I’m bracing myself right now. Somehow, my daughter’s 12th birthday has catapulted us light years ahead into uncharted territory. We’re now planning her 13th birthday and the changes are coming too fast. Don’t get me wrong– I’m happy about it all, I just wish we could slow everything down a bit.
We’ve been researching how to help her celebrate and step confidently into this new chapter of life. In Stasi Eldredge’s book, “Becoming Myself,” she describes how some friends called their daughter into womanhood with a special ceremony attended by family and friends.
In a moment of desperation, have you ever announced to your teenager, “That’s it! You’re grounded for life!” These words are actually a better vision of what we want for our teens than they appear to be at first glance. Teenagers need to be “grounded.” They need deep roots and a strong sense of identity that comes from nurture and structure.
In reality, your teen will become grounded. She will find a place to belong and a community to affirm her identity. Will it be your home? Or will your lose your role to a peer group? The challenge we face as parents is how to ensure that our family remains their home base.
How does this happen? What does this healthy, nurturing soil look like that is conducive to being “grounded?”
Your teen is becoming more independent, but still needs to feel like he belongs in your family, that he is an insider —never an outsider. As he naturally starts to pursue this independence, it can translate into family exclusion. Priorities drag them away from the home…Friends, activities, school and family need to be reversed so they remain in proper order (family, school, friends and activities). It’s essential to hold a healthy tension here, allowing them to grow in independence while preserving a strong emotional bond.
Celebrate and affirm your child’s uniqueness and gifting. Make sure YOU are his biggest cheerleader, not a critic or judge.
Here’s a helpful image: Let’s say you’re teaching someone to ice skate. You’re in front, but you’re moving backward with an open posture and your eyes are on them. At first you are holding their hands, but you soon let go and give them some space, encourage them to stand up and skate on their own. If they fall, that’s okay! You’re encouraging them and not shaming or berating him. They feel safe with you. Safe enough to continue to improve, until they are finally skating on their own.
It’s like this with your teen. They are learning. You can’t allow your discipline to fracture your relationship or bruise them spiritually. Discipline is discipling, teaching. What I have to constantly tell myself is to be patient with repeated failures! Keep calling them up. Never push them down.
Love keeps no record of wrongs. Love always believes the best in him. Pray everyday for him, “Father help me to see my child the way You see him. Help me to bless him and affirm him as the man you are calling forth.”
Stay away from lectures. They can be filled with words that communicate disappointment, anger, and rejection. Instead of lecturing. try active listening, re-do’s and natural, consistent consequences.
As your teen becomes more independent an emotional connection becomes more challenging. Always be willing to be “the pursuer” of the relationship. This provides a clear picture of the way our heavenly Father pursues us.
And above all else —never withhold love. Love is not synonymous with approval. We are called to love unconditionally. Learn to make that clear separation that allows you to love and encourage while still upholding the consequences you have laid out.
A secure, consistent and loving space to fly, and occasionally fail are necessary elements to a well grounded teen.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. Your teen wants more independence and, for the most part, you want to give it. You don’t want to be the controlling parent that teens rebel against. She projects an air of responsibility and her friends seem pretty normal, so you let her have her space… And let’s face it —you’re tired. You’re tired of fighting, tired of being labeled the “only one who doesn’t…” and sometimes, just plain tired.
Of course, the underlying conflict is that she wants independence at a rate that exceeds her desire or readiness for responsibility. But try to explain this correlation and her eyes roll back into her head as she thinks, “She doesn’t get it!” “She doesn’t understand or trust me!”
So, you finally relent and allow her peer culture to assume the authority role over her life.
It doesn’t feel that way at first and it certainly isn’t intentional, but it’s practically what happens. When you really stop to calculate where time is spent, and think about her primary sources of influence, it’s easy to feel like you’re letting go of the reigns sooner than you’d like, and sooner than you should.
The short answer of course, is that there’s no guarantee. The more you try to co-opt her will, the more likely she is to resist it. But there are certainly some proven ways to cultivate good soil that make spiritual growth more likely.
Tending to soil is good imagery for parenting adolescence because it helps remind us of what we can and can’t do. We can spend a great deal of time, getting our hands dirty, carefully monitoring health, and creating a nutrient rich environment for growth. We can’t however, create growth itself.
What are some of the ways we can create healthy soil for our teenager’s spiritual growth?
Live a vibrant and authentic life of faith before their eyes
Give them a front row seat to your relationship with God. Share your areas of growth and your struggles (when appropriate). Let them see how important your faith is and how it’s not only changing you, but impacting the world around you. Bring them with you when you serve and pray for others. They need to see the vitality beyond the responsibility. Don’t fear failures in the right direction, God’s grace is sufficient. Just steer clear of hypocrisy, your child will see right through it and it’s far more damaging to his faith than if you were an atheist.
Help him connect to the Father and not just “say his prayers”
It’s the birthright of every child of God to hear his Father’s voice. We need to teach our children the lesson of Samuel–the posture of, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” Prayer is one of the most important areas where faith needs to be individualized. More than a great deal of knowledge or even high levels of service, a child’s ability to hear from the Lord is a great predictor of a faith that will stick.
Your family doesn’t shrink from hard questions
You don’t hide from the world or detach from difficult conversations. In fact, you initiate them at the dinner table. You ask good questions, share what you’re learning and how you respond to hard questions with grace and humility.
Be a learner
Teens can’t talk to know it all parents, so let him see that you’re a learner. Don’t be an alarmist when your child is expressing crazy thoughts. Keep your composure and make sure he feels heard, understood, and validated. It’s ok if you need to hyperventilate later.
You exercise discernment in exposing your child’s faith to testing
Jesus was ready when he went into the wilderness to be tempted. As parents, we need to guard our children’s influences carefully and discern the difference between a healthy stress test and simply setting them up for failure. Keep the end in mind and remember that you’re raising up an adult, not a child, but go carefully as you expose them to competing influences and temptations. Fear and naiveté are opposing errors in this dance. If your child’s faith is weak, limit damaging influences, and seek ways to shore it up. Open and honest dialogue is paramount here.
Live as a family on mission
This is really what I mean by “bringing them with you.” Read the Scriptures and pray together. Serve your community together. Let them find meaningful ways to contribute to God’s work in your church and city. We tend to minimize the effect of family on faith and exaggerate the influence of an hour at church.
I once thought that the time requirement of parenting decreases as a child gets older. Not true! We often underestimate our influence as parents and delegate our role too quickly and to too many people. Keep the word “disciple” in view when you discipline and it will help keep the end in mind.
Wesley Furlong is the founder and director of City of Refuge (refuge.life), a network for community transformation and the director of Church Development for the EVANA Network, an evangelical Anabaptist network of churches across North America.