What if My “Ex” Won’t Hold the Kids to the Same Rules?

Written by Mark Gregston.

divorceWhen families go through a divorce and the kids end up splitting their time between parents (often called co-parenting), it changes the dynamics of the family, as well as the basic interactions between parent and child.  For parents of teens, this shift can be especially difficult as every member of the family tries to re-discover their role.

Changing Roles of Co-Parents

Co-parents often find themselves in different roles from those they had during the marriage.  Moms are especially affected by this because the dad is usually the disciplinarian in the family. When Dad leaves, Mom needs to develop a new set of skills.

Dads are usually the disciplinarian and authoritarian in the household.  They are the ones who build boundaries and structures that give teens the guidelines they need to help moderate their own actions.  Moms usually do great with relationships.  However, when Mom begins to take on the role that Dad used to play, the relationships can be shoved aside in order to ensure the rules and boundaries are in place.  But, Mom—the relationship you have with your teen needs to remain intact!  Don’t abandon the role you played before the divorce, but instead, find a way to support your teen through balancing discipline, boundaries, and relationships.  This is especially important as you walk through this difficult time together.  Your teen will either look to you for support and help—or he’ll look elsewhere.  It’s up to you.

Interacting with the Other Parent

Just as your role is changing, your relationship with your ex has changed.  And it will continue to change.  Your ex will do things that you don’t like, and this is going to affect you and your kids.  But it’s up to you to determine how much your response will affect your kids.  No matter how you feel about your ex-spouse, you can’t change them.  People are going to do what they are going to do.  Thankfully, that includes you.  You can change how you respond to your ex, your teen, and your changing role as a parent.

The boundaries that you set for your teen, and those that your ex sets, will help your child only if you keep your teen in mind first.  Think about your motivation behind setting a boundary—did you do it for your teen or did you do it as a way to get back at your ex?  And think about what you are saying about your ex—at least what you say in front of your teens.  Did you say that to knock the person down? Did you think about how this could affect your teen?  And if your teen pits your ex’s way of running his household against you, stick to your guns!  There’s a reason for the standards you set; remember that reason.  If you can still talk to your ex and clarify the boundaries you are each using, then take advantage of that.  Men—man up and stop using your kids against your ex-wife.  Women—stop using your kids against your ex-husband.  And kids—stop using your parents against each other.

How Teens Respond

When teens split their time between two parents, a lot of their reaction to mom and dad comes from the parents’ view of each other.  Stop badmouthing your ex in front of the kids.  What you say will form your child’s view of you, your ex, and your child himself.  But it’s not enough just to put up with the other parent—you need to give your child the structure and support that she needs.  That means setting your own standards and rules, making them clear to your teen, and consistently enforcing them.  It’s not enough just to have a conversation about rules.  Your actions and the way that you enforce the standards will affect how your teen responds to you in the future.

When I talk to the kids at Heartlight who have experienced co-parenting, they talk about how they respond well to the structure that their parents have given then.  It’s like me; I don’t like stoplights, and I don’t like stop signs, but I’d hate to live without them.  In the moment, your teen may rebel against you, your ex, and the rules each of you have set.  But Mom—stick to it. Dad—stick to it.  Eventually, your child will come back to you. At that point, it will be the relationship that you have built with your teen that will cushion the blow and help them find their way back to you.

Join us for Parenting Today’s Teens weekend radio broadcast as we explore this further and get the perspective of one teen who is experiencing co-parenting.  We’ll also talk to Tammy Daughtry, a co-parent who, in the search for resources to help her kids and family remain healthy, ended up founding Co-Parenting International and writing the book “Co-Parenting Works: Helping your children thrive after divorce.”  You can listen to Parenting Today’s Teens online, or find a radio station near you, at www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.

Experimenting With Drugs

Written by Mark Gregston.

prodigalIf you’ve seen an unexplainable or drastic change in your teenager’s honesty, grades, behavior, attentiveness, or friends, it may not be hormones.  It could be that they are experimenting with intoxicating substances that are as close as your kitchen drawer, medicine cabinet or garage.

It used to be that older teens were most susceptible to drug experimentation, but kids today are experimenting earlier and earlier.  In fact, 10 to 14 year-olds are now the most likely to begin experimenting with one intoxicating substance or another.

One fad is a throwback to the 60’s hippie culture, marked by an increased popularity, availability and use of marijuana (pot), as well as the more seriously addicting 60′s drugs like heroin and LSD (acid).  Today’s pot is several times more potent than it was just a few years ago and heroin is even more accessible in some schools today than alcohol.

Illegal drugs get a lot of news coverage, but there are literally thousands of less sinister, but potentially more dangerous, ways for kids to get high, including:  potent concoctions of common household glues, solvents and aerosols, prescription pain medications like Oxycontin and Vicodin, or even some of the plants found in your yard.  Some kids even get a buzz off of massive doses of certain vitamins.

Most teens think they’re invincible, so their drug history is their badge of courage.  They learn about every source of intoxication from the Internet and then try them one after another.  So, they could be experimenting with huffing aerosol propellants, glues, gasoline, or paint.  Or, they could be crushing cold medications and sniffing them like cocaine or guzzling liquid cold medicines.  They could be taking your prescription drugs or taking nothing at all and just playing the “choking game” to get a temporary high from near asphyxiation.  Still others show their courage by experimenting with the harder drugs like ecstasy, crystal meth, crack, cocaine, LSD, or heroin, which are all highly addictive.

When Does It Start?

