An old Ozark Mountain "hillbilly" friend shared some wisdom with my dad a few years ago: "The older I get, the less I know for sure!" That's how I felt when I was raising my teen girls. I couldn't figure out the intricacies of dad-and-daughter psychology. But I worked and prayed and cried over it more than I care to remember!
Don't get me wrong: My daughters were my pride and joy, and I tried every way I could to be the perfect dad. But, man, how many times I failed! I was clumsy and always seemed to be "saying it wrong." I give God and their mom all the credit for the amazing, godly young ladies they were and are today.
During those turbulent and often disillusioning days, all I knew to do was spend time with my girls. Fortunately, that turned out to be the key to the relationship I wanted so badly.
My connecting point with daughter Courtney was on her early morning jogs. She wanted to run three to six miles at 6:15 A.M., so we hit the pavement together. I had to follow her rules, though:
When I tried to change the pace (a mistake I only made once) or tried to give unsolicited advice (probably more than once), I was quickly corrected and reminded of "the rules."
I still look back on those early morning "joggers" as some of the most important hours I'll ever spend in my life. That's when I learned how vital it is to walk (or run) alongside our teens.
We parents of teens are called to leave our paths and get on theirs. Why? To be sure they aren't alone. To encourage them through the thickets and storms. To rejoice when there's something to rejoice about.
When we walk alongside our teens, we usually need to follow their rules. We're there to do what they want to do. We're choosing to actively participate in their world. It might mean joining a neighborhood softball team, or trying out for a community or church theater production, or shooting hoops every night after work, or chaperoning a field trip to a french fry factory.
The fun of doing something together can fill your scrapbook with pages of the best times of these all-too-brief child-raising years. Remember — the days can seem long, but the years are short.
Walking alongside happens when we step into our teens' shoes and see life from their perspective. We don't do it once a year; we do it often.
But where do you begin? How do you walk alongside a kid who may not even like the idea? We'll explore this throughout this article series.
Here are some good ways to discover how to walk alongside your son or daughter.
1. Find out what he loves to do. Then do it with him, rather than just cheering him on from the stands. Sometimes what he loves will be obvious, but sometimes it may surprise you both. That was the case with my son Brady, who wanted to be a basketball player. But the pressure of basketball was brutal. I saw potential for something else: music. That didn't come naturally for either my wife or me; she'd gotten kicked out of choir in sixth grade, and the same happened to me in my junior year of high school.
"Brady," I said, "look at those hands of yours. You've got the most beautiful fingers. I can see those on a keyboard. I can see them running up and down the frets of a guitar."
"Well, I'm not interested in music," he replied.
But by the time he was a college freshman, Brady wanted a guitar.
Today he's recording his third album, writing great lyrics and making beautiful music. He sings all over the country; we do youth crusades together. And if you think it's helped our relationship, you're right.
2. Make the most of summer. Walking alongside should happen all year, but the best season for growing with your teen is summer. Before school lets out, get a calendar and note how many days you have until fall classes begin. Find a block of time each day when you can put your priorities, work, hobbies, and worries aside and be there 100 percent for your teen. Plan together what you can do — fishing, camping, shopping, grilling, tennis, whatever your teen would enjoy.
3. Take a wild adventure together. Recently my wife took our grandson on a one-day canoe trip down the beautiful Buffalo River in northwest Arkansas. It was gorgeous, safe, and surprisingly inexpensive (canoes rented for just $20 a day). Another family I know hikes in the Rocky Mountains every year.
4. Ask what your teen has never done but would like to try. Go try it together. Learn something new. Go with an open mind and a sense of humor — like the lady who, when learning to ski, told everyone that the only rule for the day was to laugh whenever she fell. Look for classes in a foreign language, dance, art, computer software. Take piano or guitar lessons. Sign up for a sports clinic.
5. Serve the needy together. Homeless shelters, the Salvation Army, soup kitchens, food banks, convalescent homes, tutoring — the list of volunteer opportunities never gets shorter. One father-son duo did painting and simple repairs at a home for troubled teens, then painted playground equipment for a school in a poor neighborhood. My oldest daughter and I went on a one-week mission trip to Trinidad when she was 13, and it was the best thing we've ever done together. We found common goals, common ground, and made memories that helped us through the most difficult years of our relationship.
6. Find out what your teen dreads doing. Ask whether she wants your help with that PowerPoint project about bacteria or that awkward phone call to a friend whose sister just passed away. What kind of assistance does she want? Remember to follow her rules — for example, letting her be the boss about where things go when you help clean her room.
