Every so often, I write a note to all our readers asking them to help us as we continue to help you in your parenting roles. This is one of those requests.
Jan and I have spent our lives in ministry, helping teens and families since we were both 19 years of age, right before we got married. This year, we’ve been married 40 years, and will both turn 60. It’s a big year for us to celebrate our marriage, our age, and our ministry of helping families.
Doing this for 40 years means that we’ve also spent 40 years asking people to partner with us in our endeavors to help families. This isn’t a “money appeal”….it’s a “auction item appeal”!
One of those unique ways is to engage people’s support, has been asking them to contribute items to our Silent Auction that will be held at our 21st Annual Dallas Dinner on Saturday, April 11th. 600 people will gather for a night to hear about the work of Heartlight and Parenting Today’s Teens, and our hope is to raise $300,000 through donation and the silent auction.
Here’s where I need your help.
The Silent Auction at this event is an opportunity for us to offer some great gifts, opportunities, experiences, and items to folks from all over the country. People will be bidding on everything from everywhere, so any item that would “sell” would fit into this auction.
It’s our hope to put together “auction packages.” For example, if someone donated a condo in another city, we’d package that with a dinner in that city along with airfare. Or if someone donated travel certificates and another concert tickets, we may send them to a special concert somewhere in the country. The variations are endless.
Would you take a few minutes to consider something? If you have any of the following, would you consider donating it to the auction? Or consider asking your favorite restaurant or hotel to donate something towards your favorite charity (well, one of them). Here’s a listing of what we’re looking for:
Special Event Tickets
Home on the Beach
Home in the Mountains
Home on the Range
Trips or Hunts
You get the tax write off…the person bidding gets the item…and the Heartlight Foundation gets the donation for one of our best fundraisers. It’s a “Win – Win – Win” for everyone! As mentioned, your gifts are tax-deductible as the Heartlight Ministries Foundation is a 501 (c)(3) organization. If you have an idea about something that you’d like to donate, please call my son, Adam Gregston at 972.342.4416, or adamg@HeartlightMinistries.org.
This event raises the funds needed to keep us on the air in radio. It keeps these newsletters coming. It provides for the Families in Crisis Seminars and keeps me on the road helping families through our seminars and conferences.
We’re most grateful for your participation with us and for making this a successful event for the sake of parents and teens across North America. Thanks in advance for you help!
Years ago, we had several boys living with us in our home. They were assigned their own bathroom, but based on the worsening condition of those facilities, I realized these guys needed some help exercising maturity and self-control. I told them, “Fellas, from now on, you need to clean your own toilet and keep this bathroom tidy. If not, you could lose it.” Unfortunately, they ignored the rule and the mess got even worse. So, one day, I just took the entire toilet out! The toilet needed to be replaced anyway, but the boys didn’t need to know that. I thought not having it for a while would be a good learning experience for them.
When the boys got home from school, there was nothing but a little hole in the floor where the messy toilet used to stand. In disbelief, they asked me, “Where are we supposed to go?” I said, “I’m sorry, the rule was that you needed to keep the bathroom clean, and if you didn’t, you couldn’t have it.” Well, after a few days of dealing with just a hole in the ground, the boys came back to me and asked, “What do we need to do to get our toilet back?” Once they experienced the consequences, they saw the value of the rule, and put in the work necessary to reclaim their bathroom.
Rules are not just about getting the chores done, cleaning the house (or making it smell better). Like the story of the boys’ toilet, rules give us the opportunity to teach our teens important life principles about responsibility. So how do you know that the rules of your house are helping your kids instead of hurting them? Let me offer five essential characteristics of a good rule.
1. Rules Should Be Relevant
Boundaries that were necessary and acceptable when your child was seven will likely be outdated when he is seventeen. Good rules flex and grow along with your child. I believe that nothing good happens for a teenager after midnight, so curfews are a good boundary to establish. But while a 9 o’clock curfew is great for a 13-year-old, it’s probably too early for a sixteen-year-old. Good rules help our teens learn to make good decisions for themselves and wean them from their dependency on mom and dad. This happens when our rules stay relevant and current with the age and maturity of our child.
