal was off seeking pleasure. Even though the decision was unpopular, the father gave grace and most likely did so not just because his son returned, but because the he wisely saw that his son had finally come to his senses.

Remember, Giving Grace is…

  • Most often needed when it is least deserved
  • Doesn’t directly benefit the giver
  • Can be misunderstood by others
  • Doesn’t enable bad behavior to continue
  • Is best when it is offered at just the right time
  • Comes from a desire for a new direction, understanding your child’s heart, and his need to be restored.

We are never more like Christ than when we give our teen grace in the face of a struggle. And, giving grace when it surely is not deserved may change the direction of the struggle, or even bring it to an end.

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Shifting Gears in Parenthood

Written by Mark Gregston. Posted in parenting, struggling teens, troubled teens, Uncategorized

IMG_2476As Children Enter Adolescence, Parents Need to Shift Gears — from Lecturing and Protecting to Mentoring and Coaching.

Perhaps you recall the Biosphere II experiment 20 or so years ago? Several scientists were sealed in a huge glass biodome in the Arizona desert to see if life could be sustained in a similar facility in outer space. There was one unexpected result from that experiment. As trees were grown in this seemingly “perfect” environment, with sun and water and good soil, they all eventually died. You see, as trees normally grow in nature, winds continuously bend them back and forth, making microscopic tears in their bark. The tree responds by filling the tiny breaks with protective sap that hardens and forms a sturdy outer core, making the tree trunk strong enough to stand upright. So, without the buffeting of wind in the protected dome of Biosphere II, the trees there simply flopped over and broke after reaching a certain height.

I hope the analogy to parenting is obvious. Are you overly protective of a teenager in your own “dome.” Can you see how that could become detrimental, or at the very least not be very helpful to them, when in a few short years they will take on life all on their own?

After years of being in protector mode, we need to get out of the way and allow our children to gradually bend in the winds of life a little more. Through that gentle buffeting they’ll gain strength and wisdom to stand upright and flourish in their later years. Without it, they will simply fall over at some point.

The shift also encompasses moving from telling and providing to listening and guiding. In other words, avoid fixing everything for the little darlings but be there for them to cry on your shoulder when they make a mistake. Encourage them to make as many of their own decisions as possible, as long as they aren’t life-threatening.

The teenager may not get it quite right at first but eventually, through natural consequences, they will learn to make better decisions. Begin early, and keep working at it. This is an ongoing process, and one you should consider a critical stepping stone to maturity.

Parents of teenagers who really understand the “shifting gears” principle become really good coaches and listeners. They allow their children to learn from small mistakes along life’s road to prepare them to handle bigger decisions later on. They remain in the game, enforcing the boundaries without wavering, but they avoid anger when boundaries are broken. They allow consequences to speak for themselves, for it is through consequences that we all learn. And they express true empathy and inspirational support during their teen’s struggles, even when they make really stupid mistakes.

If you have a teenager in your home, perhaps it is time to shift your style of parenting. While it is hard to step back and watch as inevitable mistakes are made, it is essential for parents to allow the buffeting winds of life to blow. And give your teen some credit. You’ll be surprised how quickly he or she will mature once the training wheels are taken off and it is up to them to either steer straight, or crash. Like the beam on a child’s face after his first unassisted bike ride, your teen will grow in confidence and self-esteem with each new decision he makes.

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Teenagers and Consequences

Written by Mark Gregston. Posted in consequences, parenting, struggling teens, troubled teens

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Handing over some control, and setting good boundaries is essential to fostering maturity in your teen. However, we parents often don’t realize that unless we allow our child to take full responsibility for their behavior by facing consequences, our teenagers will remain immature. I deal with this constantly in my work with struggling teens and their parents, who wonder why their teen is so out of control.

At the heart of this issue is one central theme – consequences. If you wonder why teenagers behave irresponsibly, well, it’s because they are irresponsible. And, they will not become responsible or mature, or wise, until they engage in the process of dealing with the consequences of their choices and behavior. It is a cycle that needs to happen over and over before a teen comes to full maturity.

Sometimes a parent says, “Wouldn’t it be best to wait until I trust my child till I give them more responsibility or control, then they won’t have such difficult consequences?” My answer is that if you wait until you trust them, you will never give them any responsibility. You never will. And, they won’t learn how to face consequences and learn from them, or the consequences they face later on will be of a much more serious nature.

