Behavior Problems Are Heart Problems
Parents, you want me to change your child’s behavior. That is why you have brought your daughter to counseling. She is driving you nuts with her meltdowns and defiance. You tell me that she is needy, attention-seeking, and unwilling to trust God. You are at your wit’s end, having tried every form of punishment you can think of. And still, there is no change.
You are desperate for help. You assume that I, as a counselor, am able to say just the right things to your daughter that will make her trust God and change her behavior. You believe that my role is to back you up as parents and to pile on more expectations of improved behavior. You want me to convince her to sign your behavior contract designed to bring peace to your home.
I cannot help you with any of that.
What I can do, and what I am committed to do as a biblical counselor, is to point your daughter to Jesus. Yes, we will talk about some practical and behavioral changes that may be necessary, but most of our time will be spent talking about how God loves her. We will thoroughly discuss the gospel and what her personal relationship is with the Savior. Then we will talk about how to apply the gospel to her struggles. We will not apply the gospel to her behaviors, but to her heart, targeting her thought life, belief system, and desires.
As her thinking, beliefs, and desires align with God’s Word and the gospel, only then will you likely see some behavioral changes. She will not change out of willpower or a desire to please you. She will not change because I have said all the right things to her. She will not change because of your threat of punishment for not fulfilling a behavior contract. She will change because of God’s work in her heart.
Punishment Does Not Change Hearts
This kind of heart change takes time, parents. It also takes tender care. You must have consequences for poor behavior, just as God disciplines His children. But please consider this truth: punishment will not bring heart change. Discipline? Yes. Punishment? No. A punitive approach penalizes a child as a type of “payback” for an offense. Discipline applies appropriate consequences to encourage a child to make better choices in the future. Consequences are instructive. Punishment inflicts a form of pain without instruction. Consider the following verses:
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
“Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart” (Proverbs 29:17).
Nobody is ever punished in to God’s kingdom, and nobody is ever sanctified through punishment. This would be contrary to the gospel because Jesus bore the punishment we deserved. You cannot demand that your child trust God, nor should you punish them if they do not. Their heart does not belong to you, it belongs to God. He will tend to it as He sees fit. Together, we can point teens to God’s Word to show them how to have a personal relationship with Jesus. As He draws them to Himself, only then will they be able to have a truly changed heart. Only a truly changed heart will lead to behavioral changes.
We must offer your teen the gospel. We begin by evangelizing them if they are not a believer. Many parents make the mistake of believing their teen is a Christian just because they were brought up in church, answered an altar call at a young age, or were baptized. When you bring your teen to me for counseling, I will first assess whether they can clearly articulate the gospel. If not, I will proceed with the assumption that they are not a believer, rather than vice versa. Until they repent and believe, heart change will not occur regardless of punitive measures taken for misbehavior.
Disciple Your Teen
If your teen is a Christian, there are many practical things you can do to aid in their sanctification. As you are faithful to parent biblically, and as God continues to change your teen’s heart, you are more likely to see some of the behavioral changes you have been longing for. Here are some practical ideas to aid in your child’s spiritual growth:
- Encourage them to attend church and all that it offers for their age group.
- Encourage them to serve others.
- Encourage them to have daily time with God in His Word and in prayer. Model this for them.
- Have frequent, natural discussions about God, His Word, and the gospel. Weave it in to conversations and family activities.
- Do not punish them for any lack of growth. Encourage them when you see progress. Offer behavioral consequences that fit the situation (discipline), but do not be punitive.
- Remind them of their new identity in Christ.
- Talk about all the hard teen subjects together: sex, drugs, all of it. Do not “freak out” when you realize they know more than you thought they did (or if you learn that they have experienced these things).
- Attend counseling with them as the counselor directs. Remove the log out of your own eye, and remember you are also a sinner.
- Seek their forgiveness where you have failed them.
- Be interested in the things they are interested in. Engage.
- Ask yourself at every step “Is this a battle I am willing to fight?” Stand firm on battles that would otherwise compromise spiritual wellbeing. Where there is only a difference of opinion, let it go.
- Respond rather than react. Nothing shuts down a teen more quickly than an overly reactive parent.
- Keep your own spiritual walk healthy.
- Keep your marriage healthy.
- Pay equal attention to other siblings in the family.
- Remember that love is patient, kind, forbearing, and that we are called to long-suffering. This applies to our children, too.
- Practice all of the one-another passages with them. Once your teen is a believer they are not only your child, but also a brother or sister in Christ. There are times to encourage and times to admonish, just as we are called to do with all believers.
Some of your teen’s typical age-related behaviors will pass in time. Others will need to be more specifically addressed from a biblical perspective. Wisdom is offered to parents in God’s Word. Do not lose heart, discipling your teen is a privilege!
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
Questions for Reflection
Parents: Do you find that you tend to be more punitive than instructive with your teens? If so, how do you plan to correct that?
Counselors: Do you find that it is helpful to engage the parents of your teen counselees in to the counseling process? What other discipleship ideas do you offer them?