When I ask kids in our counseling program the age they started experimenting with drugs or alcohol, they usually report it was in the 7th or 8th grade; and some as early as the 5th grade. Most say they were introduced to drugs or alcohol when staying overnight at a friend’s home or other overnight youth event; or, at their friend’s house after school when their parents weren’t home.  Others were introduced to drugs or alcohol when attending parties … usually parties where older teens are present and parents are absent, distracted, or don’t care.

Fact is, parents today who allow their teenagers to stay overnight with friends may be putting their teen in peril.  After the parents are asleep, the kids try to outdo each other in regard to how far they will go, armed with the latest vices from the Internet.  That’s why I recommend putting a stop to slumber parties at age ten.  Stop at age 10 for a couple of years …..slumber parties where the crowd influence is greater than just sleeping at someone’s house.  From then on, the normally innocent agenda of pizza and pillow fights tends to shift to more sinister things these days.

By the time most parents first discover their child is using drugs, the child has usually been involved for several years.  But if parents can be diligent in keeping their kids from experimenting with intoxicating substances before age 14, they’ll be less likely to get started at all, so it’s important to be the most vigilant in the critical tween and early teen years.

The Addicted Teen

There’s obviously a difference between experimenting with drugs and being addicted.  However, experimenting is no less dangerous, since we hear stories every day of deaths of first-time users.  And some drugs are so addictive, that they can lead to a lifetime addiction with their very first use.

There’s nothing more gut-wrenching for a parent than to deal with their teenager’s drug addiction.  Just watch a few episodes of the show “Intervention” on television and you’ll see what dealing with an addict is like.  It’s a constant nightmare, not just for an addict, but for the entire family.  The lying, stealing, fits of anger, run-ins with the law and constant fear that the child will overdose can destroy and bankrupt a family.  And it won’t get better without treatment and ongoing support, sometimes spanning the addict’s entire life.

Sadly, each year more than a million teenagers need to go into substance abuse treatment programs.  And just like alcoholism, many of them will struggle with that addiction throughout their entire life.  That’s why it’s far better for parents to prevent kids from experimenting with drugs early on, before they get a foothold.

Why Do They Experiment?

Kids are usually motivated to experiment with drugs by curiosity and the need to fit in.  They want to try what their friends are trying, and they have a great need to belong.

Some kids experiment because they are seeking relief from anxiety or emotional pain.  In essence they are self-medicating or using drugs or alcohol to cope with the stresses they are feeling.  For instance, many kids use marijuana to reduce their anxiety, but medical studies show that the prolonged use of the drug has the opposite effect, leading to heightened anxiety, depression, nervousness, mental disorders, paranoia and panic attacks.  While some parents diminish the seriousness of use of marijuana, they should pay attention to what the National Institute on Drug Abuse says are the effects of its prolonged use.  They report it can cause, “… impaired attention, memory problems, diminished learning capacity, interference with the formation of memories and the ability to retain knowledge, a general apathy toward life events, poor coordination, diminished interpersonal skills, and poor judgment.”

Sadly, other kids experiment with drugs to tempt their fate.  Teens with more serious emotional and psychological problems turn to dangerous concoctions or massive doses of drugs as a form of “Russian Roulette.”  They reason, “If I die, then so be it.”  Not a week goes by that I don’t receive a message from a parent or grandparent, heartbroken that their teen overdosed and died.

Signs of Drug Use

There are many signs of substance abuse that a parent should watch for, but the only way to know for sure is to take your teenager to get a full-spectrum drug and alcohol test (a test for many types of drugs).  To be sure, have it done professionally by a local lab that processes tests for businesses.  Give your teen little forewarning to prepare for the test, since they can usually find ways on the Internet to falsify the results.

A substance abuse test is warranted if you see any of these signs:

Masking – you notice that they are consuming mega doses of vitamins, teas and herbs in attempt to mask drug use.

Increased lying – not just once or twice, but chronic dishonesty, especially if lying is new for your teen.

Breakdown in normal habits – drastic changes in sleep, appetite, the ability to complete schoolwork, loss of interest in things they once loved, extreme forgetfulness, and marked decrease in hygiene.

An unusual odor on clothes or in the room — frequent use of incense or deodorizers to mask the smell, frequent use of eye drops (to alleviate bloodshot eyes), extended periods locked alone in their room or the bathroom, frequent use of the garage or shed or other vacant buildings.

Change in friends – your teen exchanges healthy friendships for fierce loyalty to questionable people you don’t even know.  They may even run away, or disappear with their new friends for long stretches of time.

Stealing or sudden wealth — shoplifting, credit card abuse, valuables disappearing from the home without explanation.  Or, you may see unexplained money, jewelry, new clothes, or new gadgets from the selling of drugs (even from selling your prescriptions).

Change in schedule – up all night, or up very late at night, sleeps for days, misses work, misses appointments, wants to be on the phone late at night or regularly wants to stay overnight at a friend’s house or out camping.

Aggression, anger, mood swings, disrespect, and blaming – to an unreasonable degree, and directed against you and your family or other authorities.

Drug paraphernalia — pincers or paper clips for smoking, empty or disassembled pen cases for snorting, empty aerosol cans, burnt spoons, homemade pot pipes, steel wool, hypodermic needle parts, unknown prescription bottles, empty liquid cold remedy bottles, cold remedy blister packs, missing glues or solvents, or knives and spoons used for crushing and sniffing pills repeatedly show up in their room.

Dropping grades– lack of care for school, sports or other healthy pursuits.

