Shifting Gears in Parenthood

Written by Mark Gregston.

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.


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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A Year in Texas at Heartlight Ministries

Written by Mark Gregston.

What young adults do you mentor in your life? A youth group, bible study or classroom? We are asking for your help in finding the right staff, a few good men and women to join our team at Heartlight, our residential counseling center for struggling teens.

As you know, a part from the speaking, writing and radio, I am the Executive Director of Heartlight Ministries, a residential home for struggling teens that my wife and I founded 27 years ago. We’re always looking for young, mature, engaging single folks who have a passion to spend a year working and living in-house with the 60 kids who reside with us. We’re NOT looking for unmotivated, irresponsible, lounge lizards whose immaturity keeps them from finding a “real” job. We ARE looking for responsible, young men and women who are motivated to take initiative, and be deliberate about making a difference in the life of a teen. They’ve got to love the Lord, love kids and desire to jump at the opportunity to not only “do” a job, but share their life in our Heartlight community.

Do you know of someone that fits this bill that might want to spend a year in Texas with us? Would you share this video in hopes of getting others to think about people they might know who would desire to join our team as a salaried position (with benefits)?

Heartlight Video

Here’s a new video that explains it all. Click the image above or click this link to watch the Recruitment Video:

If anyone has any questions or needs more information, please call the Heartlight office at 903.668.2173, and ask to speak with the Recruitment Director, Ben Weinert.

If you’re planning on driving through East Texas anytime soon please stop by Heartlight….I’d love to show you around. Or if you plan on attending any of our events across the country, I look forward to meeting you.Thanks for sharing!

Mark Gregston

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Shut-Up Challenge

Written by Mark Gregston.


There is nothing so demeaning as assuming your child can’t think for himself. There is nothing so disrespectful as throwing your child’s mistakes back in his face and condemning him. Keep in mind that I am referring to teenagers here, not your 2-year-old.

So, here is my advice…until you have a better understanding of how to handle it – JUST SHUT UP!

“Even a fool when he keeps silent is considered wise.” Proverbs 17:28

If you invited your teenager to come hear your lecture about his life’s mistakes, how do you think he would respond?  Do you think he’d show up?  If he did show up, would he feel great about it when you’re finished?

“Sure Mom, I’d love to hear you drone on and on…I like being lectured, warned, and criticized about absolutely everything.”


Yet, that is exactly what your child may be feeling about the way you communicate with him or her.

So, I encourage you to take the “Shut-up Challenge”…

I’m not trying to be rude in saying “shut up” (it is a no-no in some households) but I am dead-serious. Just shut up! In case I haven’t made myself clear enough, that means, be quiet, stay silent, zip it, don’t speak.

Try it for a day, and watch what happens. When your teenager drops a “jewel” on you and says something you feel needs “correcting,” just be quiet. Don’t flip out, argue, or try make it right. Just let it go. Stop lecturing, start listening.

You may be surprised to find that:

1. You can’t do it! You just can’t keep quiet. You are not a good listener, and that listening to your child is an area you need to grow in.

2. Your child has a mind of his own, and is fully able to use it without constantly pointing him in the direction you think he needs to go.

3. Your child wants to talk to you more when you don’t verbally beat him down every opportunity you get.

4. Your child has ideas of his own that are different from yours, perhaps he doesn’t want what you want, and you need to change your mind about some things.

5. Your child may learn the important lessons in one teachable moment, and you don’t need all that other verbal garbage to make your point.

“But Mark,” you say, “I can’t teach my child what he needs to know by being quiet!”

Yes you can – you can, and most of the time you should, because most of the time, your teen isn’t saying anything earth-shattering or profound….he is just processing what’s happening in his world.

For those times you need to address an “issue” I recommend trying a different approach. Instead of making your point, try asking a question. Not a rhetorical question either – that’s just back-alley lecturing. Asking the right question may help him arrive at the right answer in a way that engages his thinking process and system of beliefs. You may be surprised to find he comes to the right conclusion all on his own.

For example:

I never thought of it that way, what makes you think so?

What do you think will happen if…?

Success in the Shut-up Challenge means you create a space in your relationship with your child by taking a verbal step backwards. This will allow your child to move toward you. Give your child room to ask some questions of his own and come to his own conclusions.

