I’ve spent the last 17 years working as a music teacher and crisis counselor for teens. My students’ struggles include all the usual teen troubles (anxiety, social pressures, conflicts with parents, questions of identity and belonging) and several more serious ones (abuse, self-harm, mental illness, bullying). But, one over-arching theme that greatly helps or hinders teens is their perception of love and support from their parents. These six principles represent lessons I have learned along the way.
1. Be relational, but not their best friend.
God has created us as relational beings, which means that no matter your children’s temperament, they want you to know them. All students I’ve counseled deeply desire a healthy relationship with their parents. But teen years are hard.
During high school, students are shifting from childhood to adulthood. At the same time, hormones are raging and fluctuating, and the brain’s prefrontal cortex (responsible for time management, good judgment, organization, controlling impulses, setting goals, and understanding long-term consequences) is still developing. Plus, both parents and teens are simultaneously navigating new waters and new roles.
Add basic counseling principles to your parenting during these years. Ask lots of questions, but also study body language and mood (remember the raging hormones),=. Realize that sometimes your presence and listening ear are everything required, while at other times you will find opportunities for conversation.
When does your teen seem to be most talkative? Notice patterns and create space for those times if at all possible. For instance, if your child talks more at night than on the ride home from school, make it a point to start making chocolate-chip cookies right around prime time.
All students I’ve counseled deeply desire a healthy relationship with their parents.
In the teenage years, your children need you more than ever before, even if they don’t say it, and they need you to be there when they’re ready to talk. When they open up, make sure to listen, observe, and wait. They don’t want you to treat them like a best friend; they need you to be their parent.
And they need a different kind of parent than when they were 10. Look for and rejoice in grace in their lives, and make sure you’re encouraging and cheering far more than nagging and reminding. In short, constantly pray for wisdom about when to let them fail, leave their problems unfixed, confront them, or patiently pray as you slowly prepare them to leave the nest.
2. Convey enjoyment of them.
We all know the striking contrast between duty and delight. Teens usually know deep down that you love them; be sure they also know you enjoy them. Whether you’re going to the grocery store or making dinner, communicate how much you enjoy being in their presence.
One primary way to accomplish this is to enter fully into their hobbies, interests, and delights. Whether it’s photography, gaming, horseback-riding, or baking, become enthralled with what they love. The best relationships develop and blossom out of mutually enjoyed activities. Learn and enjoy alongside them. The quality time and strong bond that ensues just might surprise you.
3. Know what technology changes.
Parents who have fond memories from high school naturally want their kids to have the same wonderful experiences. But your memories of sports, student government, dating, or football games are less similar to your child’s than you could probably imagine.
The mere fact that smartphones, email, and the internet didn’t exist during your childhood radically changes things. When one of my friends wanted to talk, that meant calling my house on a landline. My parents could pick up the phone at any point and listen in. Other than in-person interaction and handwritten letters, that was the only way to interact with peers.
Fast forward to today, and teens can interact on screens in the privacy of their bedrooms at night while their parents sleep. Think about how technology has transformed your teen’s world. It is much harder for a child to talk to parents about sexting or cyberstalking if parents don’t have even a basic understanding of how the technology works. Seek to learn and understand the technologies your child is using and the mountains of temptation that face her and her peers.
Further, you can begin to help them learn a healthy stewardship of their time and attention, which may carry them through college and beyond. Whether you specify a nightly time that your teen turns in electronics, or monitor their usage through Covenant Eyes or some other protective accountability program, teens need your help navigating the challenges that face them due to technology, particularly in self-control (remember the undeveloped prefrontal cortex).
Technology invades your teen’s world at every turn. Removing it or preventing usage is not a long-term option. Instead, learn it and help your teen build a foundation of using technology for good and not for evil.
4. Expect failure along with success.
Teens want to know you’re their biggest fan and you believe they can reach for the stars. But it’s equally important to see them for who they are: a human being living in a fallen world, just like you. They will, we hope, leave the world a better place, but they will also make some bad decisions.
Let them fail. Expect it. Avoid a helicopter-parenting mentality that always swoops in to save the day. Most success is a result of learning from past mistakes.
Don’t excuse sin, but don’t act shocked by it either.
Don’t excuse sin, but don’t act shocked by it either. The biggest roadblock to a teen’s willingness to share struggles is the parent acting uncomfortable or mortified by that information. Invite your teens into your world of struggles, and why you so desperately want them to avoid sin because you know it will ultimately destroy them. Let them know you understand how hard it is, and that you are there with them in the fight each day.
5. Care deeply, but care about other things too.
Teens need to know that someone will be there for them, no matter what. When teens know their parents will walk out of an important meeting at work or cancel a night out with friends because they need something, teens feel loved and secure.
Your teens are growing more independent, and they know when they’re your whole world. They can tell if there is nothing else fueling excitement, creativity, and purpose in your life apart from them—and this brings related pressures and vices. Explore the passions God has given you, take care of your well-being, seek the Lord about whom you can serve, but always be willing to put these things aside for your child.
6. Trust that God’s plan outshines your dreams.
You love your children more than anything in the world, and would even give your life for them. Still, good parents don’t equal good kids. Despite all that you pour into your children, they may still push it all away. Even so, persevere in loving, praying, and trusting that God loves them even more than you do.
As my former pastor often said, “Where there is life, there is hope.” They may graduate from high school entrenched in sin, but their story isn’t over yet. Be faithful by loving and caring for them today, and trust God to ultimately write a better story for your child than you could imagine.