Drugs May Be the Behavior Issue

It’s easy to identify bad behavior and blame drug use on teenage rebellion, but it could be that drugs are what’s affecting your child’s behavior.  The real dilemma comes from the parent not believing their child might be experimenting with or using drugs in the first place.  This is simply denial.  Until a parent understands the real possibility of drugs use — even if their teen has good Christian friends and is active in church — they won’t be able to get to the root of the problem.

You may not understand the reason your child has chosen drug use as their way to “cope” with some giant in their life, but that’s another matter altogether.  And because it is inconceivable that your child would ever do such a thing, you may fail to consider it, discuss it with him or drug test him to find out.  I’ve found that parents with kids in Christian schools are the least likely to admit their teen has a problem.  After all, they are in a “safe” environment, right?  Wrong!  Kids that have come to our program with drug issues tell me that the drug problem is more prevalent, not less, in the Christian schools they’ve attended than in public schools.

Before Counseling, Get the Drug Use Under Control

Since drug use may be the cause of behavioral issues, all the behavioral counseling in the world will have little positive effect until the drug use is stopped and the lingering effects of the drug are out of the teenager’s system.  Depending on the drug that was used, the after-effects can last several months.  That’s why at Heartlight, we require that kids with known drug dependencies first go through a separate addiction treatment program.  We cannot deal with their inner issues until the drug issues are taken care of.  Likewise, don’t attempt to get counseling for your teen until the drugs are out of their system.  It’s a waste of money and time.  The best plan is to have the two therapies work hand in hand, ensuring that the ongoing support of an Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous program continue in tandem with your teen’s counseling for emotional and behavioral issues.

If your teen is showing any of the signs I’ve already mentioned, I recommend that every few weeks, unannounced, you drug test your teen.  Make it a prerequisite for using the car.  Hold them accountable to the results, just as if a court would hold them accountable if they were on probation.  Test them even when they squeal in protest or appear disappointed that you don’t trust them.  Easy-to-use home drug and alcohol test kits can be bought in almost any drug store that can be used for regular monitoring.  And when you test them, stay in the room.  Don’t trust them to give you a valid sample.  If they are getting caught up in that culture, they’ll also know ways to get around the test and they’ll have no trouble lying to you about it.

Overall, your teenager needs to know you will do everything in your parental power to keep drugs from becoming a part of their history, even if it means putting them in an addiction treatment program or reporting them to the authorities and landing them in jail.  Better a few days in jail and a time on probation where they’ll get tested regularly, than a lifetime in the grip of drugs.

Don’t stick your head in the sand or otherwise pretend that your teen knows better than to try drugs.  If you are dealing with an out of control teen, and there have been no other traumatic events or psychological problems in your child’s life, you are most likely dealing with the effects of drugs or alcohol or other intoxicating substances in one form or another.  The sooner you know what you are dealing with, the better the chance you’ll have for finding the right kind of help for your child.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.

 

When It’s Time to Act

Written by Mark Gregston.

prodigalFor parents, there is no worse feeling than watching your child spin out of control while nothing you do seems to make any difference.  If your teenager’s behavior is giving you feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and fear, I would like to offer you some suggestions.

First, stop what you are doing and start a new way of thinking in regard to how you are handling the situation.  Albert Einstein defined insanity as “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  If your home is feeling a little insane these days, perhaps you need to change how it operates.

Start in a new direction by first talking to others, like your friends, pastor, youth minister, your parents, your child’s teachers, and the rest of the family.  You need to gain wisdom and a sense of reality regarding the situation.  Are you blowing it out of proportion, or perhaps not even noticing how bad it has become?  Is your teenager just acting out at home, or are they behaving even worse when away from home?  People around you will know, and they can help you gain perspective.

Accepting the reality of the problem is difficult for some parents.  They won’t acknowledge it because to them it would be accepting responsibility for failure.  Others tend to see just the good and believe no wrong in their children.  They are blinded to what everyone around them can already see; that is, until it becomes a full blown crisis or tragedy.  So when you come to a right “realization,” don’t hesitate to begin your search for a resolution by validating your suspicions with those around you.  They know what’s going on and will be glad that you finally see the light.

WHAT IS AN “OUT OF CONTROL TEEN”? An out of control teenager is one who doesn’t appear to have the internal ability to function within established boundaries and rules of the home or society. Their behaviors, if allowed to continue, could have dangerous or grave consequences for them physically, for their future, or for your family.

When Is It Time to Act?

I’m sure you wish this situation wasn’t at your doorstep.  But it is, so you have to act on your child’s behalf.  And no matter how lonely it might be, or how difficult it might appear; no matter what your child’s response, you must act quickly.

STEP ONE:  INVESTIGATE

It is critical to ask questions to get to the root of what is causing your child’s change in behavior.  Is he depressed?  Is he being bullied, abused, or using drugs or alcohol?  Has a major loss happened in your family recently?  Most of the time, parents find out way too late about underlying causes of a child’s behavior.  Communication is key at this time.  If the lines of communication are down, then re-establish them—forcing communication if need be.  Require time from your child to discuss how they’re doing before you pay their next car insurance bill, give them gas money, or hand over the keys to the car.  Determine to establish the lines of communication and make sure you ask lots of questions.

Find out how your child is acting outside of the home.  Talk to your child’s teachers and coaches, kids at church, your own parents, your siblings, their siblings, your friends, their friends, their youth minister and just about anyone who has had contact with your child.  See if they have any insights into why your child’s behavior has changed.  In fact, if your teen’s friends show up at your home, don’t be afraid to ask them what’s going on.  Some will be honest, as they might be just as concerned as well.  Just make sure you ask questions, and ask everyone to be honest with you.

