Marriage is sometimes hard. Anyone who says differently either hasn’t been married, or is selling you something. It doesn’t take long before the shiny dreams of wedded bliss start to fade away, and the reality of married life begins to settle in: Two people from very different families are now merging their diverse backgrounds and histories into one, and conflict is a very normal and healthy part of this process. Like anything worth building, a strong, enjoyable marriage takes hard work. What I want to remind parents of today is that marriage turmoil doesn’t stay contained between mom and dad. Each member of a family is connected to every other member. That means your conflict with your spouse almost always spills over into the relationship with your teen. Now, I don’t say this to lay a guilt trip on parents who are struggling in their marriage. Nor is this article designed to settle spousal disagreements. But some of the problems your teen is facing now could be the byproduct of the tension, anxiety and worry he feels as mom and dad work on their own relationship. I’d like to show you how to handle marriage conflict well, so that in turn, your teen will learn how to handle turmoil in a healthy way.
When mom and dad start to drift apart, the family as a whole starts to fragment. As relationships in the house continue to shift and separate, pretty soon everyone becomes their own private island. It’s like having disconnected strangers living under one roof. No one is working as a team. No one is manning the walls and looking out for the family, and so feelings, events, and important moments begin to slip through the cracks.
I asked one young girl in our counseling program how she was doing. It was a simple question and I expected a simple “doing okay” answer. Instead, the young lady proceeded to tell me everything about herself; everything she ever did, everything she ever accomplished, everywhere she had ever traveled and every talent she had. She reported how she could play the guitar, the cello, the violin, the piano, the harp, the drums, the trumpet, the bass guitar, the flute, the clarinet, and the tuba. She talked about how she is a swimmer, a gymnast, a dancer, an equestrian, a pianist, and a volleyball queen. She told me what she wanted to be, and what she did not want to be. She told me all her hopes and dreams, and all her disappointments and failures in one breathless dissertation. She wanted me to know she is worth something and she pled her case based on her accomplishments. When she took a breath, I finally got a chance to wedge in a better question that might open a real dialogue. Her demeanor completely changed when I asked, “What’s the most difficult thing that has happened in your life?” Her chattering stopped, her eyes welled up with tears, and she replied, “When my dad left, I felt all alone.”
Suddenly, there was silence. I stood looking at her for a few seconds and instead of trying to come up with the right words to say, I just gave her a hug. Finally, a real connection was made.
Don’t allow emotional isolation to leave your teen feeling all alone.
Divorce or separation can definitely lead teens to feel physically isolated. But this can happen when parents are together, as well. Sometimes it takes the form of dad spending nights and weekends at the office, and away from the family. Or maybe it looks like mom devoting her free moments to various boards, committees and volunteer work, and never being home. We know the devastation divorce can bring on kids. But being married and always apart can do similar damage.
Just like kids who feel emotionally isolated, kids who feel physically isolated from mom and dad will look elsewhere to fill the void in their lives. They may choose to spend little or no time at home. They’ll be prone to seek a sense of “family” elsewhere, usually with a peer group where it is easy to find acceptance and form attachments. Or your teen may try to imitate mom and dad by throwing themselves into school, sports, video games, friends, or social media in order to experience the feelings only quality time with parents can offer.
Putting It In Perspective
Now let’s look at some positive ways we can help and protect our teens even if our marriage is stormy.
First, understand that your child is affected by your relationship with your spouse. Even fights behind closed doors aren’t hidden from kids. They can feel the tension and sense the conflict. If you and your spouse aren’t working together and your marriage isn’t strong, your teen will know it—and may try to use it against you. I’ve had parents say to me, “We just can’t see eye to eye.” My reply is, “Then get counseling and fix it.” Don’t let pride keep you from doing what your kid—and your marriage—needs. You can’t get your marriage, or your family, where you want it to go without guidance and direction from others, and if you don’t stop and ask for help, chances are you’ll end up somewhere you never wanted to be. No one sets out to create a broken family, but without getting counsel and advice from others, you’re likely to create one anyways. Even Jan and I had to get counseling for a period of time, and it helped a lot.