2. Rules Should Be Attainable
As parents, we all want great things for our kids. Encouraging your son or daughter to succeed is good, but if reaching a particular expectation set up by mom and dad seems impossible, a teen will shut down, quit or rebel. Our rules should be about getting kids where they need to go, and keeping them from where they shouldn’t be. So the rules we set up should be realistic and reasonable, allowing teens to fulfill (or maybe even exceed) expectations. You could reasonably say, “If you get a ‘D’ in any class, then we have to take away your cell phone for a week.” That’s a logical goal to shoot for. But if you insist, “Get straight A’s or you lose your cellphone for a week!” that expectation may be too demanding for your teen. It would be unfair to make your 8-year-old mow the lawn every week. But it’s an attainable goal to have your 14-year-old do some landscaping on the weekend. A good rule is always within reach for your child.
3. Rules Should Be Beneficial
Think about some of the rules in your house and ask yourself, “Will this help build up my kids’ character and cause them to become more mature and responsible?” If the answer is “no”, then you probably need to rethink that rule and your motivation for wanting to make it a rule. Good boundaries grow out of a good relationship with your child. It’s not about exerting control, wielding authority, or keeping your teen under your thumb. You want to help your teen become a dependable and responsible adult, and the rules of your home should be designed to get your son or daughter to that place. If the rule is not helpful, it may be time to toss it aside.
4. Rules Should Make Sense
Mom and dad … rules need to make sense. We can all remember rules set down by our own parents that made no sense at all. I can remember being told I was not allowed to grow my hair past my earlobes. Even as a teen I asked, “Why not?” It wasn’t because I was rebellious or wanted to shock people—I just wanted to fit in with the guys at my school who had cool, long hair. We need to listen to our teens and honestly hear their objections to some of the long-standing rules we’ve put in place. It’s not enough to say, “Do it because I said so!” Your teen might not be able to understand how a rule is beneficial, but you should have a logical reason for every rule, and be able to explain that reason to your teenager. If not, the rule doesn’t make sense and should be scrapped.
5. Rules Should Come From a Place of Love
I said it before, but it’s so true—Rules without relationship lead to rebellion. If there is no love but a lot of boundaries, that’s legalism, and kids feel stifled and smothered. If there is plenty of love but no boundaries, then there’s no structure, and kids go out-of-control. Good rules grow out of a loving willingness to provide guidance.
We were playing paintball with some kids at Heartlight, and the teens love plastering me with paint. When we were finished, I was surprised to find one of the boys refusing to clean his equipment. I went up to him and said, “We had a good time, and you know the rule for the course—everybody cleans their own equipment.” With a verbal onslaught, the young man told me he simply wasn’t going to do that. I remained calm and said to him, “Now we have another problem. In addition to breaking the equipment cleaning rule, you are also being disrespectful.” Then I laid out the consequences for breaking the rules. After a couple of days raking pine needles, the teen came to me and apologized. I brought the lesson home and reaffirmed him by saying, “You are a good man, but the way you responded in these situations hurts your relationships with the people you’re closest to. I want something better for you. By the way, this lesson is not about cleaning the stupid paintball stuff. This is about helping you be successful in life.”
It’s true that a bad rule can hurt a child. But a good rule, in the hands of a loving parent, can be the best thing in the life of a teen.
During a past radio program, my guest Dr. Melody Rhode commented that the death of a child is such a catastrophic experience in the life of parents, it leads 90% of those marriages to fail. A shocking statistic, isn’t it?
In my years of working with thousands of struggling teens and their parents, I’ve learned that parents of troubled teens experience a similar sense of grief and loss, and also a profound sense of betrayal from their teen. Perhaps their teen has run away or otherwise has totally abandoned the family and everything they hold dear. To these parents it may seem as though a “death” has occurred, and as such, it similarly puts a great deal of stress on their marriage.
Often, the crisis with a teen amplifies the true condition of a marriage, revealing its areas of weakness. A teen’s acting out may actually be his unintentional way of forcing the adults in his life to deal with their obvious marital problems. It may be a relational problem that everyone in the family already knows exists – but is never talked about or addressed – or, it could simply be a lack of real love or respect in the relationship. Unfortunately, a parent who tends to be always absent, angry, too submissive or too strict may demonstrate these traits even more as they also have to deal with their teen’s behavior. It can be overwhelming for any parent.