STEP TWO:  SET BOUNDARIES

Establish and communicate clear boundaries for behavior by all members of your family (not just your wayward teen).  Determine what you hold to be true and the principles upon which you will base your rules for living.  Communicate and live by these boundaries, rather than “shooting from the hip” every time something comes up.  Make a policy and procedure manual for your home, so everyone knows what to expect.  Spend some time determining how you want to live and put some feet to it to ensure that all understand those boundaries.

STEP THREE:  ESTABLISH AND ENFORCE CONSEQUENCES

Once boundaries are in place, there must be reasonable consequences for inappropriate behavior, and they must be enforced, or your credibility goes right out the window.  And keep in mind that they must be enforced for all members of the family, not just your teen, so they don’t feel singled out.

Parents today tend to be so relational that they find it hard to send a strong message to “not go this way” for fear of losing their relationship.  But what most parents don’t understand is that kids do want direction, correction and help in moving through the transition to adulthood.  Tom Landry once said, “A coach makes people do things they don’t want to do so they can get to a place where they do want to be.”  Parents must do the same for their children.

STEP FOUR:  GET OUTSIDE HELP

“He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.”  — Chinese Proverb 

Perhaps your child’s issues are deeper and they’ll need professional counseling or medication to get through it.  And maybe you’ll need counseling to get through it as well.  Find a good Christian counselor that specializes in teen behavior, and trust what they recommend.  If you’re going to pick and choose the counsel you receive, then you’ll more than likely just continue to do what you want, and your child will continue to spin out of control.  Don’t let old beliefs about medicine control your new decisions that have to be made for your child.  If your child is depressed or anxious, has ADD, or OCD, can’t sleep at night, is bi-polar, or has a true mental condition that demands medication, don’t let your outdated boundaries prevent your child from getting help from something that is essential to their well being.

Hospitalization may even be needed if you feel that your child is a danger to himself or herself.  Extreme cutting, eating disorders, bizarre behavior, extreme depression, suicidal thoughts, or excessive drug or alcohol abuse are just a few of the symptoms that might warrant hospitalization.  Don’t hesitate to hospitalize your child just because you don’t know what it is.  It’s better to be safe than sorry.

When Nothing is Working

In the event that your teen is running away or otherwise hitting bottom, and counseling is going nowhere, you may need to place your teen in a therapeutic program outside of your home for a time.  This is not the time to spend mulling over where your parenting has gone wrong.  It’s time for action, when your child could damage his life and possibly make choices with grave consequences.  After you’ve had time to get good counsel (hopefully from quite a few people) and you’ve had some time to think it through, start to put an intervention plan into action.

A therapeutic program or facility away from home will get them away from their peers, drugs and other influences.  It will give the whole family a time of rest and regrouping.  It will offer the teen a fresh perspective and a concentrated, focused way of dealing with their issues.  Yes, it’s a “last ditch” effort, to be initiated when all other options and attempts to help your child have been exhausted, but for some kids, it can be a lifesaver.  Over the past 20 years, some 3,000 kids have come to live with us a Heartlight (http://www.heartlightministries.org) for 9 to 12 months at a time.  We daily work with them in a relational way to change their thinking and ambitions to more positive pursuits.

All therapeutic programs are not the same, and there is very little regulation or standards in therapeutic care for youth.  So do your homework.  Check out each program’s professional references.  Call the local Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any complaints.  Get a list and call the parents who have had their child in the program recently.  If the program won’t allow you to call parents, then that may be a sign to look elsewhere.  And make sure the list they supply is made up of real parents, not just people trained to convince you to enroll in that program.

A therapeutic program isn’t an easy or inexpensive option for parents.  It can cost tens of thousands of dollars.  No doubt, it will be one of the hardest decisions you’ll ever have to make.  But one statement I hear from kids and from their parents over and over is this:  “If I (they) didn’t come to Heartlight, I think I (they) would have been dead or in prison by now.” 

It’s a harsh reality to send a child off to be cared for elsewhere.  But that reality pales when you consider the possibilities or outcomes of your child’s current behavior and how such behavior could ruin his or her life.  What you are giving him or her is something that can’t be found in the current home setting.  You are loving them in a way that perhaps you haven’t loved them before.  It’s tough to think that they’ll have to miss some of their time in the local high school, and may never graduate there.  But it’s a good decision if it will save your child.

Don’t ignore what is happening in your family.  Though you undoubtedly hope it will just go away, it won’t likely do so without a major change in the way your home operates, or placement of the teen in a therapeutic program away from home, especially if the behavior has already been going on for many months.  And if you think the problem will disappear when your child turns 18, think again.  It won’t disappear; it will likely get worse and linger well into adulthood if it is not dealt with earlier.  Just envision the chaos in your home from having your teenager still living with you at age 35, either because they continue to be addicted to drugs or they can’t find a job because they were arrested and have a record.  That’s a reality in more homes today than you might imagine.

Consider this … if God’s timing is perfect, and I believe it is, these issues are happening at this time in your life for a reason.  So take advantage of it, and do what you need to do.  And know that this time of trouble will one day be over.  II Corinthian 4:17 states, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”  I would put an emphasis on “momentary.”

This struggle may last awhile, but it won’t last long – not if you take the necessary steps to correct it now.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.

 

Parable for Dads

Written by Mark Gregston.

prodigalHave you ever considered the father figure in the Parable of the Prodigal to be the focus of that story, not the wayward son?  After all, the word “father” is mentioned many more times than the word “son.”

