You just found out that your teenager lied to you, skipped school, snuck out, used drugs, etc. What do you do? As a parent, how do you respond? You may be angry at your teen, you may be embarrassed by their behavior, you may be feeling hurt and betrayed, you may feel like a failure, and/or you may want to prevent them from being able to engage in this kind of behavior ever again. You may feel like expressing your anger or your hurt feelings, or making new restrictions that keeps your teen more under control and supervised. These are all legitimate feelings and desires; the question is, what are the results that you want? And more importantly, what do you want your teen to be motivated by, and what motivations are effective long term? What is your goal as you parent your teen, and what response will cause you to meet your goal long term?
Let’s just assume that your goal as a parent is to instill a desire and ability to love God and obey Him. And let’s assume that you want your teen’s heart motivation to be a love for God and a love for what is right.
One response that many parents have, is to get even for the pain that the child has caused by venting their full anger. They yell at the teen and try to scare and intimidate him. I think the belief is that the teen will fear facing the same consequences in the future and therefore make better behavioral choices. There are several problems with this approach. One problem is that the teen only becomes angry at the parent because he feels disrespected, rather than at his own poor choices. A scape goat is created for him. Another problem is that even if the teen becomes afraid of punishment, it doesn’t change his heart towards his poor choices. He will just work harder at not getting caught. This response will not result in a teen’s heart being motivated by love for God and what is right. When a person is only motivated by fear of punishment then their outward behavior may be changed for a short time, but if they are motivated from the heart, the behavior is changed for a lifetime.
A second common response is to instill guilt about how the teen’s choices hurt the parents and embarrassed them. Although this is a good thing for the teen to understand, if it is often the focus of a parent’s reason that he should not misbehave, he may come to see his parent as just being self-centered. He may think that the parent is arbitrarily assigning morality to things that inconvenience her or affect her personally. A teen’s motivation for making good choices should not be focused on his parent’s feelings about it. He needs to understand that something is not wrong simply because a parent doesn’t like it, but because there is a deeper moral principle that is true at all times and in every situation. If the focus is how the teen’s behavior affects his parents, he does not have the opportunity to learn this. He needs to understand a bigger picture for a heart change to occur. In general, love for what is good, is a far greater motivator of the heart than guilt.
A third option might be to restrict the teen’s freedom so that he is unable to repeat the offense. The problem is that this is only a temporary fix. Even if you could provide your teen with supervision twenty-four hours a day, controlling behavior does not change a person’s heart. If he still believes behavior that is bad for him is good for him, he will engage in it as soon as he is able. Again this response does nothing to change the heart.
I believe we should take all three of these options off the table.
One side note is that different phases of childhood require different methods of parenting. Children in the first five years of life require discipline. A parent has all of the responsibility for the child’s welfare and therefore all of the authority over him. As children grow up they gain authority over their lives as they gain responsibility for their life decisions. They are becoming responsible for their own choices and therefore need to be allowed to make those choices. They are becoming their own person with their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, and they have a right to those thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. They slowly gain autonomy over time rather than on any particular birthday. This is not just a good principle; it is a reality. Adults do not have the power to control how a teen thinks and behaves. Teens know this and parents would do well to acknowledge this truth and come alongside their teenagers to help them to learn and grow rather than trying to control them. Anger, manipulation, and control are all things that cause teens to feel disrespected and therefore mistrust their parent’s intentions toward them. If a parent has a child’s best interest in mind, then he will treat him with respect his entire life. Children who are treated with respect grow to trust their parent’s benevolence toward them, and are willing to learn from them as teens. Relational influence is earned through years and years of treating someone with respect. In the teen years it is more effective and respectful to use relational influence rather than authority and discipline. This looks more like a discipleship relationship than anything else. This honors the autonomous person that the teen is becoming and acknowledges the reality that the days of authority and control are over. And that is a good thing because the teen needs to have the authority over his own life, if he is responsible for the consequences of the choices that he makes. A teen who feels loved, supported, respected, and forgiven will be more likely to be interested in being taught and helped out of unwise situations. A teen who feels disrespected and intimidated will not feel safe to ask for advice or help.
So the fourth option would be to come alongside your teen and ask him what he or she needs from you to help them make better life choices. Talk with your teen like he is a friend that you care about rather than a child that you are mad at. Think about how you would help a friend that you saw making poor life choices. You would lovingly confront him with a motive of wanting to help him find answers for his problems. You would want to rescue him from the trap that he has been sucked into. You would provide the accountability and support that he needed.
Ask your teen what he is struggling with and what he needs. Is he struggling with depression? Maybe he would benefit from counseling. Does he need accountability for something that he is struggling with? Is there a mentor that you could pair him with? Does he need help saying “no” to friends? Does he need to change schools and find a new peer group? Does he need addiction treatment?
If you have relational influence with your teen, share with him the moral reasons for why certain choices are damaging to him and others. Such as, rules and authority are in place for the benefit of all people. Help him look for the personal benefit of following rules and authority. When we don’t follow rules and laws, we harm ourselves (our futures, our bodies). People have value. When we deceive others we hurt people and relationships. Emphasize that as a parent you want your teen to follow rules and laws because you love him and want the best for them. Show your teen the reason to love what is good, rather than to just avoid being bad.
If you give a consequence make sure it fits the “crime”. Don’t make it too harsh or too long. The teen must feel that it is a fair consequence for it to be effective.
You can always point your teen to the gospel. We all need to live in dependence on God every single day, regardless of how old we are. God is a God of grace, He is for you, he is not angry when you fail, and He is there to give you strength when you depend on Him.