On the other hand, I’ve seen many parents (even parents who had previously divorced each other) band together when their teen experiences troubles. Contrary to the hopelessness of a death, these parents are hopeful that something can yet be done to help their teen. They know that more is at stake than their own needs. They know that this issue with their teenager is bigger and more important than their own issues. Therefore, they know they had better get their own act together, or their teen may be lost forever.
For married parents who want to help their teen through this crisis, it is critical to understand that dealing with a struggling teen can be hard on your marriage. Really hard! And the failure of your marriage in the midst of the turmoil can lead to even more dire consequences for your teenager. To help you avoid these destructive forces, I encourage you to take these proactive steps:
Preventing Marital Jeopardy for Parents of Troubled Teens
- See the experience as something you must manage together. Attend couples counseling, get outside help specifically for managing your stress. If one of you tends to choose isolation from the problem, or expresses anger inappropriately, address it with a professional. If you’ve never had reason or motivation to improve your relationship, keep in mind that saving your teen is a really good reason.
- Begin to share your feelings about what’s happening in your family. Hiding your feelings from your spouse, or not talking about your fears, anxieties, or worries only isolates you from the problem.
- Present a united front to your teen, and one that insists your child treat both of you respectfully. This is a time when parenting comes from a love that is tough and remains strong, like that of a warrior ready to fight to keep a child from self-destruction. Treating each other respectfully is a first step.
- Identify how your teen’s out of control behavior is specifically hurting your marriage relationship, and express your feelings openly to your spouse. Protect your spouse’s feelings and don’t share them with others.
- Don’t expect your spouse to fill the void left by your teen’s wrong choices or absence.
- Don’t expect your spouse to change. Instead, focus on changing yourself.
- Don’t vent your frustrations on anyone else in the family, especially your spouse. Find other ways to vent that don’t include relationship-bashing.
- Don’t blame each other for the trouble you are experiencing with your teen. Blame will help no one at this point and in fact will feed your teen’s problems.
- Find other parents who are experiencing similar issues with their teen, and spend time with them. Relate your struggles and give them the chance to do the same. It may be difficult to find others who are willing to engage in such a private discussion, so you be willing to start the discussion, if needed. Attend conferences, like our Gathering at Heartlight, to help you gain insight and understand that you are not alone in this struggle.
- Respond instead of react to what comes your way. Take time to think it through before you make a decision, and make certain the decision is one you both support. Ask God’s help in finding the right answers, and strength to do what’s necessary.
- Don’t avoid the pain – if you avoid dealing with the pain, you avoid finding a solution. Examine the feelings of loss, betrayal, sorrow, or anger, and ask God to come alongside to bear your burdens.
- Make decisions together as much as possible in regard to your teen, but don’t undermine your spouse’s decisions even if they are not discussed in advance. Recognize that there are things your spouse will do differently, and let it become a strength. Try to support their style of parenting, even if it’s not always what you would do, or how you would do it.
- Keep looking to the other side of the struggle. Be patient. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and it is God. Find hope in your relationship with God, and move in the direction He leads, knowing the struggle with your child will eventually end and the teen who gives you the hardest time is often the one you’ll end up relating to best down the road.
Above all, know this: teens in crisis are experts at pitting one parent against another, creating a wedge in order to deflect attention away from their own bad behavior. So, at a time like this, be aware that you will be challenged with more marital problems. If you keep in mind where those stressors are coming from and also take to heart the steps I’ve outlined above, it could save your marriage.
Have you ever asked yourself, “What on earth does God have in mind by allowing both me and my teen to struggle so?”
I often see Christians who believe that parenting according to scriptural values, taking their kids to church every time the doors are open, and promoting family togetherness means that all will be well in the teenage years. Like buying an insurance plan, they think that doing the right things will bring about the right result.
Let me tell you, based on years of experience with struggling teens and their parents, that this thinking is just plain wrong. Never assume that applying a continuous moral or religious presence in your child’s life will in itself bring about a perfect transition from childhood to adulthood. It can help and should be encouraged, but it is no guarantee. The often quoted scripture “train up a child in the way he should go” says nothing about the turbulent teenage years. In fact, you’ll want to remember that some biblical characters with seemingly perfect spiritual upbringings had difficulties themselves in their teenage years.