A “prodigal” is defined as one who “spends extravagantly.”  While the son spent his inheritance; it was the father who was the most extravagant, both with his money and with his love.  It was the father who was the prodigal.

Whether or not Jesus’ parable was taken from a real life example, I imagine it wouldn’t be easy for any father to see his son live a sinful lifestyle and waste his inheritance.  But there is no mention of the father bringing brute force or threats to bear to hold back his son or to bring him home, any more than God forces Himself on us.

Oh, how much would he have liked to pull (him) back with fatherly authority and hold (him) close to himself so that (he) would not get hurt.  But his love is too great to do any of that. It cannot force, constrain, push, or pull.  It offers the freedom to reject that love or to love in return.  It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering. God, creator of heavens and earth, has chosen to be, first and foremost, a Father.” – Henri J.W. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

When the son came to his senses, the father again showed his prodigal nature by extravagantly welcoming him back into the family with fanfare and rejoicing.  There was no demand for repayment, no warnings, no threats, and no expressions of disappointment … just love and grace.  He threw a party and lavished all the same rights and privileges on the son as if he had never left the fold.

It’s the kind of prodigal grace and attention fathers need to lavish on their teens every day today.  In our counseling of teens at Heartlight, the most often mentioned desire of teen girls is, “I want more time with my Dad.”  They want time together, even if they don’t act like they do.

If you are a dad, take your teen to lunch, grab a snack after school, attend all games or school events, find things you can do together, and communicate with them online.  Send daily text messages to say “Hi” or, “I love you.”  Make sure your teen knows your desire to continue to be involved in his or her life even if there is a split in the family.  Do it, or they’ll seek validation from someone else, and that can lead to bigger problems than you ever want to have with your teen.

The Missing Dad

I asked one young girl in our counseling program how she was doing.  It was a simple question in passing, 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 told me about all the things she likes to do, and all the things she doesn’t like to do.  She talked about how she is a swimmer, a gymnast, a dancer, an equestrian, a pianist, and a volleyball queen.

She “shared” how she was homecoming queen and the “most likely to succeed” in her class.  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.

I quickly realized that this one-way “conversation” was a desperate cover-up of what was going on inside her.  She wanted me to know she is worth something and she plead 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 been 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.  She wanted to talk, but I encouraged her, “Hey, hey, hey … you don’t need to say anything.”  Finally, a real connection was made.

When dads are missing, problems will usually follow.  Why?  Because moms are the ones who instill a sense of value, and dads are the ones who validate it.  All children need their father’s blessing.  When dad’s stamp of approval is not there, the child will look for validation somewhere else.

This is especially true of teenage girls.  They need their dad to meet that need for validation – something only he can really fulfill.  And with 12- to 14-year-old girls, this need is greater than ever.  But sadly, many dads get too busy or otherwise emotionally move away from their daughters at this time in their life.

Learn to Listen Extravagantly

Dads are usually weak at listening.  They’re made that way.  They aren’t easily distracted from their focus on whatever they are doing and they’re always doing something.  It’s a great asset to have in the business world, but it’s a liability at home.  Many times dads are concentrating on something else when their teen attempts to talk to them; or they are only thinking one way and anything different fails to get through their filter.

You don’t have to work so hard to listen to your children when they’re little, but when they enter the teen years, you have to work at it.  If you are willing to just listen, you might touch the heart of your teen and convey a sense of value.  Don’t try to fix their problems like when they were young – not unless they ask for your help.  And don’t worry about what your answer is going to be; we can’t all come up with the scripted responses of TV dad’s like Ward Cleaver, Ben Cartwright, or Heathcliff Huxtable.  Focus on your teen and offer your attention as a wordless message of support.

Have Fun Extravagantly

“Life isn’t about how to survive the storm but how to dance in the rain.”  Author Unknown

Years ago, I listened to a man on the radio that I’ve been a fan of all my life, Chuck Swindoll.  He stated in so many words, “What I want written on my epitaph is that ‘Dad was fun!’”  Does that surprise you?  It did me.  I thought what every good Christian parent was supposed to want written on their epitaph was something to the affect of how godly or spiritual a person they were, or some thought about how they provided for the family.  And here was one of the godliest men that I ever listened to sharing how he wanted to be known forever as a “Dad of fun.”

I agree with that philosophy, balanced with everything else that it means to be a good father.  You may be pretty good at maintaining parental authority and discipline in the home, but are you making a connection with your teen in a way that is fun – fun for them?  Sometimes it’s okay just to sit and watch a movie together.  You could go fishing somewhere or take blankets and go out and see the stars in the middle of the night.  You may see a meteor shower.  These connections are manufactured times and they just don’t happen automatically.  Come up with a list of ideas that you’ve got to make happen for that special time with your child — even when they don’t want to do it.  Build up to it, “Tomorrow, we’re going to do this,” and then make sure you do it, without fail.

Right the Wrong

Dads can be great at checking out or avoiding issues.  They can boil, stew, hold a grudge, and allow unresolved issues to destroy their relationship with their child; or, avoid conflict by compromising their standards.  Then there are those who cover up problems by overindulging their kids … deflecting the problem temporarily and causing even more problems in the future.

But dads can also be pretty good at correcting their own errors if they put their attention to it.  If you’ve not been the dad you know you should have been, will you take responsibility for steering your home in the right direction, fostering positive emotions and mutual respect?  Start by identifying where you have been wrong, and seek forgiveness from those you have offended.

I recently witnessed an entire family break down and sob when the father asked each member to forgive him for his failures.  He repeated his request with intensity and emotion.  It was a humble, sincere apology, and a good step toward healing the resentment of his children.  Every heart in the room melted and it was a new beginning for that family.