If your teen sees his parents working through their problems with a counselor, it will give him hope that his situation can be resolved as well. Don’t be afraid to share some of those struggles with him in the context of working toward a solution. Saying “We’re going to remain strong even when don’t agree” gives the child license to feel loved and accepted even in the midst of family conflict.
Second, you’re not in the seventh-grade anymore, so don’t blame your spouse in front of the kids. Your teen doesn’t need to hear why his mom can be hard to live with, or why her dad is inconsiderate. If you need someone to talk to about the problems in your marriage, find a pastor, counselor or friend. Do not air your dirty laundry in front of your child.
Remember, spending time with your teen confers on them a sense of value that no one else can give. Even in the midst of working on your marriage, make sure to spend regular time with your teen. If you have the freedom to do it, take them to lunch, grab a snack after school, attend all games or school events, and communicate online. Send regular text messages to say “Hi,” or, “I love you.” Make sure your teen knows your desire to be involved in his or her life, or they’ll seek validation from someone else, and that can lead to bigger problems than you ever want to have with your teen.
Lastly, Mom and Dad need to protect their marriage above all else. In fact, it is more important than just about anything parents can do to help their kids. Parents who have kids approaching the teen years would be wise to prepare ahead of time by ensuring that they are on the same page, and that the foundations of their marriage are strong. Start taking steps today to guard your marriage from the problems that can arise during the teen years. And for parents who are experiencing difficulties with a teen right now, turn your attention toward your marriage first, to begin the healing process for the whole family, including your teen.
I have grown to think highly of couples who, knowing that they’re headed for a split, stay together until their teen graduates from high school or college. Many will argue against this statement, but you will never convince me that a child is better off with parents living in separate homes, and this is especially true with teenagers. Mom and dad may feel as if they are better off splitting up, but that’s not always the case when adolescent children are involved. Teenage sons need their moms. Teenage daughters need their dads. Sons need their dads. Daughters need their moms.
Divorce is a harsh reality of our culture. While it is not my place to condemn a divorced person for being so, I encourage anyone considering divorce to think long and hard about the long-term consequences before engaging in the process — especially if their kids are in their adolescent years. If you can’t avoid a split-up, or if you’re already divorced, then it’s good to practice “damage control” in the life of your teen. They still need a sense of security. They need to know they are loved, and that you enjoy spending quality time with them. They need to know that your divorce is not their fault, and that it’s ok for them to love both parents equally.
No marriage is perfect. But the struggles between a husband and wife don’t have to spill over into the lives our teens. Once we realize how interconnected our family relationships are, we can take steps to assure our teens that they are loved, accepted, and valued. Remember – by working on your marriage, you’re also building up your teens.
We live in a disconnected world. I realize that a statement like this may sound unbelievable in our era of technological know-how. After all, with Instagram, iPads, smart phones, texting, Twitter, e-mail, websites, blogs, and Skype, communication seems to have moved into a whole new realm of possibilities! Facebook users upload 250 million pictures each day. YouTube boasts more than 80 billion videos on their site. On average, over 6.1 trillion texts are sent each year. We have a myriad of ways to talk and share life with other people, and we can be in constant contact with anyone, anywhere, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week! That’s a whole lot of connecting!
You would think that with all these avenues to talk and engage we’d have strong communication skills and the ability to develop deep, personal relationships. But sadly, it’s the exact opposite. In her latest book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair writes,
The tech effect has transformed every facet of our lives—from work to home to vacation time away—emerging, dot by dot, to reveal a new and unsettling family picture. While parents and children are enjoying swift and constant access to everything and everyone on the Internet, they are simultaneously struggling to maintain a meaningful personal connection with each other in their own homes.
To illustrate her point, Catherine interviews one stressed-out mom trying to manage in the new digital age.
