Dealing with breakdowns in communication
A friend of ours with a nine-month-old daughter said, “Parenting is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most delightful.” Will she still think it’s delightful 15 years from now? Let’s look at how parents can survive during the often turbulent years of adolescence.
Adolescence is a time of great change as children develop from being physically and emotionally dependent on their parents to being independent and self-sufficient. Instead of being under the control of their parents they’re moving towards freedom of choice and autonomy. It’s a time when their personal values are being developed as they separate from their parents in many ways and form a separate identity.
Luke 2:40-52 is all we are told in the Bible about the life of Jesus Christ between boyhood and maturity. First, He grew physically, mentally and spiritually (v. 40). Then we see Him at 12 years among the teachers in the temple “listening to them and asking them questions” (v. 46). At this stage He still lived at home and was obedient to His parents (v. 51). In the next chapter, we see Jesus beginning His ministry at age 30 (Lk. 3:23). Did you notice the only verse about His adolescence? “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Lk. 2:52).
Adolescence is a time of growth and development towards maturity. The areas of growth mentioned are:
- Mental – The mind should increase in wisdom.
- Physical – The body should increase in stature and strength.
- Spiritual – A strong relationship should be developed with God. Jesus put God first, even above the concerns of His parents (Lk. 2:49,51).
- Social – Strong relationships should be developed with other people. Jesus developed strong relationships with the apostles and was followed by large crowds of people (Lk. 5:15; 8:40; 22:14).
Growth and development in teens can be erratic and unbalanced. Teens may be more advanced in one area than another, and their behavior can fluctuate between childish and mature. Conflict between parents and teens occurs when they misunderstand the stages along the path to maturity. Teens often seek more freedom for themselves, while parents may restrict them, still treating them as younger children. Teens claim their rights, while parents often look for teens to act more responsibly. Teens can be opinionated, rebellious and moody. No wonder adolescence is such a difficult time for teens and their parents!
If the teen years are too smooth and peaceful, the teenager is probably suppressing something. This may lead to prolonged adolescence where the teen remains strongly attached to parents rather than progressing toward adulthood. Some tension and conflict between teens and their parents is normal. Let’s see what we can learn from an example.
After a very difficult period in her family, a mother wrote this message to her teens: “I have come to realize with much sadness that I have failed you as a mother. I have nurtured two children – who now think they are adults – into very selfish beings. Instead of teaching you that we all need to help each other, I’ve smothered you with help and taught you only that ‘Mom will do it!’ Instead of teaching you the true meaning of ‘give and take,’ I’ve taught you only that I’m here to give and you’re here to take.
“You’ve grown up to think that once you reach 18 you’re free to do whatever you like. I’ve failed to help you see how this can impact other people. I’ve failed to show you that along with privileges come responsibilities, especially in relation to the household and family.
“I’ve failed to show you that living together is caring for each other. Instead, I’ve taught you that I will always pick up, clean up and do whatever else is necessary to keep this household running smoothly.
“I thought it was more important to love you and give to you, and have missed the message you were getting. I see now that I failed to teach you to put aside your own needs to care for others. I thought I was showing that by my actions. I was wrong. I have only taught you to take. I have not taught you responsibility towards other people – to look for ways to serve them. Instead of teaching you what Jesus taught by example, to serve others, I have obviously taught you to put yourselves first.
“I do not know how to change this. I am paying the price of raising two selfish children who want their rights, but are unwilling to accept their responsibilities or the consequences of their actions. I love you both with all my heart, but I have failed, so I quit!”
“Get off my back!”
The son replied: “I’m 18, not 2! I’m old enough to be able to live my life without added pressures from parents about school, church, friends and girlfriends. And whether you like it or not you have to let go. I’m old enough to choose my friends, and what I’m going to do with my life. Could you get off my back? I know I’ve disappointed you in your high expectations for me, but could you try accepting the way I am and love me like that?”