Dad, let me urge you to not despair and certainly not to quit.  Instead, choose to have an honest conversation with God about your struggle, just as your teen should be able to have with you.  Ask Him your questions, and tell Him how you feel.  He, too, is a Father.  Ask Him what you are supposed to learn and what you should do to make things better.  Be okay with life not always making sense.  Celebrate being needful of God’s care.  Our Heavenly Father shines best when our life is a mess, and I hope you’ll be your best when your teen needs you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.

Balanced Parenting

Written by Mark Gregston.

The “Baby Boom” generation was so anxious to have good relationships with their children that they tended to set aside their primary role as parents.  Their desire to be their child’s best friend nurtured the advent of a self-centered, demanding, “Me Generation” who believes the world revolves around them.  But there’s hope!

Parenting in Past Generations — Too Rigid

As I’ve grown older, I see more with the eyes of my heart than I do with those on each side of my big nose.  And the aging process has brought me to a greater understanding of my own mom and dad’s parenting style.  I’ve learned that things really weren’t as bad as I used to think they were.

My dad, like yours, was less than relational; his focus was on providing for his family.  Working at the same job for 38 years; providing was his way of showing love for his family.  He demanded respect.  He taught us to be responsible because that’s the way he was taught, and he wanted us to live the same way.

My father worked hard because he grew up during the Great Depression, and he knew first-hand the challenges of having little to live on.  He also saw to it that our family was protected.  Food was always on the table, a roof was always over our head, we all went to college, and the enemy he fought in the South Pacific never marched on our homeland.

Parenting in Today’s Generation — Too Relational

Then, the 60’s and 70’s came along.  Some called it a revolution.  Millions of “Baby Boomers” fell head over heels toward relationships and feelings of love for all mankind.  Our music and lifestyle expressed our desire for universal peace and love.  We swooned to lyrics like “all you need is love,” and “smile on your brother; everybody get together; try to love one another right now.”  There was a “whole lotta’ love” going around.  And we “showered the people we love with love … showing them the way that we feel.”  Then we took our desire for peace, love and affection right into our parenting style.

Baby boomers as parents focused on maintaining peace and love, at all costs.  We determined to have better, stronger relationships with our kids than we had with our parents; carrying out these normally good and healthy desires to an extreme.  Out of financial abundance, we gave our kids everything they ever wanted, and more.  Modern conveniences allowed for more free time and less responsibility.  Soccer moms equipped with minivans shuttled kids from one event or activity to another, with stops at McDonald’s in-between.  We indulged, spoiled and provided too much “stuff” as misguided expressions of our love.

But Good Relationships Are Good, Aren’t They?

What’s wrong with too much love?  Nothing!  But there is something wrong with it if it is our only focus.  To put it bluntly, placing kids on a pedestal and focusing our lives on them created feelings of entitlement.  Kids began equating our love with our pocket book and our willingness to do things for them.  Their thrills in life came from getting new toys, new clothes, new honors, and new excitements.  They became demanding, selfish, adrenalin junkies, searching daily for new thrills.  When the excitement ended or the money train slowed, they became angry.  We wanted to be the best parents ever, but the more we focused our attention and our money on our kids, the more they fell into anxiety, depression, and outright defiance.  After all, they wouldn’t admit it, but deep down they were terrified for what they would do after they left the comforts and indulgences of home.  Perhaps you have a teenager fitting this description living in your home right now?

I’ve had the privilege of getting to know over 3,000 such teenagers in our Heartlight counseling program over the past 20 years. These are kids whose parents loved them greatly and gave them every convenience and materialistic advantage in life, yet they developed so many emotional problems that they had to be taken out of their homes.  So, I’ve seen this phenomenon thousands of times; and we continue to receive dozens of pleas for help from parents of out of control teenagers every day.

The crux of the matter is that it is hard to be a good parent when our focus is on having peace, love and friendship with our children.  This becomes especially difficult in step-families and some adoptive families.  The crucial role of correcting and holding children accountable is impossible when our overriding concern is to avoid any form of damage to our friendship.  But what we need to realize is that our children need parents first, not more friends.

So, the big question is this:  How do parents establish their position of authority, while also maintaining their relationship with their teen?  In other words, how do we find a proper balance without swinging the pendulum too far the other way?

Parenting the Right Way – Balanced

A simple answer is to say things like “No” and “Maybe” more often; and we need to apply boundaries and consequences when our kids cross over the line.  Balanced parenting is applying strength when needed; and tenderness at the same time.  It is not just one or the other, it is both.  The essence of balance in parenting is to stand beside our children and walk with them through life, while also determining to stand in front of them when we need to stop them from their foolish ways.

Kids learn quickly when they come to live with us at Heartlight that I am an authority in their life.  But that is always coupled with acceptance and love.  That’s why we continue to have great relationships with them over the years.  I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked to come to their college graduations or weddings, or who have connected with me on the Internet or by phone.  And most of them have turned out great, so I know there is hope, even with the most difficult and selfish teenagers.  There is a way to resolve this dilemma, but it takes a balanced approach.

Our goal should be to help our kids get to where they want to be, and keep them from going to a place they really don’t want to end up.  But since they are too immature to know any better, we need to remain in control, no matter how upset it makes them temporarily.  Then, as they mature in their thinking, the reins can be gradually released.  Believe me, your kids will express their appreciation when they are older for holding them in line as teenagers, and they’ll realize that you did it out of love, not to be mean or rigid.  In fact, they’ll ask for advice when they have children — and the beat goes on.