Instead of always pushing to lead the discussion, or to turn it into a one-way lecture, you might just be invited by your teen to participate in the best two-way discussion you’ve ever had.

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Making Specific Changes

Written by Mark Gregston.


Mom, Dad … frustrated with the way your family functions today? Beginning to feel like things are breaking down?

Maybe it’s your wake up call! Maybe it’s time for a change.

Most parents, when faced with turmoil… hardly recall how things got this far out of hand. And sometimes the prospect of changing courses appears impossible.

Well, I can assure you that a little bit of structure goes a long way. It’s time to get very intentional about adjusting your approach. Change doesn’t happen when you just wish the kids would grow up. You need small, structured steps toward creating a peaceful home.

Are you ready? It’s the first day of the new year… a perfect day to change directions. It’s never too late to start doing what’s right.

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Christmas Fun

Written by Mark Gregston.


Today, we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. But in homes with teenagers, Christmas is sometimes anything but peaceful.

Even with the extra stress and pressure that comes with the holiday season … Christmas can still be the perfect time for family fun.

Try baking some Christmas cookies … or decorating a gingerbread house! Even if Dad’s elaborate construction falls apart … or Mom ends up with frosting on her nose … you’ll still create a fun, safe, and inviting environment that your kids will actually want to be in.

This Christmas, let your kids see just how goofy you can really be. Blessings, my friend!

May your home be filled with an extra measure of peace, laughter, joy, and love.

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Know Pain Know Gain

Written by Mark Gregston.


If pain were knocking on your door, you wouldn’t welcome him, invite him in, or help him in any way. You would send him to the next neighborhood, reassuring him that he was at the wrong address.

Parents in trouble with their teen call me when they are in pain and need help, but I’ve learned that many are just looking for an affirmation or justification of their own plan or ideas. Sadly, most people only accept advice when they agree with it, when it fits into their own time schedule, and when the outcome is what they predicted.

To illustrate that point, I once worked with a daughter whose father paid for an apartment after she graduated high school. I urged against placing her outside of his home, on her own, for a number of reasons. I did all in my power to convince him against his unwise decision of letting her go before she was ready. Tragically, our worst fear came true, and through a deadly set of circumstances, Kristen lost her life, and the man lost a daughter.

“He who trusts himself is a fool…” Proverbs 28:26a

Another father called asking for my help unraveling his teenager’s rotten behavior. His description of the situation was confusing, his plan of action was weird, and his intent was just a little off. After I listened to him ramble on for 30 minutes, I stopped him and said, “Are you asking for my blessing on your plan, or my counsel? Your best thinking has gotten you into the situation that you’re currently in. So let’s stop following the way you’re thinking and come up with some new ways of handling it.” He then broke down saying, “I think I was at first asking for a blessing, but now I’d like for you to tell me what I need to do.” It was a picture of a foolish man becoming wise.

Parenting a struggling teen will bring you face to face with your worst fears. Fear for the safety and well-being of your child. Fear for their future. Fear of how others will respond to your having a problem to begin with. You may not realize it, but another description of fear is emotional pain.

Parents never expect pain when raising a child. In fact, they do everything in their power to avoid it in their life and the life of their child. Even so, when a problem is ignored because they don’t know how to deal with it, or they hide it for fear of being exposed, or they fail to listen to wise counsel — pain can come to rule in their lives.

To lessen the pain, the tendency is to look for a “quick fix” for the troubled teenager, when in reality, God may be using this painful situation expressly for the purpose of bringing about a change in the parent. Most of the parents I work with say they had to change before any real progress could be made with their teen. When a parent changes, it creates a wonderful model for a child to also recognize his own foolish thinking.

It’s difficult to learn that we don’t always have all the answers. But it is a good lesson to learn. A parent in the midst of pain is in the worst position to correct their own situation, but in the best position to be changed by it. Openly admitting that problems exist, and finding good counsel to work through those issues on the parenting side of the equation, will go a long way toward solving the teen’s issues as well.

I like what CS Lewis said about pain. He said, “I know God wants the best for us. I just wonder how painful it’s going to be.” It reminds me that God’s intention is not to allow us to be in pain for pain’s sake, but that He uses pain for our ultimate good. I know you would never choose the pain of the troubles you are experiencing with your teenager, but believing God has a higher purpose in allowing you to experience it may help you embrace and learn from it.

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