“When you have very busy lives, your relationships become completely utilitarian and nagging,” says Helene, reflecting on life with her husband and two teenage children. She rattles off the to-do list of deadlines and scheduling that dominates their conversations: homework, camp application deadlines, games, sports, concerts, practice, the family social calendar. “It’s like we’re this little business, and we just interact, so if you want to have any kind of connection otherwise, you send the YouTube video, send the text … we never talk directly, we never look each other in the eye anymore.”
Obviously, no parents want to see their family “interacting,” without connecting. But in a fast-paced, digital age, meaningful connections are difficult to create; they do not simply “happen.” We must be intentional and commit to fostering deep relationships. We must be proactive, rather than passive, in our attempts to create and develop bonds with members of our family.
More teens today are struggling with anxiety, stress, and self-image problems than ever before. I believe some of the main culprits in this surge are the shallow social media interactions that are passed off as meaningful connections. Human life was created to flourish in the context of deep relationships. Kids are drawn to Facebook, and Twitter, Instagram, text messaging, and all the rest because they are craving for connection. This is a good craving! There is God-given value in connecting with other people. But social media is a poor substitute for truly satisfying connections. It’s like binging on junk food; the more you eat, the hungrier you become!
I encourage Mom and Dad to intentionally carve out space on the calendar to spend time with each child. By planning moments those special moments, you are letting your son and daughter know, “You are worth my time. I want to be with you. I desire a meaningful relationship with you.” In the family economy, time equals value. Your teens may roll their eyes and call it lame, but they’ll also benefit from the time you spend with them and enjoy it more than they are likely to admit. Put a weekly date on the calendar to go get coffee with your daughter, watch a movie with your son, or sit outside in the backyard and sip ice tea with them. You don’t have to spend money, just time.
I’ve found that the best way to build better connections with your teen is to find an activity you can participate in together. Conversation seems to flow naturally when you’re having fun together. This is especially true for boys, who seem to process life better when their hands are busy.
Our Heartlight counselors sometimes shoot pool, go for a walk, or play video games with kids during their counseling sessions, and that is often when the kids really open up. The application for your home is plain enough. If hunting is your child’s interest, go hunting. If riding horses is considered fun, then go horseback riding together. You may not learn how to skateboard, but you can build a ramp and run the video camera while your child does his or her thing. The point is, if you participate in an activity with your teens that they really enjoy, you’ll find more opportunities to communicate with them.
One of the most powerful tools in a parent’s toolbox is a good question. With the right question, you can gain entrance into your kids’ world and have a greater opportunity to speak into their lives. It’s the same way with adults. When someone asks our opinion, we feel valued. When someone shows interest in our passions and interests, we feel appreciated. Our favorite subject is often ourselves! Ask even a reserved teenager a good question, and you’ll probably find yourself waist deep in a stream of conversation.
So what counts as a good question? You can go ahead and forget about queries like “How was your day?” or “What were you thinking?” If a question can be answered in a single word, then it won’t build a very strong connection. And if your question is laced with sarcasm, judgment or meant to embarrass, chances are your teen won’t even acknowledge it. Good questions convey a sense of value. They are a way to move toward your teen by asking what they think and how they feel, and giving them the freedom answer honestly.
Some examples of good questions include:
- What would be one thing I could do for you to make your life better?
- We’re all known for something. What would you like to be known for?
- Do you think the music (or movies, TV shows) you watch or listen to influences you, or is just an expression of what you feel, or what you’re in the mood for?
- What would make school better for you?
- What’s a lesson about life you’ve learned this week?
- When you hear someone talk about a “real man” who comes to mind?
- If you could change one thing about your appearance, what would you choose?
When was the last time your teenage son or daughter asked your opinion? Does your child listen to you and discuss life’s significant issues and difficulties? In other words, do you have meaningful, two-way dialogues, or does most of your communication tend to be one way? Good communication, initiated by good questions, is essential to establishing a healthy and loving connection with your teen.