Scripture describes God as a mighty warrior and a fierce lion.  Scripture also reveals His softer side, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isa 66:13).  One purpose of parenting is to give a child a taste of the character of God, and that means giving them both sides of His character.

It’s never too late to start being a balanced parent; have a loving relationship, while also holding them responsible.  Your children need your correction, wisdom, and willingness to help them travel the path God has for them.  They need you to be gentle and loving, but also firm – a clear reflection of both sides of God’s character.

A wise man once told me, “When you’re called to be a servant, don’t stoop to be a king.”  Parents are never a more like a servant than when they willingly love a child through anything.  But don’t grow weary in doing what is right, since your first job is to be an authority in your child’s life.  Your teen needs a parent and a friend, but when push comes to shove, they need a parent more.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.

Adoption Issues to Be Aware Of

Written by Mark Gregston.

You may have heard the news story not long ago – an adoptive family in Tennessee put their 7-year-old Russian-born boy on an unaccompanied one-way flight back to Russia, explaining that he had terrorized their family since coming to live with them. Now, the world is in an uproar over their seemingly heartless and careless act.

This family’s decision to abandon their child is totally unacceptable, I know.  But I also know that adoptions can go haywire.  Adopted kids may or may not have any more problems than any other group of kids, but I think they often present a different “mix” of problems.  And those problems can often be more severe, with behavior escalating to the point where a child is out of control and dangerous to himself and others around him or her.

There’s no question that typical adolescent issues like belonging, fitting-in, rejection, connection, acceptance, and peer-relationships can become particularly prominent for some adopted kids.  But there are other factors that can cause just as many problems for the child and the adoptive parents.

Adoption Issues to Be Aware Of

If the adopted child was born out of a high-risk pregnancy, there is higher probability that they were prenatally exposed to alcohol, tobacco and other harmful drugs.  These impediments aren’t always unmanageable, nor are they untreatable.  But just knowing that there might be issues down the road as a result of that exposure might prepare you for dealing with it later on.  Many kids given up for adoption have come from high-risk pregnancies, exposing them to potential for developmental delays, impulsive choices, poor choices, attention deficit, hyperactivity, learning disabilities, and emotional disorders. There may be a higher risk as well for issues such as Reactive Attachment Disorder, other attachment issues, learning disabilities, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), logic sequence problems, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder.

Adoptive parents may also have to deal with anger and rages in their adopted child, just as the Tennessee  parents have claimed.  As a result, adopted kids might have to attend a special school, have special teachers, or need tutoring.  All of this can be expensive and may go on for years.  To make matters worse, an adopted child may not hug you or express love or appreciation the way you want.

But There’s Hope in Every Adoption

Am I an expert on adoption? No, not me.  But I enter the world of adoption “from the other side” because I know and have helped more than 700 adopted teens who have come to live in our Heartlight residential counseling program, and I have listened to the 10,000 questions they brought with them.  My search for answers to those 10,000 questions has led me to my own conclusions about problems that can come up with adopted kids.  Sometimes their struggles may be the result of prenatal issues, but mostly it’s because we’re all people who carry some personal baggage, and we bring our wounded hearts into our relationships.  We all are sinners in need of a Savior … and in need of help.  I am convinced that no problem is too great for God to resolve, and no relationship too damaged for Him to repair.

I believe that God in His sovereignty places orphaned or abandoned children with families on purpose.  And what I have discovered is that conflicts that arise from adoption issues, whether on the side of parents or of the adopted child, can be overcome.  God has a way of taking conflict and using it for our own good, and for deepening the relationship between parent and child.  God doesn’t give up on us, nor does He send us back to where we came from. There are times that I believe that working through the conflict helps everyone involved move toward wholeness, and to deeper relationships.

It is good to understand the issues that surround adoption, for understanding brings a family to a different response, a calmer approach to handling conflict, and a platform to learn new ways for engaging with a child.

So, Why Adopt?

I want people to adopt.  In fact, I sit on the board of an international adoption agency.  But I want adoptive parents to know full well the issues that might come up, invade, or enter the relationship with their child.  Perhaps if the parents in Tennessee had known more about the potential pitfalls, perhaps they would have been better prepared for the potential for struggle.

If you plan to adopt, just remember this; there is more to the portrait of your adopted child’s life than you will be able to see.  You’ll play a very important role in that portrait, and the presence of conflict, disillusionment, or hardship won’t negate the purpose of the portrait.  I believe that most change in a person’s life come through conflict, difficulty, and hardship.  I also believe it is worth the struggle so that kids can live in families.

God bless those who choose to give a child a new home and a new family.  If you are an adoptive family, may your home be a haven of hope for a child who needs you; may God’s beautiful provision for orphans reach down to you as well, and may He give you the strength to work through any future struggles or difficulties.  And, as always, if I can help, please don’t hesitate to call.

 

Tips for Connecting With Your Teen

Written by Mark Gregston.

Are you connecting with your teenager or growing farther apart every day?  Here are three things you can do to communicate and connect on a deeper level.

So, what do you and your teen talk about?  My guess is that you discuss such items as academics, work, behaviors, privileges, sports involvement, picking the right friends, choosing the right clothes, performing chores, and obeying the rules of the house.

Now, take a minute and think about what else you talk about.  Pretty short list, isn’t it?

Most of what we talk about is what they’re doing or need to do, not about what they’re thinking about or asking about their passions and goals in life.  This imbalance can create the impression that your relationships with your teen is determined by their actions and how they perform, versus your desire to really know them.

