Nothing prepares you for the challenges that you will face as a parent of a teenager. Not the sleepless nights of infancy nor the tantrums of toddlerhood. Parenting teens is a season of surprises and disappointments, of grieving unrealized expectations and feeling utterly out of control. Parenting teens involves frequently feeling like you are at a loss for how to respond--to the mouthiness that makes spending time with your child feel like a chore, to the parent-teacher conferences that make you feel inadequate as a parent, or to the 2:30 a.m. phone call from a police officer saying your child has been arrested.
Parenting teens can be emotionally exhausting and socially isolating. This is largely because most of us aren’t comfortable talking about the hard things that we are going through with our teens--the sneaking out, lying, smoking, drinking, cutting, sexting, and more. And if we aren’t comfortable talking about those manifestations of pain and rebellion, we definitely will not be comfortable talking about the deeper issues and questions behind them--depression, loneliness, a crisis of faith, or questions about sexual orientation or gender identity.
I may be the last person who should offer parenting advice, but here are some things that I have learned, often the hard way, in my first five years parenting teenagers. I hope they will encourage you.
Parenting demands courage--the courage to be vulnerable with our kids and to share with them that we haven’t always had our act together, nor do we always have it together now. This humility runs in direct opposition to my parenting instincts. I want to do everything right the first time. I want my children to admire me for knowing what to say and what to do in every situation. But that’s not how things go. Children make mistakes, and so do we. We don't always react well in the moment, we don't always have easy answers. We need to understand that and adapt when the unexpected comes along.
I come home from work, and I am tired. I want to eat. I want to have an uninterrupted conversation with my husband. I want to go to bed. And most days, I just don’t want to fight over who is unloading the dishwasher or what their bedrooms looks like. So, I disengage. But communicating with my teens, as hard as it can be through simple things like sharing a meal, playing a game, or just spending time together, is never time wasted. I need to remember that connection is vital, and make small efforts every day to engage with my children.
I often want to set the agenda in my conversations with my kids. I want to tell them what they need to know. I want to set the tone in our house. But that’s not what my children need. They need parents who seek to understand them, who care enough to listen to trivia, who realize that they are autonomous beings with their own thoughts, feelings, and lives. We need to seek to know our children as well as they know us--to spend time with them, to take interest in their interests, to commit to learning from and with them. I’ve found that my kids respect me more for the times I listen to them than the times when I tell them what to do.
Don’t underestimate the power of prayer, worship, and Bible study in community. This won’t look like a Norman Rockwell painting. Prayer time may be in the car on the way to school. Worshiping together on Sunday may mean a battle of the wills over what they will wear. And Bible study may not be an hour spent around the kitchen table, but pulling a passage up on your cell phone to read and have a brief chat about on a Sunday night. Prayer, the Bible, and worship are critical means to knowing God, to understanding how our lives fit into God’s larger story, and to remembering that God is ultimately in control. Take every opportunity to demonstrate that scripture shapes our lives.
I need to be reminded of this pretty regularly. I can fall into the trap of feeling like I alone am responsible for my child’s social, psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being. If that wasn’t enough pressure, multiply that times three teens and it’s downright overwhelming. But I also have good friends who remind me that this isn’t my job alone. My children have aunts and uncles, neighbors, former Sunday school teachers, parents of friends, coaches, and many others in their lives who bring grace and truth into their lives. That is comforting, and gives me the strength to play the role that God has called me to in my children’s lives.
I often find myself repeating God’s words to Joshua to myself, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (1:9). God will also be with our kids. Some days that knowledge will be all that we can hold. God is faithful. Remember that. And be strong and courageous, wherever you go.