Parenting Adolescents

By Gordon Bals

It has now been some years since I had a teenager in the home, so it is easier to reflect on parenting adolescents.  I see with more clarity what a formative and challenging time it is for a child and how to approach it as a parent.  Based on this, I want to offer some general guidelines based on Galatians 6:1-5 (CSB).  Those words from Paul were to guide believers on how to engage someone who is caught in a trap they don’t recognize.  He writes, Brothers and sisters, if someone is overtaken in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual, restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so that you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone considers himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Let each person examine his own work, and then he can take pride in himself alone, and not compare himself with someone else. For each person will have to carry his own load.

Notice that Paul’s words are for those “overtaken in any wrongdoing.”   When considering someone caught up in sinful beliefs or expressions, we often don’t think they have been “overtaken.” We like to believe everyone is fully aware and 100% consciously choosing the sin in their life.  We don’t see the presence and activity of sin as something bigger in each other’s lives and that we need help recognizing and standing up to it.  In fact, it is convenient to believe each person alone causes their problems because then they are responsible to solve them, and we are off the hook.  Too often, in a vulnerable and overwhelming period, we leave teenagers on their own to solve their problems and this is a fitting passage for us to consider in raising teenagers.

In early adolescence children are flooded with hormones that spark feelings, actions and reactions that are on a different level for them.  It is like going from riding a bicycle to driving a motorcycle. Hormones animate our sexuality, so adolescents are dealing with arousal and shame that is significantly different from anything they have experienced prior to that time. Our sexual energy is not just for sex, it is also there to help us find oneness with others.  Not only are children in danger of sexual risks they are in danger of doing things to assert themselves to find acceptance. In a period where they are vulnerable to taking dangerous risks, they also don’t have a fully developed prefrontal lobe to help them recognize possible consequences. They encounter a newfound energy they cannot reliably steward on their own.  

I remember picking up one of my girls at this stage of development after school one day when she was expecting her mom.  As she slid into the car she said (with some intensity and anger), “Where is mom!”  I said, “I am sorry it is so hard to see me today.”   A couple of minutes later I asked a simple question and got a quick angry retort.  So, for the rest of the ride home I was quietly praying.  As we got close to home my daughter said, “I am sorry dad.  I have no idea why I get so easily mad around you now.”  I thought to myself it will be quite a while before you make any kind of sense of what is transpiring now and what I said was, “You have permission to be angry around me.”   I didn’t always respond that way but in that moment, I was cognizant that hormones and adolescence were turning her world upside down and she was adjusting.  I felt a kindness in that moment that said, “This season is bigger than you and you will be bullied by a fleshly nature inside of you and a worldly nature outside of you that wants to push you away from God into all kinds of chaos and damage.  I want to be someone who helps you stand up to that not someone who adds to it.”   

Do you believe that your adolescents can be doing things they don’t want to do and not doing things they should?  Do you also believe they can be blinded to this and want it to be different and yet act like it doesn’t matter to them?  Can you remember they were not made to stand up to evil alone and, like any human being, need help?  You will parent a teenager better when you remember they can be caught in a trap they cannot see and attempt to help them get back on track with gentleness and humility.  I can think of several instances where our teenagers did some things that unnerved us, and I am glad there were moments where we welcomed what happened (didn’t freak out) and helped nurture their desire and fortitude to stand up to the forces railing against them.  Believing what is true for your teenager matters and the more you believe it with rest and confidence, the easier it is for them to get a hold of it.  Because sin is so enticing it can seem like what they and you want to do.  It is important to keep cultivating an atmosphere in your home that says if Christ is in you and them, you do not want to sin regardless of what it feels like.  The atmosphere of faith and truth you nurture in your own heart creates an aroma that entices your children toward what is true.  As Paul instructed, we want to help those caught in a trap with “a gentle spirit.”