Stuff happens that is out of our control as parents, and even if we do everything right, stuff still happens. One angelic teenager can lead us to think that we have found the right formula, right up until we see our next child go down a completely different path. Welcome to the real world — where God gives each of our children a free will.
And, welcome to the one thing in life over which you have absolutely no control. It may be the first time in your life that you have to lean on God completely. And that’s not all bad.
Could this Time Be God’s Challenge to You?
In the heart of any parenting struggle there is usually more that we can learn. For instance, could God want us to know Him more fully? Could we benefit from a different perspective and have a better understanding of how to help other kids or parents? Could this difficult time reveal areas of our lives that need to change?
The point is, in God’s economy there is always a point to the pain. So allow God to use this time to move you along to a better place or to develop your own character.
Consider Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me oh God, and know my anxious thoughts, and see if there is any hurtful way in me, and lead me in paths of righteousness.”
In addition, think about Matthew 7:4-5, “How can you say, ‘My friend, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you don’t see the log in your own eye? You’re nothing but show-offs! First, take the log out of your own eye. Then you can see how to take the speck out of your friend’s eye.”
Do you have something that needs attention in your own life at the same time as you seek help for your teen? If so, remember this…it could have lasting benefits that go far beyond this difficult period. You will learn to trust God in a very real way.
> You will learn how to become a good listener — one who waits to be invited.
> You will grow spiritually, become more self-controlled, slower to speak, slower to anger.
> You will realize that God is still dependable, even when everything seems out of control.
> You will learn the extent of God’s great love for you.
> You will develop wisdom that is useful for the next generation in your family.
> Other parents will benefit from watching you handle your struggle in the right way.
> Out of desperation, you will stop faking your faith and make your dependence upon God real.
You see, the struggle is always partly about us, how we handle things and how we seek God’s help in the midst of the storm. It will challenge and sharpen our beliefs and help us confront our fear of losing control. Stated in another way, it will help build our faith and dependence on God’s every provision in our lives.
Isn’t it somewhat comforting to know that God may have a bigger purpose in it all for both you and your teen? If you believe that, then don’t just focus on your teenager’s struggles at this time. Step in front of a mirror and look for areas in your own life that need to grow, and aim to make those changes with God’s help.
Take a moment right now to think about how God might be using your situation to reveal more about His character, and how that knowledge can help you in turn deal with your struggling teen.
Most adopted children that I’ve worked with have one question on their minds that is frankly unanswerable. The question creates an unfillable void, especially in the teen years. And that question is, “Why was I abandoned by my birth-mother?”
Adopted kids often carry a lot of emotional baggage and the new parents are often caught off guard by how their lovely adopted child acts out when reaching the teenage years. Many times the “new parents” are a reminder to that child of what she has lost, what she doesn’t have, and what she misses. Thus, anger builds up over why she was abandoned more than about anything the adopted parents did or didn’t do. The adopted parents just happen to be the convenient ones to take the brunt of her anger.
Dear Mark…We adopted our 16-year old daughter when she was 7 years old in hopes of giving her a better life. We do not have much money, but we do try to reward her good deeds, which are few and far between at this point in her life. Now she has serious behavioral (and moral) problems. We are at our last hope for helping her. Is there any way you can help us?
Mark’s Answer: What you have done, by adopting this beautiful girl, is an honorable thing. You are to be applauded for what you have done, as you really have had input into her life….you might just not see the fruit of your labor for awhile. Just because she is responding the way she is right now doesn’t mean that the adoption was wrong. It just means that you might not have been prepared for what you are facing. Most parents adopt with the best of intentions, and with a set of high hopes that they indeed are giving their child a better life. You are doing the right thing by seeking help and not giving up.
Several of our teen residents at Heartlight are adopted children, which goes to show how prevalent these issues are among adopted kids.
Anger comes from loss or when we don’t get what we think we want. Your daughter is angry because she hasn’t gotten what she thinks she wanted–her real mom and dad. She is fantasizing about a world of perfection where everything is okay. They really do believe that if they had not been given up and had a normal natural family, then everything would be fine and she wouldn’t have the “emptiness” she feels.
