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Family, Marriage, Counsel

Parenting Teens
by Ed Vasicek

When Dean Ortner, the Sermons from Science guy, was here ten years ago, he mentioned that he had read that a parent is usually on target with rearing a child of a certain age only. In other words, some parents are good with younger children, others with teens. Based on his own experiences and observations, Dean concluded this was true. I have to admit that I have drawn the same conclusion.

In our family, Marylu had much more sense when it came to rearing young children (in this paper, the term "youngster" refers to kids 12 and under). This isnít so much a gender issue as a personality one. I learned a lot from Marylu; she trained me to be firmer with our young children, a firmness she learned from both of her parents. Mine were a bit on the lenient side.

On the other hand, my forte is the teen years. Marylu has recognized this, and she takes direction from me, although the transition from her being the "sage" to me being the "sage" took a bit of time.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as well matched as we were. Sometimes both parents have the right instincts for teens; in other instances, both are strong with younger children. In yet other instances, neither parent is particularly good with either age group. In all instances, parents need to hone their parenting skills.

What are some of the general differences between parenting youngsters and teens? The ideal parent for youngsters is compassionate but firm. He expects his children to obey and, although willing to explain, feels no constraint to do so. Psychologically, a good parent at this age is a behaviorist, structuring life and administering reasonable punishments when necessary. The word "obey" is a big word at this stage of life.

The teen years require a radical shifting of gears. Although this shift may begin when a child turns 11 and 12, parents need to adjust to a new reality at age 13. The ideal parent for a teen looks beneath the surface and is now a negotiator who can be firm if he needs to be. He does not treat his teen the same way as he might treat a younger child. This transition comes gradually. He also respects his childís judgments and viewpoints, even if he does not always agree with them.

The simple behavior-punishment paradigm needs to give way to the choice-consequence paradigm. Ultimatums now become counter-productive, and parents are forced to discipline in new and complex ways that require time for consideration, gathering of opinion, and concern for the total effect of said discipline, not just teaching a lesson.

Parents of teens must use more brain power and trash the old reactionary ways that may have served them well with youngsters, the "you did this, so here is the punishment" mentality. At this stage in life, you are doing more than trying to correct an instance of poor behavior. You are trying to build character and nurture convictions. You are no longer talking down an authority chain, but you are trying to create a spirit of teamwork and voluntary cooperation. You must still sometimes play the authority card, but you must play it less frequently and much more intelligently.

Teens will not tell you what they need or what is going on, as would more innocent younger children. You have to play Sherlock Holmes. A teen may mouth off or complain about being restricted when they are really happy about the restriction. The simple laws of cause and effect have been left behind with Puff the Magic Dragon. Indeed, many times teens themselves do not know what they REALLY want, or even what is troubling them. Thatís why they are fad prone. Fads are for people of any age who do not really know what they like or want. They must depend upon others to tell them.

Because of our deceitful hearts that selectively remember, naÔve and gullible parents think that their childhood was wonderful, but the truth is that the teen years are plagued with depression, anger, confusion, and fear. Often youth will not share this with their parents. So parents have a choice: keep their heads in the sand or assume their kids are struggling with these things (some often, others from time to time).

As a start, parents need to remember what it was like for them during their teenage years. If parents were not raised in a Christian home, these parents need to be careful not to overinflate the influence of the Gospel. Yes, it does make a difference. But hormones are still hormones, teens are still working toward independence, and they still have to discover some things on their own. The Gospel does not make one less human, nor can your children automatically escape all the challenges you faced. Some of them, perhaps, but not all of them. And, although all Christians want their sons and daughters to put God first, that does not mean we want them to be old people in young bodies.

Solomon wisely gave this advice: "Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment" (Ecclesiastes 11:9). It is natural for a young person to seek fun. We are fools if we try to fight the nature God gave us. What we must do as Christians, however, is to give meaningful context to wholesome fun as a gift from God. This is why Solomon adds, "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth..." (Ecclesiastes 12:1).

If childhood means parents must be behaviorists, the teen years are more like indirect psychology. Teens are out to prove that they are not children anymore. If you give them ultimatums (not a good thing to do), they will often take the foolish choice just to prove that they are no longer children. Instead, youth need to be reasoned with, to be negotiated with, and sometimes win and sometimes lose.

Whereas a youngster who debates with his parents is rightly considered disrespectful, a good teen parent is glad for the debate. The parent now knows what his daughter is thinking. If things become heated, he stays cool and leaves some room. If things become wild, he makes the teen reword his or her opinions in a calmer fashion. Parents need to be quick to listen and slow to speak or condemn. If you need to, write things down and come back to them later when you can talk more sanely and you have had time to think. If you only want one piece of advice from me, make it this: take time to think. Donít make threats you will not keep or will later regret making. Take it slow. Overkill is worse than underkill.

Yes, there are many instances where parents have to put a foot down. But if you have been firm with them when they were young, these times will probably be few and far between when they are older. And when you do have to put a foot down, let me challenge popular opinion and say that grounding is not the best way to discipline. It might be good for major problems (drinking, reckless driving, etc.), but taking away privileges for a period of time (no TV this week), a work detail, or a fine (this will cost you $10) can be more effective. Generally something quick but memorable is best.

Parents also need to consider the following documented realities:

  1. Teens need more sleep than they did when younger, and their metabolism is such that they want to stay up late and sleep in. This is normal.
  2. Although most of a teen's brain is mature, the part of his or her brain that controls reasoning does not keep up with the rest of the teen's development. This is why it is so important for teens to communicate well with a parent or adult.
  3. The brain of a teen sometimes experiences stray electric shocks that create a bit of insanity; the teen years are "crazy" years for a reason. Again, this is why it is important for teens to confide in an adult.
  4. Teens need more social life. A social life is everything to many teens. (Some adults could learn from this!) Encourage your teens to participate in positive social events, to make friends with good kids, to identify with decent music groups, etc., and to develop social skills.  Initiate having good (decent) friends over frequently and try to encourage positive social participation.

There are significant differences between young teens, middle teens, and older teens. For that I refer you to the resources below.

When it comes to rearing teens, there are many helpful materials. A few books I recommend include: Gary Chapmanís The Five Love Languages of Teenagers; this is an excellent book and a great starting point; Spiritual Mentoring of Teens by the Focus on the Family Staff also has some useful material, as does the more specific, Prepare Your Child for Dating by Bob Barnes.

Note: In the near future, we will be conducting a video seminar about rearing teens. Weíll post the dates as soon as we set them.

Pastor Ed

Reprinted from the December 2005 Body Builder, a publication of Highland Park Church.

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Highland Park Church
516 West Sycamore Street
Kokomo, Indiana, USA
765.452.1779
church@highlandpc.com