I have had the privilege of spending the last 13 years working as a music teacher and crisis counselor for teens. The following six tips represent a handful of lessons I have learned along the way. If you are the parent of a teenager or pre-teen, I pray that you find this helpful.
Be relational, but not their best friend.
Parenting two boys under the age of three is physically exhausting. I can’t remember the last time I felt truly rested. In fact, one of my daily dilemmas is figuring out when I can shower while still keeping both of my rambunctious little boys safe from harm. But I know that all this changes when kids grow up: The emotional expenditure overrides the physical, to which any parent of older children can attest.
But one thing is clear: God has created us as relational beings, which means that no matter the temperament of your children, they want you to know them. There is not one student that I have met with over the past decade who does not deeply desire a healthy relationship with his or her parent. But teen years are hard. Over the course of the high school years, students are transitioning from childhood to adulthood. At the same time, hormones are raging and fluctuating, and the prefrontal cortex of the brain (responsible for time management, good judgment, organization, controlling impulses, goal setting, and an understanding of long-term consequences) is still developing. Plus, both parents and teens are simultaneously navigating new waters and new roles.
Implement basic counseling principles into your parenting during these years. Ask lots of questions, but also study body language and mood (remember the raging hormones), and realize that sometimes simply your presence and listening ear are all that is required, while at other times you will find golden opportunities for conversation.
When does your teen seem to be the most talkative? Notice patterns and create space for those times if at all possible. For instance, if your child talks more at night than on the ride home from school, make it a point to start making chocolate chip cookies right around primetime. In the teenage years, your child needs you more than ever before, whether or not they communicate it, and they need you to just be there for when they’re ready to talk. When they do open up, make sure to listen, observe, and wait. They don’t want you to treat them like a best friend; they need you to be their parent. However, they need a different kind of parent than when they were 10 years old. Go on a grace hunt in their lives and make sure you are encouraging and cheerleading far more than nagging and reminding each day. In short, constantly pray for wisdom about when to let them fail, leave their problems unfixed, confront, or just patiently pray as you slowly prepare them to leave the nest.
Be sure your love also communicates enjoyment.
We all know the striking contrast of duty and delight. Teens usually know deep down that you love them, but be sure they also know you enjoy them. Whether you’re going to the grocery store or making dinner, communicate how much you enjoy being in their presence. One primary way to accomplish this is to enter fully into their hobbies, interests, and what delights them. Whether it be photography, gaming, horseback riding, or baking, get enthralled with what they love. The best relationships develop and blossom out of mutually enjoyed activities. Learn and enjoy alongside them, and the quality time and strong bond that ensues just might surprise you!
Understand that technology really does change everything.
Technology has drastically propelled time forward as we watch culture changing at a faster pace than ever before. Parents who have fond memories from high school naturally desire for their children to have the same wonderful experiences. However, your memories of sports, student government, dating, or football games are more dissimilar to your child’s than you could probably imagine.
The mere fact that smart phones, email, and the internet didn’t exist during your childhood radically changes things. When one of my friends wanted to talk, he or she called my house on the landline. My parents could pick up the phone at any point and listen in, and other than face-to-face interaction and handwritten letters, that was the only way to interact with peers.
Fast forward to 2017 and students can interact on screens via FaceTime, Google Chat, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, and Yik Yak simultaneously- and all in the privacy of their own bedrooms at night while their parents sleep. Let your mind wander about the myriad of technology’s effects to get a better understanding of your teen’s world. It is much harder for a child to talk to parents about sexting or cyberstalking if parents don’t have even a basic understanding of how the technology works. Aggressively seek to learn and understand apps, modes of communication, and its mountains of temptations, and you will better understand the world through the eyes of your teenager. Furthermore, as you begin to understand how pervasive technology is in their lives, you can then begin to help them learn a healthy stewardship, which will hopefully carry them through college and beyond. Whether specifying a nightly time that your teen turns in his or her electronics or monitoring their usage through Covenant Eyes or some other protective accountability program, teens need your help navigating the challenges that face them as a result of technology, particularly in the area of discipline (remember the undeveloped prefrontal cortex).
Technology is here to stay and invades your teen’s world at every turn. Taking it away or preventing usage is not a long-term option. Learn it and help your teen build a foundation of using technology for good and not for evil.
Expect failure along with success.
Teens want to know that you are their biggest fan and that you believe they can “reach for the stars.” But it’s equally important that you actively see them for who they are: a human being living in a fallen world, just like you. Lord-willing, they will leave the world a better place, but they will also make some bad decisions and mistakes along the way. Let them fail, and expect them to fail. Avoid a helicopter parenting mentality that always swoops in to save the day. Most success is a result of learning from past mistakes. Further, in expecting them to struggle, don’t forget that this includes sin. Don’t act shocked by sin, no matter how harmful or harmless our culture has labeled it to be, but don’t excuse it either.
The biggest roadblock to a teen’s willingness to share his or her struggles is the parent acting uncomfortable or mortified with what he or she shares. Begin to invite your child into your own world of struggles, and why you so desperately want them to avoid sin because you know that it will ultimately destroy them. Let them know you understand how hard it is and that you are there with them in the fight each and every day.
Drop everything to show you care about them, but care about other things too.
There is nothing like the knowledge that someone will be there for you no matter what. The simple understanding that a parent will walk out of an important meeting at work or cancel a night out with friends because his or her child is in need insurmountably communicates love and provides security to that child.
However, your teen is growing more and more independent, and they know when they are your whole world. They can tell if there is nothing else fueling excitement, creativity, and purpose in your life apart from them and this brings its own set of pressures and vices. Explore the passions God has given you, take care of your own well-being, seek the Lord about whom you can serve and minister, but always be willing to put these things aside for your own child.
Trust that God’s plans ultimately outshines your dreams.
I have only just begun the parenting journey and already know the gut-wrenching reality that my son’s pain is my pain tenfold. You love your children more than anything in the world, and would even give your life in order for them to live if necessary. Still, good parents don’t equal good kids. Despite all that you pour into your children with love, prayer, and opportunity, they may still push it all away. Even still, persevere in loving, praying, and trusting that God loves them even more than you do.
As my pastor, Mark Dever, often says, “Where there is life, there is hope.” They may graduate from high school and find themselves entrenched in sin, but their story isn’t over yet. Be faithful by loving and caring for them today, and trust that the Lord will ultimately write a better story for your child than you could ever imagine.