I’ve seen this dynamic at work many, many times, and I can say that, eventually, your daughter will understand it as well and be remorseful for how badly she’s been treating you. This is just not a conclusion she will likely come to in her teen years.
Meanwhile, you still have to deal with and control her behavior. Just keep in mind that while behavior has to be contended with, it is a symptom, not the main issue with an adopted child. And usually, you have to handle the real issues and the symptoms at the same time.
So here are some suggestions:
1. Your understanding of your child’s issues will help you respond differently to your child’s actions. Perhaps this would be a good time to meet with a counselor yourself to get some direction and input.
2. Your child needs some outside reinforcement. She needs to meet with someone outside of your family who she has or can connect with, and get some perspective that is supportive of your love, concern, and longings for her.
3. She’s capable of handling her behavior. At some point (and it sounds like you are now there) some lines must be drawn. She should be told that you will no longer allow the type of behavior you are currently seeing. Issues of respect, honesty, and obedience are key.
4. Reward the good behavior, and allow consequences to have their full affect for inappropriate behavior. Give her an IPOD on some good days, so you can take it away on the bad days. Pay for her cell phone when you have good weeks or months so that misses the privilege of a phone when you take it away during the bad weeks or months.
5. Moral issues are secondary at this time and may be more fluff than reality. Most of the time, these issues pass and will “right” themselves. It is something that should be discussed with her counselor. She may be saying shocking things to get back at you or just to show everyone that she has control of her life. So many times, teens will pick lifestyles that are their choice, just to try to prove that they can control their out-of-control life.
6. It takes two to fight. Don’t fight! Let her know that this is not what your family is about and that you will not engage in the childish fighting that she is trying to draw you into.
7. Lastly, hang in there. No act of kindness goes unnoticed, even when you don’t think that she is seeing it. Remember, the Bible teaches, “…you will reap from what you sow….in due time.” We all get frustrated with the part about “due time.” It never seems to be on our schedule….and never quick enough.
If you do nothing more than give your child a taste of what it means to have a normal life, then you are doing a good thing. If she only learns that God is one who loves her and will never give her up, then you have created an environment for her to learn some pretty significant lessons.
God has a bigger plan than what you see…pray that He will show you a little more of what He’s doing. He will. And as always, thank you for adopting this child. No matter how hard it is right now, realize that you have already had a huge positive impact on her life and she will come around, eventually.
When a teenager’s behavior is way out of line, when he or she crosses established boundaries and offends us and makes us angry, it is easy to think he or she doesn’t deserve grace. But that may be exactly the right time to give it.
Grace – given at just the right moment – has the power to change the direction of any struggle, and may ultimately bring it to an end. Grace can bring healing, restoration, and redirect your teen’s path.
A biblical definition of grace is this: God’s undeserved favor and forgiveness when we’ve chosen the unforgivable. In human terms, grace is an act of kindness, love, and forgiveness in the face of bad behavior or poor choices. For your teen, it can even extend to outright rebellion and rotten attitudes.
I recently worked with a teen who rarely received grace at home. He was angry, all the time, and spewed anger on everyone and everything around him, including the side of my van. Instead of having him arrested for bashing my vehicle with a baseball bat, I sat him down and told him he was forgiven, he wouldn’t be arrested, and that we were going to work things out differently from now on.
As we began to talk, tears came to his eyes. He had never experienced that kind of forgiveness in the face of his anger, and he couldn’t believe I didn’t have the police waiting to take him to jail. Giving him grace, at just the right moment, went a long way to change the direction he was headed, and in the end, after a lot of work, he successfully completed the Heartlight program.
Grace When it is Least Deserved
How do you know exactly the right time to extend grace? How about when it’s least deserved? I guess that’s how you’ll know it’s grace – because it won’t feel good – in fact, it may be enough to put you in a really bad mood. I didn’t enjoy having a smashed-in van. I didn’t like having to pay for the repairs. But that’s the nature of grace. It doesn’t feel good when you’re giving it, it’s costly, but you are never more like Christ than when you offer it.