Don’t misunderstand this point; this is not a promotion for complacency in connecting. What I am recommending is a “Do Nothing” night. It’s one night a week, or a month, where there are no cell phones, no laptops, no homework, no chores, and no television. As a family you “do nothing” together! Of course, spice it up by cooking a great meal that your teen will love. Then start a fire, play a game, talk about the day and share a meal together. Don’t run to the extreme and ban technology or social media every night of the week. This is just an occasional event where you remind the family that deep connections are not formed by typing on a screen. Make this night something that the whole family can enjoy, and by all means, don’t announce that talking and connecting is the evening’s agenda. Just leave the space open and available and see what happens next.
Look, I own a smart phone. I text, I email, and I use Facebook. Living in the digital age has its share of advantages. We don’t need to light a bonfire and start throwing our technology into the flames. The danger arises when our kids (or ourselves for that matter) become so immersed in the blinking lights and bleeping sounds of our devices that we neglect to spend time conversing with people face-to-face. I’ve discovered a simple formula: more screen time and less people time equals stunted growth both for us and for our teens. It’s really that simple. In our disconnected culture, we have to be intentional about connecting with our kids. We need to show them how to interact and communicate with the world around them in a way that provides them with a sense of value, community and acceptance. By providing genuine connections for your children, you are giving them a precious gift they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Do you allow your teenager to make mistakes? Or do you protect him from that? Think about it — if you hadn’t learned from your own mistakes, how would you know what it means to make one? And if you prevent your teen from making mistakes, how else will he grow into maturity? By lecturing him? By rescuing him every time? Based on what I’ve learned from 30 years of working with troubled teens, that mode of parenting simply isn’t helpful to children in their teenage years.
As 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 bio-dome 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.
Give it a shot. Stop teaching and start training. You’ve done a great job giving your child input throughout the years. Now, start helping your daughter apply those truths to her life. That usually doesn’t happen in one conversation; it happens with many conversations. And start the process of helping your son become independent and take control of his life. It’s what HE wants. And you know it what YOU want. There’s a difference between teaching and training. Which one are you spending most of your time doing with your teen?
This will be my third Mother’s Day without needing to purchase a gift for my mom. Mom passed three years ago after the deteriorating health of her frail body finally gave up and said it was time for her to “call it quits and head home.” So, my gift to her this Mother’s Day is to acknowledge her influence on me, and hopefully help other moms recognize the inspiration each mom provides their brood.
Moms, even though you might not think you’re having an impact on your child, know that you are because God is using you when you don’t even know it.
Several times over the last few months, I’ve thought about when I sat quietly next to Mom’s hospital bed and watched her sleep to the rhythmic and melodic beat of a heart monitor, waiting for an occasional one sentence dialogue. Knowing that she was slowly drifting from us, my memory would recall particular photographs and memories of specific events or thoughts that brought to mind the specialness of this kind woman who I got to call “Mom.”
Since her death I still process through the “should haves”, “could haves”, “wish I would haves” and lamented over things I would have done different, and different things I wish we would have done while there was still time to do it. I still think through the hundreds and hundreds messages from people expressing their condolences through sympathy cards, texts, and e-mails. Most expressed a gratitude for the impact that my mom had on me; seen by others, but never really ever appreciated (and perhaps acknowledged) by her mustached son. Until now.
I came to this conclusion. My mom’s character influenced me two ways; through her presence, and through her listening ear. Because of those two things, her character and life of service spoke volumes into my life, even though I really never thought about it while she was alive.
As I reflected on the 57 years I knew her, I realized that she was present at some pretty significant points in my life. She was there when I was born in Midland, Texas (a given). She was at there at the Beach Boys concert in Tulsa where I committed my life to Christ. She drove my then girlfriend Jan, and I to our first date the summer of my 9th grade year; a Led Zeppelin concert no less! She came to my high school swim meets, my graduations, and our wedding. She was the first one I told when found out that Jan and I were pregnant with, and became a first-time grandma with our daughter, Melissa. She was at each of our kid’s weddings.
She showed up at significant times.
Here’s the second thing she always did. She listened. Whenever I talked, she listened. Probably got tired of hearing me ramble, but she always listened.
Showing up and listening. Two things that my mom did well. And by doing those two things, she indeed had a profound influence on me. Her life of service was truly more “caught than taught”.