Next Paul reminds the Galatians to “not to fall into the same temptation yourself.” It reminds me how easily we become self-righteous and sinful in moments when we feel out of control or confronted with an evil world.  The more damaging, dangerous, or sinful the situation your adolescent is caught in, the angrier you can become.  It will be important to cultivate anger that is for your child not at your child.  Whatever the worse sin you imagine your child could be caught in (drugs, bullying someone, sexuality, etc.) your anger is connected to something bigger in that moment.  As a parent you will hold the moments of innocence and beauty you have experienced with your children along with the hope you have for them, deep in your soul.  When evil is crouching at the door of their life your deep connection to who your child is and your hope for them will be under trial.  In those moments you should hate that they have become subject to the consequences of living in a fallen world and will have to work to prayerfully use your anger against evil (not your child) in the way you interact with and treat them.   Reflecting on Jesus’ death blow of humility to the devil Robert C Morris says, “The world is saved by bravery: by a courageous compassion that faces adversity and moves forward, looking for whatever goodness is possible in the situation. Jesus stands before Pilate silently, but in combat, like a doctor wrestling with cancer, or a therapist up against a patient’s suicidal impulse: alert, caring, nimble, and savvy to outfox and outwit the dark enemy with sanity, compassion, and confidence in the power of the good to endure and triumph.” This is the posture you want to assume to partner with your child and guide them toward whatever would be a better expression of their faith and life in Jesus in those moments and seasons of tension.

Next Paul counsels the Galatians to Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.  Helping the believer caught in sin by bearing their burdens is so contrary to how we think of helping someone caught in a transgression.  We want them to fix the mess they created.  I remember learning that one of our girls had used a curse word that was out of context for her age and situation.  We got together to talk about it.  As the conversation developed, she was able to talk about how much cursing was going on among her peers and the difficulty it was to honor the things she wanted to honor.  What started as a tense and potentially divisive meeting folded into a moment to help carry her burdens.  Because we are so infected with the belief that everyone must pick themselves up by the bootstraps, we forget that our wounds and weaknesses contribute to the sinful patterns and expressions we get caught in and without the help of those who love us it is much easier for sin to keep overwhelming us.    

                This can be infinitely hard because child-rearing already involves so much sacrifice.  Whether it is the sleepless nights in infancy, the financial burden, the relational tension, or a myriad of other costs there is endless giving on the parental journey.  In defending his Apostleship to the Corinthian church Paul provides some insight for parents when he wrote, “Now I am coming to you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you. I don’t want what you have—I want you. After all, children don’t provide for their parents. Rather, parents provide for their children. I will gladly spend myself and all I have for you, even though it seems that the more I love you, the less you love me,” (2 Corinthians 12:14-15, NLT).  In reminding the Corinthians how much he loves them and that he is willing to offer them ongoing sacrifice he provides them with a universal metaphor of sacrifice – the parent.  He says, “children don’t provide for the parents rather parents provide for their children.”  It can be hard – especially when your child is in a period where pride and indifference is more captivating and animating for them – to discern where good sacrifice for them is necessary and right.  Helping bear their burdens is a way to support their movement toward the Lord and all that is good.    

Finally, Paul writes, Let each person examine his own work, and then he can take pride in himself alone, and not compare himself with someone else. For each person will have to carry his own load. This verse helps us recognize there is a difference between bearing another’s burdens and assuming responsibility for them.   We want our teenagers to develop interdependence where they learn to trust and lean on others.  However, no matter how interdependent they become they still hold responsibility for the direction of their life.  There is a weight that is theirs alone to carry.  As a parent it can be hard to discern where to step in to help and where to let your child grow some deeper resilience.  A popular term to describe parents today is to call them “lawnmower parents.” These types of parents do everything to smooth out the path in front of their children.  Sometimes being a good parent involves choosing not to smooth out the path in front of your child.  They must learn to bear their own load. This includes not anxiously trying to keep your children from failure, sin and brokenness but growing the strength to expect they will encounter these things and having the presence to walk with them through it.  There will be difficulties your children must face, and honoring their dignity will often mean letting them struggle through it. Your faith in the Lord will be “under trial” in these moments as you stretch to hold on to a future good that seems a little fuzzy in the moment. 

Adolescence can be a time fraught with struggle against forces trying to take advantage of our children’s vulnerability.  We want to stand with them and for them and keep guiding them toward the path of life.  Continuing to hold onto the life and work of Christ in them, growing humility and patience with them, and trusting that God can carry them places you cannot see clearly are ways to partner in helping them stand up to the forces that aim to bully them away from God, you and all that is good.  

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