Smoking. Stealing. Boy-girl relationships. Mixing with the wrong company.

If you’re a parent of a teenager, these may be worries that cross your mind more often than not these days.

It’s natural, given that as they enter their teenage years, our children are likely to be less cheerful, chatty, and compliant as they once were; in all likelihood, they’re sulkier, quieter, and more defiant, which makes us wonder what they’re up to, or what they’re thinking.

And it’s no surprise, as teenage is a time when our kids figure out their own identities, form a mind of their own, and want more freedom and independence.

 

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Proverbs 22:6 instructs us to “start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”

Yet, our best efforts at teaching our teens God’s ways, and dissuading them from the wrong ones, may inadvertently backfire. In fact, we might end up exasperating them instead—something that Ephesians 6:4 explicitly warns us against: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

But how can we avoid exasperating teenagers when they seem so sensitive in this time? And why do our easy-going children seem to have become more challenging to handle, now that they’ve entered their teenage years?

What Happened to My Compliant Child?

There are, in fact, biological and social reasons why teenagers tend to engage in “risky behaviour” such as smoking, stealing, and socialising with peers we may disapprove of. At a recent webinar hosted by Christian resource distributor Alby, senior counsellor Francis Lee pointed to research that may shed some light on this question.

Teenagers, according to a study by the University of Birmingham, are influenced by factors such as:

  • Age: The human brain fully develops at only around 25 years of age. This means that in a teenage brain, some parts that control emotions and reasoning are still growing. Teenagers may thus be more emotional and impulsive in this stage of life.
  • Their view of risk and rewards: Because their reasoning skills have not fully developed at this age, teenagers might not have a good grasp of the consequences of taking risks. Some may also find it rewarding to engage in such behaviour, as they might earn praise from peers, which gives them a sense of approval, acceptance, and belonging.
  • Peer influence: Teenagers are influenced by the desire to fit in. When they don’t, they may experience social anxiety and a fear of being mocked or rejected, or of losing out.

For these reasons, it may be wise for parents to understand and relate to our teenagers on their level, rather than on our own. This means being mindful of their emotional state, their capacity to reason and rationalise, and their desire to belong. Instead of constantly chiding or nagging at them for their behaviour, we might do well to consider the following:

1. Obey God’s Commands Yourself

It might seem fairly obvious that we need to walk the talk ourselves, obeying God’s Word just as we teach it to our children. Yet, it’s a reminder that we need to hear, especially on days when tempers flare and arguments abound under our roof.

The family is foundational in building our children’s faith. Imparting our faith to our kids means not only telling them, but also showing them how our faith is expressed in real life.

Perhaps it might do us some good to slow down, and let the words of Deuteronomy 6:4–9 sink into our souls once more:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
Love the LORD your God with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your strength.
These commandments that I give you today
are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children.
Talk about them when you sit at home
and when you walk along the road, when you lie down
and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands
and bind them on your foreheads. Write them
on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”

The family is foundational in building our children’s faith. Imparting our faith to our kids means not only telling them, but also showing them how our faith is expressed in real life.

2. Invite Participation in Family Rules and Decision-making

Ever tried to start a conversation with your teenager, only to be met with a sullen “no” or “I dunno”?

As a senior counsellor with over 14 years of experience—and a father of three himself—Francis says he often hears from embittered teenagers that their parents tend to be overly strict in setting the rules and meting out punishment. Parents also tend to shut down any form of protest or disagreement, leading their teenage kids to feel frustrated, and to withdraw and distance themselves from their parents.

One way to avoid this is to invite our teenagers to take part in family rules and decision-making. Francis suggests asking them to raise any issues they might want to discuss, and affirming them when they open up. If they give one-word replies, we can gently ask them to elaborate.

Avoid censoring or criticising teenagers when they say something we might disagree with. And if they intentionally suggest irrational things in a bid to provoke us, consider ignoring them at that moment—and telling them later that such behaviour isn’t helpful.

Let us seek to connect with our teens first, before correcting them.

Francis has also discovered what’s helpful: reframing family rules to be more positive by sharing what our teens are expected to do, rather than what they are not supposed to.

For example, instead of merely stating, “No smoking”, we can say instead: “You can keep yourself healthy by staying away from smoking.” Or, rather than saying, “Can you stop shouting?”, we can say: “It would be great if you could speak gently and clearly.”

And when they keep to these rules, we can praise them for their effort.

Francis has found that when teenagers are given a say in discussing and agreeing on rules, they will feel that their views are valued. It will also give them the opportunity to listen to and value other views—like ours—and to learn to accept the consequences of their decisions.

3. Help Them Make Sense of the Risks

 As parents, we know that dabbling in pornography, excessive gaming, and online relationships are downright risky. But our teenagers may not fully grasp the consequences of such behaviour, because of their age, their views of risk and rewards, and the peer pressure they face.

If we find our teens involved in such things, our first reaction might be to scold, nag, or punish them. But this might only exasperate them, and lead them to withdraw or rebel against us even more, says Francis.

Let us seek to connect with our teens first, before correcting them. As James 1:19 points out, this means “being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”. Rather than thinking of ways to rebut or rebuke them at the first instance, Francis suggests taking time to genuinely listen to our teens first.

We can help our teenagers make sense of the risks themselves, by asking them guiding questions such as:

  • “Do you know why we don’t want you to stay out later than 10 p.m.?”
  • “What do you think might happen, if you accompany your friend to steal things? What could the possible risks be?”
  • “What can you do if an online friend asks you things that make you feel uncomfortable?”

In doing so, we can help our teens visualise certain scenarios and their outcomes, and weigh their risks and rewards.

It also allows us to assess whether certain family rules and limits might be needed, or whether we might need to be more intentional in praising and affirming our teens, so that they do not seek them from the wrong company, says Francis.

Seeking God’s Wisdom

It can be tempting to jump the gun when we find out about our teenager’s risky behaviour, or to endlessly worry about how to change or protect them.

As our teens navigate this season of life, however, let us instead try to understand them with grace and empathy. And let us make effort to obey God’s Word in our own lives, invite them to participate in our family life, and to guide them in making sense of risks and rewards.

And, above all, let us pray and intercede for our children, and ask for wisdom from God, “who gives generously to all without finding fault” (James 1:5).

 

Wendy is a writer, wife, and mother who seeks to be a disciple of Christ. She hopes that God will use what He’s given her to glorify Him through her living and writing. Her perfect day includes peanut butter, spending time with the Lord, and enjoying a good cuddle with her family.
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