By Jennifer Slattery, Crosswalk.com
When my daughter became a teenager, I often felt overwhelmed and ill-prepared. She wrestled with problems I had no solutions for and experienced hurts I felt powerless to protect her from. Standing on the other side of those tumultuous years, however, I’ve realized God isn’t asking us to shield our teens from this chaotic and often painful world. Rather, He wants us to build within them the resiliency that will allow them to stand strong, no matter what comes.
Here are 5 things all teens need in order to mature into healthy, thriving adults.
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1. To know they are loved unconditionally.
Years ago, a statement made by a radio host struck me. She said something to the effect of, “We all love our children. But the question is, do they feel loved?” She then described how various parental actions potentially impact our children. After listening to the program, I started regularly asking my daughter that same question. I followed this up with, “How have I hurt you this week.” In other words, I assumed I had done things that wounded her heart and inadvertently communicated lack of love.
I also began ending every corrective conversation with a reassurance of my love and commitment to the relationship. I wanted her to understand that, while I was displeased with her behavior, it hadn’t pushed me away. To the contrary; the challenge encouraged me to walk beside her even more closely in order to help her grow.
In order to thrive, our children need to know that we will remain by their side, even when they are at their worst. According to Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, author of Resilient Children and Teens, nothing matters to our kids more than our “unwavering presence.” The sense of security this brings enhances brain development, allows for healthier relationships throughout life, encourages our children to share their struggles and fears with us, enables the child to better manage stress, and even leads to an improved immune system.
Unconditional love says, through actions and words, “While I might not like your current behavior, I will always love you.” When a parent withdraws emotionally, their actions state, “I will only love you when you meet my expectations.” This causes our teenagers to self-protect, which hinders open and honest communication and distances them from us.
If we need space to effectively manage our emotions, we could state something to the effect of, “I’m frustrated right now and need time to process. Let’s talk more about this later.” This does a few things. First, it teaches our teens, through modeling, how to handle intense emotions in a healthy manner. It lets them know we’re stepping away, temporarily, from the situation, not from the relationship. And finally, it gives our teenager time and space to calm down and think rationally. By practicing these steps, parents can use their children’s poor decisions to strengthen bonds while training effective conflict-resolution skills.
We must also remember that love is a choice more than an emotion. As Scripture reminds us,
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, NIV)
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2. To catch their parents living out their faith.
Early in my motherhood journey, I realized I could not parent my daughter well alone. I needed God’s perfect wisdom for all circumstances, my most confusing and difficult situations included. To access this wisdom, I needed to prioritize my Bible reading time, so I started setting my alarm. Initially, this worked great, and I had a full hour of quiet to read, journal, and pray. Children appear to have an instinctual radar that alerts them whenever mom or dad are awake, because my daughter soon started waking up around the same time. So, I set my alarm early, which caused her to do the same until we were both starting our day by four a.m.!
Frustrated, I prayed, “Now what, God?” I sensed His reply in my spirit: “Invite her to join you.” Thus, our morning routine began. I invited her to snuggle next to me on the couch, then, with one arm around her and the Bible spread between us, I began reading out loud. This was a precious, wiggly, and often, distracting time where I actively demonstrated the importance of Scripture. Had I opted to set my Bible aside, I fear I might have conveyed the opposite.
As many of us know, children learn as much, if not more, through modeling as they do through active instruction. This is especially true in regard to matters of faith. Beyond that, teenagers also tend to recognize any hint of hypocrisy. That doesn’t mean we need to demonstrate perfect faith, but we should strive for an engaged and active one. When our children see us prioritizing our relationship with Christ, they learn to do the same. Equally important, our religious instruction gains credence.
May we, like the apostle Paul, be able say, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1, NIV)
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3. Clear and consistent boundaries.
You may have heard this phrase: It’s a parent’s role to set boundaries and a teenager’s role to push against them. We mustn’t take our children’s behavior personally. Rather, we should see this as a natural opportunity to demonstrate calm strength and provide firm yet loving parental guidance.
In order to mature into healthy, responsible adults, our children need to understand what they are and aren’t responsible for and therefore, where they end and another person begins. For example, they’re responsible for how they manage their emotions and the choices they make.
Healthy boundaries also communicate love and make youth feel safe. Without them, we’re in essence saying, “Hey, do what you want, and good luck at keeping yourself safe and your life on track.” Our kids can’t hit an unknown or constantly moving target. Eventually, they’ll quit trying. What’s more, children with unclear or shifting boundaries likely won’t know how to set them as adults. As a result, they will be more apt to develop dysfunctional relationships and perpetuate unhealthy behavior patterns.
They will learn to “Hate” or reject “what is evil;” and “cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9, NIV).
Speaking to children, notice what Ephesians 6:2-3 states: “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” (Emphasis mine.) In other words, these guidelines are for their good, not based on a desire to control or manipulate them.
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4. Appropriate consequences for their actions.
When parents hold their children accountable for their actions, they teach them to take responsibility for themselves. When we fail to hold our kids accountable, we train them to do the opposite. This might not seem like a big deal when we bring their forgotten homework to school or finish missed assignments for them. But our actions train behaviors and attitudes that will impact their future career and relationships.
What’s more, when we rescue our children from the consequences of their actions, we simultaneously remove one of the greatest motivators of change.
However, we must avoid inflicting overly harsh consequences. As Scripture states, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, NIV). In other words, don’t be overly harsh, unjust, or easily angered or irritated with them. This will likely only embitter them toward us and give them increased motivation to engage in at-risk behavior. Rather, we should come alongside them like a patient, steady, and faithful coach.
Scripture tells us we all, our children included, reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7). This means our actions lead to positive or negative results, which in turn can provide powerful motivation for change and growth. We help facilitate heart-transformation when we allow our children to experience the natural consequences for their behavior. This might mean letting them receive a poor grade if they lost their homework, or miss a social event if they chose not to complete chores in time.
5. To be heard.
Scripture encourages us to be “be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19, NIV). In conversations with our children, this means allowing them to do the majority of the talking. This demonstrates that we care and are interested in their lives, which also means we’re interested in them.
When my daughter was growing up, I quickly noticed how our time together, or lack of, impacted her attitude. More often than not, when she became snotty or increasingly sarcastic, I could trace this back our lack of time together. As ironic as this may sound, I began to see those tense moments as opportunities to connect. I’d invite her on a walk, and about fifteen minutes in, she’d begin opening up.
I also discovered that I needed to change my expectations regarding how and when we engaged. When she was younger, I could easily plan our “mommy-daughter” times, but teenagers are rarely ready to communicate on our timetable. Therefore, if I wanted to connect to her heart, I needed to be willing to pause, regardless of what I was doing, to give her my undivided attention. I also learned to decipher subtle hints that indicated she wanted to talk.
When we take the time to listen to our teenagers, not only do we create a safe environment for open and honest communication. But we also demonstrate the depth of our love. Our presence lets them know that they truly do matter to us.
Parenting teenagers may be the most challenging, confusing, rewarding, and important job you and I will ever embrace. We all want to raise confident, responsible youth able to stand strong in our often chaotic and constantly changing world. For this to occur, our teens must feel loved unconditionally. They also need to see our faith lived out, to understand where their boundary lines lie, experience appropriate consequences for their actions, and to feel heard.
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