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Parenting Teens (a.k.a. Riding the Mechanical Bull)

Debra Bell|September 28, 2016

The roiling waters of the teen years catch many parents by surprise. It did me. Fortunately, our heavenly Father promises to give us the wisdom we need when parenting teens and to shoot these rapids with skill and faith. But first we need to understand what is fueling the uproar—as if you don’t remember.

Your teen is going through tremendous psychological and biological changes, and this is unnerving for both of you. These changes are often unpredictable and beyond the teen’s control. My son Mike says he hated junior high because of his emotional swings. He never knew if he would wake up happy or angry. His emotions controlled him, and he had no idea how to explain this or manage them. Of course, he wasn’t admitting this to us at the time because he wasn’t mature enough to objectively analyze his situation. Instead we were on the receiving end of angry outbursts totally out of proportion to the situation or protracted seasons of silence emanating from behind a closed door.

Our daughters, when they were teens, crumbled into tears at the drop of a hat. Now, with some distance, I wonder why I wasn’t more sympathetic. The reason is that I was rooted in fear, so I acted out of fear instead of faith, thereby exacerbating the emotional upheaval.

Observations When Parenting Teens

A few general observations regarding this stage of life:

  1. Significant physical changes take place as kids approach their adult height and sexual maturity.
  2.  Adolescents show increased interest in widening their social contact beyond the family.
  3.  Adolescents show increasing interest in the opposite sex.
  4.  Adolescents seek to establish their autonomy as individuals.

When you think about it, all of these are ultimately desirable outcomes. We do want our children to reach adulthood, to marry, to be responsible and independent of us, to establish meaningful social contacts in their church, their neighborhood, and the workplace. Right?

What I lost sight of when parenting teens was the physical process that God Himself designed for achieving these desired results. Our kids don’t move from dependency to independence overnight. The transfer of headship over their lives from parent to child cannot be accomplished with the flip of a switch; it is a process that usually begins with them straining at the reins of parental authority.

I mean, I wasn’t the first to say, “Hey, Mike and Gabe, why don’t you stay out later with your friends this weekend?” or “Why don’t you take the car more often” or “Don’t you think you should start including girls in your circle of friends?” No, they began thinking along these lines before questions of autonomy were even a blip on our radar screen. And as we weren’t anticipating their interest in greater autonomy, we quickly took action to shut it down. Well, that was about as helpful as plugging a breaching dike with a finger: Temporary relief was more than offset by pressure building on the other side.

Finally, with our youngest, we understood what was happening and didn’t waste time trying to stop it. Rather, our best efforts as parents were directed toward channeling the waters that broke through the walls along an appropriate course.

So the first thing to remember is that this is a good thing. Our posture as parents when parenting teens should be to thank God for what He is doing in our children’s lives, as difficult as that may be at times. We can help them think about this season rightly, too, if they hear us expressing faith toward God for what He is doing in their lives.

The second thing to remember when parenting teens is that most kids aren’t going to make this transition smoothly. They aren’t really thinking about how they can make life easy for Mom and Dad. Psychologically, they’ve never been more self-conscious or more self-centered, and they will need your help to battle through this to a place of security and outward focus. You may find it helpful to just throw out any expectations of thoughtfulness or understanding on their end, and then be thankful and pleased when they do surprise you with consideration.

Of course, I’m not saying you should excuse your teen’s sin or sit back passively while she struggles to develop a more pleasant disposition. Not at all! Other than infancy, there is no time when hands-on parenting is more required. However, when we bring our baby home from the hospital, our primary responsibility is to provide care. When that child becomes an adolescent, our primary responsibility should be training. This may seem obvious, but it wasn’t for me. My primary impulse was not to provide training but to establish control. I thought I needed to suppress my teens’ impulses and restrain their attempts at freedom. I imagined that if I didn’t do this, things would escalate to full-scale rebellion and dangerous behavior. I was responding to the natural course of events in fear and assuming my children’s struggle for greater autonomy was fueled by sin. Instead, I needed to respond in faith and recognize that their resistance was in fact an imperfect response to the God-designed maturation process going on inside.

When you first read the title of this article, did you picture yourself trying to ride the mechanical bull alone? Did you equate the bull with “parenting teens” in your mind? What happens if you picture you and your teen on that bucking bronco together, with you helping him to learn to remain astride the machine through the peaks and valleys of his undulating emotions and impulses?

Your teen is in a fight to gain control over his raging hormones. When parenting teens, you need to get in his corner and coach him through this season. Someone needs to tell him how to think about everything that is happening. Someone needs to point him toward God and His available provision. Someone needs to show him how to traverse life’s difficulties with faith and grace. Scripture makes it pretty clear that parents are God’s means for doing this. And homeschooling your child will mean you’re going to be on deck more than most when parenting teens, so be prepared.

But look up and rejoice, for your Help is nigh! For once again you have the opportunity to lean on the everlasting arms of our Savior, and here you and your teens are safe and secure from all alarms, even in this season we call adolescence.

Debra Bell, Ph.D., is the best-selling author of the award-winning Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling, Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling Teens, and the Ultimate Planners for moms, teens, and students (Apologia Press). Writers in Residence: A Writing-Focused Language Arts Program and Readers in Residence: A Literacy Program. She is a homeschooling veteran of 4 homeschool graduates.