7. Walk alongside your teen spiritually. You can connect to your teen and connect your teen to God by praying and reading and memorizing Scripture with your teen daily.
Just 10 minutes a day can give your relationship an "eternal touch." School may get what's in the middle, but I was determined to "bookend" my kids' days with a short devotion at the breakfast table and a Bible-and-prayer time before bed.
Three of my four kids really liked our twice-daily times together. I never forced my kids to be part of them; we only had those times when I was welcome. For the uninterested teen, I was like an old, faithful dog — ready in the corner, but not pushy. This old dog didn't jump on the reluctant child every time she came through the door, saying, "Let's talk, let's have a devotional." I was just available.
This should be "sanctuary time," a safe place in today's uncertain world. Don't use it for lecturing, criticism, or manipulating your teen with God's Word. With those ground rules, your teen can look forward to spending time with you.
My advice is to ditch the word "devotional," too. It's not Sunday school; it's your set-apart time, your quiet time, your sanctuary.
8. Bring your teen into your world. When I ran errands, I'd invite one of my teens to come along. If I was speaking at a youth rally, there was a place for my kids on the team coordinating the event. When my teens came home from a party or a date, I invited them to "debrief" over a bowl of cereal with me.
9. Discover your teen's dreams. There's a dream inside every young person, as sure as there's a yolk inside every chicken's egg. Help your teen identify his strengths and work together toward realizing his dream. My book Wired by God is one tool that can help you do that. Guide your teen in setting his own goals; then investigate ways for him to gain skill and experience.
In our family, Courtney enjoyed gymnastics and volleyball; Brady was into guitar and basketball; Cooper liked weight training and football; Jamie pursued cheerleading. I was the lucky guy who got to catch passes, spot flips, and cheer like crazy. Listening to saxophone practice and retrieving tens of thousands of basketball shots helped build foundations for friendships with my kids that I enjoy as an "old guy" today.
10. Remember that the relationship is everything. During those crazy teen years, my relationship with my kids was top priority. The media were telling them to have fun through sex, drugs and alcohol; peers were telling them that parents were no longer relevant. I wanted to earn a hearing by being the person my kids loved hanging out with the most.
No matter how you decide to walk alongside your teen, remember that it's not a chore. It's not a competition, either. The goal is to learn about your teen, to have fun, to encourage, to do some servant-hearted foot-washing.
Walking alongside your teen takes time. It may even start out as hard work. But before you know it, the process will be a joy — because you'll really enjoy this person you're coming to know.
Do you spend too much time away from home? When you're there, are you available physically and emotionally? Or are you wrapped up in television, moonlighting or restoring an old Corvette?
If you're there when the kids get home from school, do they have a listening, caring parent to talk with? Or do they have to stand in the kitchen, shifting from foot to foot, hoping you'll get off the phone?
If you get home later, do you push aside attempts at closeness, your face and body language like an electrified fence? Do you mumble a hello to your kids and demand they give a respectful, clear response? If your teen has a concert at school, do you beg off because you're too tired?
If so, it's not surprising. Parenting a teen — not to mention keeping up with the bills — is exhausting work. Just when you thought your kids would need less from you, you find they need more.
And time is what they need most. Quality and quantity time.
Coming home can be hard. It requires sacrifice.
I have a friend who's a major-league surgeon. He came to me after realizing he was losing touch with his teens. He could see them frozen in the distance, almost like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.
I suggested he come home. He looked at me, his face etched with despair. "But I can't." I knew what he meant. His skills were in constant demand at all hours of the day and night.
So I challenged him with what I hoped would be a reasonable goal. "Try to give 10 percent of each day to your kids. Just 10 percent."
He did. To his astonishment, his teens began to respond. What he thought he'd lost forever, he regained — when he gave only 10 percent of his time.
I'd tried this principle at home, too. After pouring myself into
my job every day and coming home with a chip on my shoulder and looking for a soft place to lie down, I'd had nothing left to give my kids. One day I'd slithered home, anxious to do nothing, when a thought floated into my head: Save 10 percent.
That sounded reasonable, doable. So I set myself a goal of reserving 10 percent of my energy for my children. My new top calling was to be a dad.
I used that 10 percent with my teens — shooting hoops, running pass patterns, and listening to a squawking saxophone. In their hearts they knew I thought they were special, that I valued them.
