by David Wraight

When I was a boy …. My father was so ignorant I could hardly stand the old man around. But when I became twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he had learned. ~Mark Twain

The generation gap has always been with us. Since time began parents have struggled with the tensions and challenges that arise as their children move into their teenage years. It seems that almost overnight a transformation occurs. The once stable, loving and predictable relationship you had with your child undergoes a metamorphosis, becoming tense and volatile, characterised by conflicts and poor communication.

Once you used to be able to ‘talk’ to your son or daughter, they actually liked to be with you, they needed you and relied upon you greatly, and on some occasions even looked up to you as their ‘hero’. Then suddenly things changed. Now time spent with you and the rest of the family is to be avoided. Their relationships with their friends appear to be far more important than their relationship with you and the rest of the family. According to them you simply “don’t understand” any more. You apparently know nothing of their world and what is important to them.

This is a difficult time for both the parents and their teenage children. It requires a lot of patience on the parent’s behalf and a good understanding of what their children are going through.

Great changes happen during the teenage years. At age 12 young people are still considered a child – four years later they are young men or women with an adult body, reproductive ability, and a strong desire for independence without the necessary skills to make the right independent choices.

Some changes that teens have to deal with are:

  • Enormous emotional mood swings and instability
  • The arrival of the monthly cycle
  • Changes in body – pubic hair, voice changes, breast growth
  • Development of sexuality – sexual awareness
  • Rapid growth in intellectual ability and intense educational input

The teenage years are extremely important with regards to the future directions of an individual. Most major life choices – career, education, lifestyle, political preferences – are made during the teenage years and confirmed in young adulthood. For example, surveys have shown that up to 90% of adult Christians in the Church in the USA made a decision to follow Christ in their teens.

With regards to teens’ attitudes to themselves and parents:

  • They consider themselves indestructible
  • They feel they know much more about the world – and in particular “their world” – than their parents
  • Everything is either black or white, right or wrong, and when it comes to parent’s opinion they are generally considered to be wrong.
  • They are self-centred – their agenda is generally more important than any others in the home
  • They are extremely self-conscious – their appearance down to the minutest detail is very important and they constantly assess themselves by peer perceptions e.g., “I have to have this, dress like this, be like this, because every one else does….” They talk a lot about independence, but they really want to blend in and be part of the crowd.

When all the above is taken into consideration we as parents are unfortunately faced with a major dilemma. One of the ironies of being a parent is that the time when our children are the most difficult to love and live with is the very time they most need us to unconditionally love them and be available for them.

Minirth & Warren in ‘Things That Go Bump in the Night’ highlight this need:

If ever there were God’s extra-special children, it would have to be our teenagers. They’re invincible, aren’t they? They know everything, don’t they? Would you believe that underneath that false bravado and sometimes obnoxious behaviour lurks some fears as big as – well, big enough to be called terrors!

How do we deal with this dilemma of loving and caring for our teenage children when they seem to be so resistant to being loved? First and foremost we have to be available. The amount of time and undivided attention we make available for our children is extremely important in solving the parent/teenager relational equation. Unfortunately, in our society one of the least available commodities, especially for parents of teenage children, is time.

The average father of a teenager talks to his child 70 seconds a day! More often than not this communication is negative, either to tell the child what they have done wrong or to give them instructions on what they need to do.

Spending ‘quality time’ with children is often presented as the answer to today’s busy parent, as the panacea of all parent/teenager relational problems. The premise is that even though you may not spend a lot of time with your children this can be made up by the quality of the time spent. However, I think ‘quantity’ is the key to ‘quality’. Saying to a teenager “OK, I’ve scheduled an hour for you tomorrow, let’s have some quality time together”, is not very conducive to a meaningful parent/child relationship. In fact, a teenager will most probably be ready to talk to you at the most inconvenient times, but being available at these special moments is extremely important as it sends a direct message to them of how much you value and care for them.

The lack of available time for children in the modern family seems to be an ever increasing problem, but it is a symptom of a much larger problem. We as a society seem to have lost the art of relationship. Nobody seems to know how to conduct meaningful relationships, let alone have the time to commit to relationship.

Hence we face problems in our community of a large number of young people making serious attempts on their own lives. We have an enormous problem with teenage drinking and increasing violence in schools and the community. Alienation is the dominant experience for many young people. Families and marriages are becoming increasingly more dysfunctional.