Mom was a volunteer for various organizations most of her life; Red Cross, hospital auxiliary, Girls Scouts, homeless shelters, thrift stores for the needy, and Boy Scouts. All volunteer; all a giving of herself to others.
Surprisingly I’ve lived my life the same way. I’m amazed that a mother’s “showing up and listening”, coupled with God’s faithfulness to mold and shape lives into vessels of His peace, works so well together.
I also realized some other things about my mom. I never heard her quote Scripture. I never heard her get up at church and speak. I never heard a Bible story come from her lips. I never saw her reading her Bible; never saw her pray. And she still had an amazing impact on my life.
She gave her life to people and was married to my dad for 62 years. Two pretty good lessons that are better “caught” than “taught.”
So, this Mother’s Day, I want you moms to sit back, relax, quit being so critical of yourself, and know that regardless of what you have done or haven’t done in the life of your child, God is still going to use you to influence the life of your child. Your child is “catching” more than you know. And one day, your child will be thankful for a mom’s role in his or her life, just like I am today.
Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers who are being used by God in ways that you don’t even know, to influence the life of your kids. God bless you all!
(My mom’s last words to me? She woke up from a deep sleep, smiled and looked me in the eyes and said “Mark, your mustache is so white”. It was her way of making sure a smile would come to my face every time I think of our last time together.)
Have you seen the marketing from publishers promising parents of troubled teens that they have something that will fix their kid?
You know – the commercials that say things can be miraculously transformed, or nearly perfect? A quick fix by the end of the week? Try mood therapy – it can fix it an angry teen. Try addiction therapy, because it can fix an addict. Buy nutrition therapy, it will fix a brain, and start playing Sudoku, because it will fix your memory, and then life will be perfect!
Expert as I might be in dealing with troubled teens, you will never, ever, hear me promise that I can fix your kid. You will never hear me promise that treatment of any kind is the way to fix another human being, or that life will ever be nearly perfect. The truth is, I can’t fix your kid, and as a parent, neither can you. Living to fix a child will cause you to miss their heart with every time you try.
Just to be clear, I’m not knocking therapy, or therapists. I’m not dissing good nutrition, or taking medication if you need it, or playing Sudoku if it helps. These are effective ways to treat symptoms. That’s not the point I’m making. Instead I’m addressing the mindset that as sinful, messed up people, we can apply a simple fix-it mentality to human beings. Frankly, I think it’s stupid to even consider it. And, I just don’t see our attempts to fix a human being or live perfectly as a principle found in scripture either.
Let me give you some examples: Despite all he tried to do for him, Abraham couldn’t fix Lot. Despite all God promised her, Sarah couldn’t fix Hagar. In every attempt to sooth and befriend him, the effect was temporary, and David couldn’t fix Saul. Perhaps the greatest example is God himself. Look at what he did for Adam and Eve in giving them the perfect life, perfect marriage, perfect environment, and perfect relationship with him, and it still didn’t fix things for them. And even though they had perfection, they still chose to rebel.
Scripture teaches that man is fearfully and wonderfully made, and that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. Those are truths packed with layer upon layer of meaning – and not the least of which is that God made man with some of his own qualities. Like God, human beings have free will, creative energy, and the power of choice. But we are not perfect. We are saints because we are sinners, redeemed by a Savior.
So when a teen exercises his humanity, and the power to choose the wrong thing, you cannot fix it. As much as you’d like to, parents cannot make a teen’s choices for him. A dad cannot choose for his daughter when it comes to whether or not to have sex with a boy. A mom cannot choose for her son about whether or not to view porn. Parents cannot choose for their teen never to drink, or smoke, or try drugs. Does that mean parents are powerless, and shouldn’t try? Of course not!
God imbued parents with the authority to train a child in the way he should go, so that when he is old he will not depart from the goodness of life with God. But when a parent’s plans for their child go awry, when a child steps over every boundary line drawn, and when every attempt to fix a kid doesn’t work – change your mind. Realize – you cannot fix them. I teach parents to set boundaries, create rules, and enforce the consequences. Doing so will teach a teen in making better choices. But when they blow it completely, and have damage in their life, fixing it becomes less important than redeeming it.