As believers, we should understand grace-giving. After all, didn’t God love us so much that while we were sinners He sent His Son to die for us? He took our place for the penalty of sin. That kind of grace didn’t come easily, but we can learn from it and imitate it.
Grace is Not Meant to Enable Bad Behavior
Seeking grace in parenting doesn’t mean we allow bad behavior to continue unchecked. That’s not grace. That’s enabling or empowering our child to keep up their bad behavior without fear of consequences. As I’ve talked about many times, the pain of consequences is what causes all of us to take notice of our bad behavior -so we make a change. Some say that pain is a terrible part of God’s creation, but the fact is, without it we’d never change. Pain keeps us in check and tells us when something is wrong.
Grace Can be Misunderstood by Others
The biblical story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-22) is a good illustration of a father who extended grace without enabling. It wasn’t easy to see his son leave, and as the story goes, the son only came to his senses when he had wasted all of his inheritance and hit bottom. The father still welcomed him back into the family, but to our knowledge, he didn’t offer the son more money or enable him to go back to an unfruitful lifestyle.
But giving grace isn’t always popular. Remember the sibling in the story – the good son? He questioned his father’s decision to extend grace to his prodigal brother. After all, he had stayed behind to help the family while the prodigal was off seeking pleasure. Even though the decision was unpopular, the father gave grace and most likely did so not just because his son returned, but because the he wisely saw that his son had finally come to his senses.
Remember, Giving Grace is…
- Most often needed when it is least deserved
- Doesn’t directly benefit the giver
- Can be misunderstood by others
- Doesn’t enable bad behavior to continue
- Is best when it is offered at just the right time
- Comes from a desire for a new direction, understanding your child’s heart, and his need to be restored.
We are never more like Christ than when we give our teen grace in the face of a struggle. And, giving grace when it surely is not deserved may change the direction of the struggle, or even bring it to an end.
Perhaps you recall the Biosphere II experiment 20 or so years ago? Several scientists were sealed in a huge glass biodome in the Arizona desert to see if life could be sustained in a similar facility in outer space. There was one unexpected result from that experiment. As trees were grown in this seemingly “perfect” environment, with sun and water and good soil, they all eventually died. You see, as trees normally grow in nature, winds continuously bend them back and forth, making microscopic tears in their bark. The tree responds by filling the tiny breaks with protective sap that hardens and forms a sturdy outer core, making the tree trunk strong enough to stand upright. So, without the buffeting of wind in the protected dome of Biosphere II, the trees there simply flopped over and broke after reaching a certain height.
I hope the analogy to parenting is obvious. Are you overly protective of a teenager in your own “dome.” Can you see how that could become detrimental, or at the very least not be very helpful to them, when in a few short years they will take on life all on their own?
After years of being in protector mode, we need to get out of the way and allow our children to gradually bend in the winds of life a little more. Through that gentle buffeting they’ll gain strength and wisdom to stand upright and flourish in their later years. Without it, they will simply fall over at some point.
The shift also encompasses moving from telling and providing to listening and guiding. In other words, avoid fixing everything for the little darlings but be there for them to cry on your shoulder when they make a mistake. Encourage them to make as many of their own decisions as possible, as long as they aren’t life-threatening.
The teenager may not get it quite right at first but eventually, through natural consequences, they will learn to make better decisions. Begin early, and keep working at it. This is an ongoing process, and one you should consider a critical stepping stone to maturity.
Parents of teenagers who really understand the “shifting gears” principle become really good coaches and listeners. They allow their children to learn from small mistakes along life’s road to prepare them to handle bigger decisions later on. They remain in the game, enforcing the boundaries without wavering, but they avoid anger when boundaries are broken. They allow consequences to speak for themselves, for it is through consequences that we all learn. And they express true empathy and inspirational support during their teen’s struggles, even when they make really stupid mistakes.
If you have a teenager in your home, perhaps it is time to shift your style of parenting. While it is hard to step back and watch as inevitable mistakes are made, it is essential for parents to allow the buffeting winds of life to blow. And give your teen some credit. You’ll be surprised how quickly he or she will mature once the training wheels are taken off and it is up to them to either steer straight, or crash. Like the beam on a child’s face after his first unassisted bike ride, your teen will grow in confidence and self-esteem with each new decision he makes.