Being a parent of a teenager has always been a difficult role, but in today’s world of broken relationships, eroding family values and increasing demands on our time and energy, it is even more difficult. However, I believe we can still be effective loving and supportive parents. The following are some suggestions that may help:

Be available – This means being available to listen, to give your undivided attention, to struggle through the issues, to at least offer to help even if the offer is rejected, to be the family taxi service, to take an interest in your teen’s culture and music, and to show them that they are at the top end of your list of priorities. Quantity time = quality time.

Let go – Parents have to let go by degrees. Make as much room as possible for your children to grow and explore and make mistakes. Let them have ample opportunity to prove your trust. When it comes to parenting teenagers ‘the greatest risk is to take no risk’. Your job as a parent is to take your children from dependence to independence – to do yourself out of a job.

Monitor – Provide a minimum of rules and guidelines and BE CONSISTENT. Listening to and observe what is going on in your children’s life asking what they are feeling and what their perspective is on things. Challenge destructive, harmful, antisocial and disruptive behaviour, but choose your battles – don’t have a big fight over little issues, pursue the issues that really matter. Don’t resort to a screaming match when confronting issues – try and keep calm and respond appropriately, even if you are encountering a reactive and angry response.

Encourage other adult supporters/friends – These friends must enter the picture, not to simply provide approval, but to communicate deeply. This could be a family friend, the youth pastor/leader or maybe a grandparent. The child is starting to move from the dependence of childhood into the independence of adulthood. It’s not a smooth transition. It happens in fits and starts, just as the child’s growth and maturation occur by fits and starts. Children at this age are not ready for strong peer relationships, yet they are pulling away from their parents. During this lag time, so to speak, a healthy adult best fills the gap. This is someone who is willing to invest time in the child. Also, we hope, it’s someone the parents do not feel jealous about. Dr Paul Warren – Things That Go Bump In The Night

Avoid projecting your struggles onto your child, empower them to follow their own dreams – Don’t try and live your life and resolve your issues through your children. Your children need to make their own discoveries, test their own boundaries, discover their own gifts and talents, suffer their own pain, and carve out their own identity. So many parents alienate their children trying to force them to take up the life opportunities they missed themselves and shielding them from the fears and pain they suffered in their own childhood. They endeavour to do a better job ’this time around’ by reliving their life through their children. Ask your children to share their dreams and aspirations with you and then let them know through words and actions that you are committed to helping them achieve these dreams.

Model true love and commitment in your relationship with your spouse – There are so many poor examples of relationship in our society that teenagers desperately need homes that provide models of true love expressed in caring, unconditional giving relationships. Make your marriage relationship a priority. Spend quantity and quality time building your relationship. It is very important for children see open affection and mutual respect between parents, to know their parents love each other deeply by experiencing an outward and consistent demonstration of this love. Provide your children with a living model of marriage the way God intended. To have room to explore their own identity children need the security of a stable home where the parents truly care for each other.

Single parent families – While a stable and committed marriage relationship is the ideal environment for providing security and a model of loving family for teens, one of the realities we have to face in today’s world is the very high incident of marital breakdown. Due to separation or divorce (or death of a partner), many parents find themselves having to raise teenage children in the context of a shared parenting arrangement, or as a single parent. In these situations boundaries can become very blurred as children move between two home environments, often with different sets of rules and expectations. Unfortunately, separated and divorced parents can tend to contend for the affection and loyalty of their children by offering less onerous rules and greater amounts of gifts and favours than their former marriage partners. Security and a sense of belonging are often the primary issues for teenage children of divorced parents and these things are best provided by having clearly defined boundaries in the context of unconditional love. For parents who find themselves in this scenario of shared custody, strive to reach agreement with your former marriage partner over rules and expectations so there is consistency in both home environments. In the event that this cannot be achieved, make sure that you at least clearly define the values and associated rules and expectation that you are going to apply in your home. Be consistent in the application of these values and rules no matter what is been practiced or offered by your former partner. Love unconditionally; let your children know that they are of primary importance to you, that you love having them around, and that you are there for them no matter what their behaviour or life circumstance. Do this by spending much time with them, being available when they need you most, and showing great interest in their life and particularly in their dreams and aspirations.

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In conclusion, it is safe to say that the teenage years of our children are probably going to be the most difficult years for us as parents. But they don’t have to be all pain and no gain. As much as these years are the most difficult, they also provide a great opportunity for us to consolidate our relationship with our children and show them how much we care for them. The teenage years are the time that you are asked by your children “Just how much do you love me?” Jesus answered this question by giving up his heavenly home and dying for us. May God help us all to love our children as much as he loves us.

Helpful References:

Things That Go Bump in the Night; Minirth, F & Warren, P; Thomas Nelson – 1992
Try Being a Teenager; Wilson, Earl D.; Multomah Press – 1982

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