You can’t fix it, but you can be part of redeeming it. Just as God put a plan in place to redeem mankind through sending us a Savior, parents can be part of a redemptive process, and put a plan in place that allows for redemption in the life of their troubled teen.
Redeeming looks, acts, and thinks differently than fixing. Redemption means coming alongside, and carrying the burden together in a new way. Redemption puts anger aside, and speaks with gentleness and humility. Redemption looks at the heart with compassion. Redemption understands that there are always consequences to bad choices – always. But it doesn’t mean all is lost.
Since perfection is not possible in anyone’s life, failure is guaranteed for everyone, and we all make choices whose outcomes cannot be changed, isn’t it better to live as though the goal in parenting is redemption, instead of perfection?
For years, my focus was dedicated to helping families whose teens were spinning out of control at a time that my only resource was to send their child to come live with me at our residential counseling program called Heartlight.
As I started the radio programs, began writing books, and initiated all the resource opportunities for parents, I realized that we had a gaping hole in our offerings to parents. That “hole” was the lack of options for parents when their parenting challenges went far beyond what a book can offer, yet the testing of their abilities by their teen didn’t warrant sending their child to live at “a Heartlight”.
So, we created an option. A three day retreat where folks came to Texas and are able to spend time with me and our staff for three days of instruction, counsel, relationships to develop of a new parenting plan to take home and change the direction of their family.
It’s called the Families in Crisis Conference, and we hold them 8 times a year. The positive responses by families have been amazing. And we know this. That 95% of the families that attend, never have to send their child off to a program. It’s so successful that we now ask all the families who call Heartlight looking at the placement of their child into the program, to first consider coming to a Families in Crisis Conference.
These conferences are limited to 40 people. Single moms get to attend free. And its three days packed with opportunities to discuss family issues and meet with a counselor on our staff and come up with a new “plan”.
If you or someone you know is struggling through your child’s adolescent years and my books and radio programs aren’t providing the answers you are looking for (yes, even my books can’t meet everyone’s needs), this conference might be for you.
For more information about the Families In Crisis Conference, watch the video below, or visit the website. And to reserve your spot at our next conference, please call 903.668.2173. The conference is $250 a person, and does not include lodging. But, you will have the greatest steak you’ve ever eaten at my home for one of the night’s dinners.
It’s a relaxed relational time. And I look forward to spending it with you should you need help for your teen. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call.
Learn more about registering for the Families in Crisis Conference by clicking here.
Road construction can be frustrating. What was once a four-lane highway becomes a one-lane pit stop, as maintenance crews tear up the asphalt. With jack-hammers, dump trucks, back-hoes, cranes, and sometimes shovels and picks, groups of men in hardhats slash and hack and break apart the familiar and comfortable road you’re used to traveling on. While the construction is happening, you’re involuntarily resigned to idling in your car, seething.
But it’s not like this break in your commute came out of nowhere. For miles back, the road crews had placed a sequence of orange cones, gigantic markers, and bright flashing signs that declared “Men at Work!”
Mom and Dad, can I suggest that God puts up those same signs in the life of your teen? I know that sometimes we feel stuck watching our teenage son or daughter make mistakes, wander off the path, and cause delays and distractions that make coming and going incredibly difficult. All we can see is the chaos and destruction in our kid’s lives. And we may have missed all the signs reading “God at Work here!”
Demolition Can Bring About Transformation
Maybe your daughter came home high after an all-night party. Perhaps your eighteen-year-old calls you to come bail him out from the county jail. When our teens blow it badly, often as parents we focus on the devastation that bad decisions bring. But many times demolition brings transformation. I know that this is true in my own life. And I believe it can be true in yours. See, God cannot build something new into someone’s life without starting from the ground up. And this may mean He is going to allow some events that will bring us right down to our very foundation.