The point is this . . . talking to your teenager does not necessarily mean you’re communicating.  In fact, too much talk can cover up what really needs to be said.  Sometimes the most important connection with your teen can happen with very few words.  Are you looking for ways to really connect with your teen’s deepest hopes, concerns and fears; or is the mode of communication between the two of you an endless stream of superficial words, demands, and lecturing?  I encourage you to stop the chatter, look for what’s under the surface, and connect with your teen in a more meaningful way.

I.  Communicate By Asking Questions

The power of a parent asking questions is remarkable effective.  Everyone knows that when you are asked your opinion, you feel valued.  I’m talking about “What do you think?” questions, not “What did you do?” questions.  When asked in a non-condemning and non-prying way, these questions can convey a sense of value and relationship that is unparalleled by any other act of kindness.  The movement toward a teen by asking them what they think lets them know you have an interest in them and that you value their opinion.

So, ask your teen lots of questions.  Not ones that make them uncomfortable, but the kind of questions that make them think about things.  Find out how they would do something, where they would go, and why they think a certain way.  Talk about controversial subjects as you would to a friend or co-worker for whom you have extreme respect.  Never belittle their opinions about things.  After all, did you know everything when you were a teen?

If parents don’t ask questions, they could be missing serious hidden situations in the life of their teen.  Wise parents understand that anything can happen today, so they maintain an open line of communication with their teen to prevent things from getting out of hand if it does happen.  Foolish parents never give it any thought, so they never ask questions. The most common comment I hear from the parents of hundreds of struggling teens is this:  “I never knew this could happen to my child.”  Let me assure you from years and years of experience that anything can happen to anyone at any time.

Engaging with your teen through the power of caring inquiry is crucial, but you must also learn to keep your mouth shut long enough to hear your teen’s answer.  If you know something is wrong, be sure to inquire past their first “Nothing’s wrong” answer.  And when the real answer comes out, regardless of how bad or shocking it is, don’t respond with anger or disappointment.  Just listen.  Establishing a line of communication is far more important at this point than scolding or getting your “I told you so” point across.

Sometimes just by asking questions you empower teens to apply the values you have taught them to their own current situation.  Your questions might also encourage your teen to ask questions of you.  And if she does start asking questions, she might be inviting you to a dark and shameful corner of her world.  I always tell parents to ask questions, because I know it works.

II. Communicate Respect in Times of Conflict

Maintaining an attitude of respect is key.  It is basically putting your child first and showing them respect, even as you demand the same of them.  This affects your tone and demeanor, since you wouldn’t yell at, belittle, or talk down to someone you respect.  Show grace and respect in the way you communicate to your teen and they’ll learn to do the same with you.

In times of conflict, my goal for every difficult and sometimes heated discussion is this:  At the end of the argument, I want there to be an opportunity for us to hug one another, even if I didn’t change my mind nor lessened the consequences.  That’s the goal.  Even if we can’t agree, I still remain in charge, and we can at least agree to disagree because it was all talked out.

Being respectful has nothing to do with how right you are and how wrong they are.  It has nothing to do with the discipline you may need to apply to their behavior.  It has everything to do with maintaining the right approach whenever you talk to your teen, and thereby maintaining your relationship.  Sometimes when you need to address an issue, I again recommend asking a question.  Asking a thoughtful question can help engage their thinking process and the system of beliefs you’ve taught them.  You may be surprised to find they come to the right conclusion all on their own when they are shown respect in this way.

III.  Communicate by Listening More, Speaking Less

Not talking is one action.  Listening is another action.  Just because you’re not talking doesn’t mean you’re listening.  God gave us two ears and one mouth because He wanted us to listen twice as much as we talk (okay, not really, but it gets the point across).  You may hear what your teen is saying, but are you really listening without trying to correct him or get him to answer the correct way?

Most of the time, your teen says things to you or to others not to communicate valuable information, but simply to process life.  She doesn’t need a response or a judgment, she doesn’t need an opinion or a solution, and she probably isn’t really asking for anything.  She just needs a listening ear.  So take time to listen – slowly.

A Sunday school teacher once asked the ten-year-old in her class, “What’s wrong with grown-ups?”  A boy responded, “Grown-ups never really listen because they already know what they’re going to answer.”

If this sounds like you, it may be time to admit that listening is not something you do well.  Polishing up your listening skills is never a bad idea.  Good listening habits can easily get tossed aside in the business of life.  But the way you listen to your child goes a long way in determining his willingness to share his deep concerns with you.  And if you ever want him to listen to you, then you had better teach him how to listen by your example.  Practice listening to your child.  Position yourself at his eye level, and make lots of eye contact.  And don’t worry about your answers.

All teens want to do is talk and have someone listen to them.  If a teen shares what is on her heart, and that is missed by a parent more concerned about the delivery of the message than the heart of the communication, that teen will eventually quit sharing.  If your teen is in the shutdown mode, there is a reason.  And the reason may be that you aren’t listening to what’s being said anyway.

Most kids want to say, “My parents listened to me, and they heard me and they valued me.”  For your kid to say that, I’d say you are moving toward perfection.  If you are willing to just listen, you might touch the heart of your teen and convey a sense of value.  Don’t worry about your answer, just focus on listening as your teen shares their heart.

If you’ve been a bad listener, keep working at it, and share your desire to be a better listener.  Find opportunities for your teen to talk, even if they seem a bit forced at first.  Eventually, with diligence on your part, your teen will again learn to trust their dreams, thoughts and questions with you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.

 

Parenting Today's Teens is produced and sponsored by the Heartlight Ministries Foundation. You can visit our family of websites below.