Soon after this confrontation, a friend wrote to the mother: “It’s tough being a parent. Most parents try to do their best for their children. Some don’t do well because they don’t know any better. Others do a good job but can’t see it themselves. There is no instruction manual for parenthood. You have to make choices daily to address all sorts of problems. From what I see, you are making right choices.
“I’m no expert, but I’ve learned that all people go through stages as they mature. From birth, we are dependent on our parents; we watch them and copy what they do. In the next stage, we go against almost everything our parents say and do. This is the hard stage, but necessary, because we find out more about who we are. We know what parents are, but until we pull against them we never really know who we are. The next stage can also be hard, but good, because we become independent, learning to stand on our own two feet, even though we may be knocked down by bad choices and lack of experience. But these stages are important; unless we go through them we never reach the stage of interdependence, where we learn to work and live together in harmony.
“Although what’s happening isn’t pleasant, it doesn’t have to be a bad time. In setting boundaries, you are doing your children a great service in helping them become responsible and more considerate of others. Without strong boundaries this lesson is much harder to learn. Not having boundaries often leads to a life of selfishness and unhappiness.
“I learned from my mom that there were a lot of years as her children grew up where she was taken for granted. It’s a time of tears and pain. Be patient, continue to set boundaries and confront them, and your children will one day show their appreciation. Never doubt their love. It’s just hard for them to express when they’re so busy focusing on themselves.”
An Example: Eli And His Sons
Parents of teens should not be weak and indulgent towards them as Eli was. This High Priest of Israel let his sons grow into “wicked men” with “no regard for the Lord” (1 Sam. 2:12 niv). He “failed to restrain them” and didn’t rebuke them until he was very old (1 Sam. 2:22-25; 3:13). He honored his sons more than God (1 Sam. 2:29). He let them do what they liked, and they grew into adult priests who were out of control. Don’t let your teenagers do whatever they like. Instead, confront them with appropriate boundaries, and consequences if they cross those boundaries: “If you do this, then this will happen.”
Christians are not guaranteed success in parenting. Eli was a high priest in Israel, but he didn’t discipline his sons and we read of the sad results. One qualification for leaders in the local church is good management of their own children, resulting in respect and obedience (1 Tim. 3:4,12).
We should treat our adolescent children as God treats us – after all, we are His children (Jn. 1:12-13; Rom. 8:16; 1 Jn. 3:1). God loves and cares for us regardless of our attitudes and behavior. He sets boundaries for us and lets us know the consequences for obedience and disobedience. He lets us make our own decisions and learn how to live for Him through our experiences. We should do likewise as parents, giving our teenagers more responsibility each year so they learn to make decisions and become mature adults. Remember, parents can be likened to birds that are preparing their young to fly – but we can’t do it for them.
Don’t exasperate your teenage children with unreasonable demands, undue harshness or constant nagging (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21). Instead, be firm but reasonable, treat them with dignity and respect, and have empathy by trying to see life from their perspective. Identify the important issues and confront them, letting the others go. Begin treating them as young adults, as their childish days are behind them – they are no longer infants (1 Cor. 13:11; Heb. 5:12-14).
The task of training children is ending, and they are now old enough to take more responsibility for themselves. If we teach our pre-teens to choose the right path in life, then they are more likely to remain on it when they are older (Prov. 22:6).
Encourage your teenager’s self-esteem by showing affection, praising positive behavior, and recognizing efforts and achievements. We all need encouragement (Heb. 10:25).
Don’t give up on your adolescent children. Be patient like the Lord, and like the father of the prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-32; 2 Pet. 3:9). You must be prepared to let them go their own way and make choices that you may not like. Most importantly, pray that your teenagers would seek the Lord’s will for them and follow it, make wise decisions and be ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20).
Those of us who are not parents of teenagers should be good examples and mentors for them. Teens need recognition and affirmation. Their parents need encouragement and support.
Published, December 2005 (together with Jean Hawke)