I had one student who, as a result of a party lifestyle and rebellion, got pregnant when she was sixteen. Caught in her mistakes, she was forced to have a difficult conversation with her parents, and reevaluate her decisions. With the support of her family, the young lady did the right thing; gave up her beautiful child for adoption, got serious counseling, and is now a growing and mature adult. I asked her thoughts on that tough time in her life some years later, and she said, “Mark, getting pregnant was the best thing that could have happened to me. It was a wake-up call, and for the first time in my life I had to deal with my mistakes and learn responsibility. And giving up that baby was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. So now I want my next baby to be the result of a happy marriage.”
I could tell many more stories about former students who have written me letters and e-mails to say that their DUI was the best thing that happened to them, or that running away from home changed their lives. It was not because these events were good things at the time, but looking back, they gained a new perspective about the struggles they faced, and how their choices shaped their futures. Those trials and troubles gave them a reason to find help, and served as a reminder of the consequences of their actions. What seemed devastating at the time, actually cleared the way for a new life.
Look for the Big Picture
Understand that what is happening in the life of your child right now is not the whole story. God is forming a “bigger picture” which includes many more people than just you or your child. And the scope of that picture goes far beyond the pain of the here and now. I know that it’s hard to look at the bigger perspective when you hurt for your child now. But there’s a lot more going on than you can see from your current vantage point of concern for your child. It doesn’t mean your struggle is any less difficult, but remembering the big picture can give you hope for the future. Use this difficult time as an opportunity to deepen your relationship with your child, and you’ll shorten the amount of time that your child remains in a state of disarray. Galatians 6:9 encourages us “not [to] become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
When we see our teen make a mistake, engage in reckless behavior, and start walking down a dangerous road, we normally panic and try desperately to “fix” our kid. But that is just not possible. You can fix the boundaries, fix the consequences, and maybe even change the environment, but you’ll never fix your child. Only God can change your child’s heart. Instead, focus on what you can fix in your parenting, and get out of God’s way as He does what He needs to do in the life of your teen.
God’s plan for your child isn’t going to change just because you do not see it. The best thing you can do is try to understand what He’s doing as he works in the life of your teen. That understanding comes through prayer; prayer to understand His will and prayers of submission accepting whatever God needs to do both in your life, and the life of your child. The older I get, the more I understand that prayer is meant to help us get in line with and understand God’s perfect will, versus trying to influence or change it.
Hopefully you can already see how God has worked in your own past, and maybe you have even seen glimpses of God’s plan for your future. But often, it’s most difficult to believe that God is involved in what is happening today.
So, pray. And keep a daily diary; it will help you maintain perspective. Look for ways that God is working in your teen’s life, and record those; being sure to thank Him as you see His hand at work. Trust God to finish the work He has begun in your teen. Depend on His promises to remain true. God, the Creator, is fully capable of fashioning a new life and a new relationship between you and your child out of the wreckage we see. He’ll amaze you, as he does me, as He creates abundant life and perfection out of dust and confusion.
Don’t Give Up Hope
I remember a particular father who brought his daughter into the residential program here at Heartlight. His eyes filled with tears as he spoke to me about the struggles and the problems that his daughter was experiencing. Frankly, it was one of the worst stories of a troubled teenager that I had heard in quite awhile. My heart ached for this hurting father as he looked for a bit of encouragement.
“Just tell me that there is hope in this,” he told me.
I remember distinctly looking him in the eye and saying with complete confidence, “There’s always hope.” This wasn’t a worn-out cliché I was dragging out. The reason I could tell this dad there is hope even in the mess he sees is based on the character of our Heavenly Father who promises to finish what He starts. God is not going to leave the job half-done. What God starts, He completes. And that includes your teen! “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” says Psalm 27:13.
Even though they’re a lot older now, I can remember the first kids I counseled when I started this ministry. There were times when I thought, These kids are hopeless! There’s absolutely no way they can turn it around! But these same kids are now healthy, happy adults with strong marriages and good families. The time that their parents, the Heartlight team, and most importantly, God, worked and invested into their lives brought about a healthy and improved future. After countless examples, I’ve learned that though the outlook might seem bleak and hopeless, there is always hope, because God is still at work!