Don’t Wait…Start Early

Building responsibility and good decision-making takes practice, and you have to start earlier than you think. It is a learned process. As the writer of Hebrews says, “But solid food is for the mature, who, because of practice (constant use) have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” Hebrews 5:14

Start by giving responsibilities early. Give them a checkbook in the sixth grade. Give them a debit card with their allowance on it so they learn early how to manage it. Get an alarm clock and let them wake themselves up for school every morning. Let them keep a calendar and be responsible to let you know in advance when they need transport to and from events. Then, don’t take them if you don’t discuss it in advance. The consequence of not communicating about the calendar is, “you don’t get to go.”

When they begin driving, agree to periodically put money on a gas card. Then, when they prematurely run out of their gas allowance, don’t give them more. I guarantee it will be the last time they run out. In the process they will figure out how to manage their gas money.

The idea here is to stop helping teenagers so much – the way you have helped them when they were younger. While a major responsibility of good parenting is certainly to control and protect our children, parents must make room for their older children to make mistakes. You help a teen best by letting them deal with the natural results of their decision, fall down a bit in the process, and then letting them figure out how to get back up.

In many cases, a parent takes control because they see an absence of a child’s self-control and there is a display of immaturity and irresponsibility. Parents of struggling teens often feel forced into the mode of over-control.

Avoiding Over-Control

Over-control happens when otherwise loving parents protect their children from the consequences of their mistakes, or by having too-strict rules and limits (Example: Not wanting them to be with others for fear of them learning bad habits, getting hurt, etc.)

Over-controlled children are more likely to have problems with peer dependence, relationship enmeshment conflicts and difficulty setting and keeping firm boundaries. They may also have problems taking risks and being creative.

Every culture on earth has a proverb that resembles this one: If you rescue them once, you will just have to rescue them again.

Handing teenagers control and allowing them to face the consequences of their own decisions means:

  • They may get an “F” on their homework when they don’t turn in homework. When they get enough F’s, they will flunk the class. If they flunk the class, they will have to make it up in summer school. If they don’t make it up in summer school, they won’t graduate. (Believe me, I’ve seen it happen just this way.)
  • They may have to walk to school, pay for a cab, or miss an entire day when they don’t get up in time to make the bus. If they miss school, they miss the fun after school or this weekend as well. Don’t write the excuse that gets them out of the consequences.
  • If they serve detention at school, then let them miss the football game on Friday night as well.
  • If they use the Internet to promote an inappropriate image or lifestyle, disconnect it for a period of time.
  • Should they be arrested and it is obvious that they or the friends they were hanging around with are at fault, let them sit in jail for awhile. Don’t bail them out right away. Sitting in jail can have a sobering affect on their thinking and force them to reevaluate their life’s direction.
  • If they are ticketed for speeding, not wearing their seat belt, being out past the local curfew, or other infractions of the law, let them figure out how to pay the fine, as well as how to get to work or school the next day, since they will not be driving your car.
  • Let them help pay for their insurance and gas when they are ready to start driving. Don’t even get them their license until they can pay their portion of the first quarter of insurance.
  • Pay for college as long as they maintain their grades at a level you both agree. If grades become unsatisfactory, then let them pay for the next semester. If you are paying for college, tell them the schools you are willing to pay for. If they wish to attend elsewhere, they can pay for it
  • If they spend their money foolishly, don’t buy them the things they need. Let them figure out how to pay for those things (like extra gas money). Doing without may teach them to stop spending foolishly.
  • If they are experimenting with drugs or alcohol, require them to pass periodic and unannounced drug and alcohol tests as a requirement to live in your house.
  • Let them decide how to pay for college next semester if this semester they spent more time partying than studying. And don’t finance an apartment or a car if they continue with that lifestyle. Let them decide how to finance that lifestyle themselves.
  • Turn off the TV, remove the TV, or cancel your cable if staying away from viewing inappropriate content is a problem for them. Loss of the TV is an appropriate consequence.

What it doesn’t mean is that you are a being bad parent by allowing these consequences to happen. Letting them experience consequences for poor reasoning is the best thing you can do for a teenager.

Pre-teens are just a few short years away from driving, earning, and spending. Make it your goal to create the environment where they learn responsibility, and grow into maturity. You want them to experience the Fruit of the Spirit, which is self-control, with the ability to make good decisions, and not be controlled by unhealthy things.

Are you willing to begin to relinquish control and therefore help your teenager find out who he is and who God desires for him to be? It doesn’t mean you stop helping your child. It means that you wait to be invited into the problem-solving process, and even then you don’t solve problems for them. You let them face the music and experience the consequences of their own decisions. You set new boundaries, and let them move in the direction they decide works best for them.

You may have to repeat this process several times before your teen gets it right, so hang in there. Eventually he or she will get it, learn how to make good decisions, and avoid unwanted consequences.

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