I'm not the only one who thinks it's worth it to sacrifice your time during the few years your teen has left at home. Listen to this girl's story:
"My mom drove us to and from school every day. That meant at least an hour a day in the car. It was so great because, being the incredibly wise woman that she is, my mom would listen to what was going on. Then she would offer her best advice for a problem. This way, we all learned to trust my mom, and we weren't ever afraid to tell her about something that had happened. My mom has always encouraged us to talk to her because she knows that we're not perfect and we're going to screw up sometimes. She's extremely good at waiting until we're ready to tell her what's on our minds, and she just listens and then gives us advice or takes action if it's needed."
It takes time to be that kind of mentor to your teen. Here's how one parent put it: "Whenever there was a choice between being with the kids and doing something else, the best choice was being with them."
Want to see a change in your teen's behavior? Make the first move by coming home.
When we asked a group of kids ages 13 through 17 about their concerns, they said they wanted to be able to communicate with their parents in healthy, positive ways.
Can you believe it? Your teen wants a connection with you as much as you want one with him! Our kids want to talk to us!
So where's the breakdown?
Some kids just need an invitation. Others need more time to open up. Still others, though, are like the girl who said, "Every time I attempt to talk to my parents, they either yell at me before I tell my whole story or lecture me. If they'd be more open to talk with me and let me do some more talking, I'd talk with them a lot more."
Wherever you and your teen are on that spectrum of speaking, things can get better. And they will, when you take advantage of some tools parents and youth workers and counselors have been using with the kids they care about. Let's help you and your teen get to a deeper level by stocking your communication toolbox.
Here are seven ways to make sure you really hear your teen — and to make sure he or she knows it.
1. Give him your full attention. I know you're so busy that you hardly have a moment to yourself. But now isn't the time for multitasking. Turn off the TV, the lawnmower, the blender — whatever's competing for your ears.
2. Reflect her emotions; don't mock them. Teens love to see their feelings reflected in your face. It tells them you understand how they felt when the coach yelled at them today. If their emotions seem over-the-top or the reasons for them seem trivial, remember that their world is smaller than yours — which makes each event look bigger.
3. Restate in your own words what you heard him say. Let's say your son is dating a girl named Jen. One day he comes home and tells you about Jen flirting with his best friend. You might say, "So, what I'm hearing you say is that it really hurt when Jen looked at Brian with the look she usually gives you." Restating helps ensure that you're truly hearing your teen. If you restate the situation incorrectly, it gives your teen a chance to re-explain, too.
4. Display attentive body language. Skip the eye rolling, sighs, arms crossed tightly against the chest, and looking over your shoulder or into the distance. Sit cross-legged on the floor or sofa, or turn a chair around and sit with your arms resting on the back. Lean forward slightly, nodding as appropriate.
5. Decide to be interested in what she's saying. This can be hard after a long day at work, coming home to a teen who wants to chatter about things that seem insignificant to you. Ask God to help you want to listen. The more you pay attention and ask clarifying questions, the more you'll find yourself interested in her life. It may help to remind yourself that what you're really interested in is her.
6. Listen to actions. How do you do that? You notice whether your teen is slamming doors or leaving incriminating notes from a boyfriend or girlfriend around the house. Is something wrong at school? In a relationship?
7. Be alert for moments of honesty and vulnerability. Teens will, on occasion, break down and spill what's on their hearts. When they do, give them all the time they need to share. Then ask, "Do you want me to give suggestions or help? Or do you just want me to listen?"
Where you communicate with your teen is important. It can make the difference between conversation and consternation. Here are four things to keep in mind about the places in which you talk:
1. Pick a place that provides an "out." Kids say it's easier to talk with their parents if there's something else to focus on when things get awkward. Examples of "safety valves": traveling in the car, eating ice cream or a meal, playing a game, walking in the park, putting a puzzle together, painting a wall, going to a museum, riding bikes. Teens want to talk, but don't want the pressure of having to do it without a break.
2. Avoid distractions. A safety valve (see #1) is a relief; a distraction grabs attention whether you want it to or not. Is that restaurant a good place to talk, or is the music always too loud? Have you turned off your pager? If you talk in the living room, will you hear little brother bouncing that tennis ball against the garage door? One teen found that even car conversations didn't work in her family: "Sometimes [my parents] are too concentrated on driving or whatever they are doing and don't pay attention to what I am saying."
3. Choose a safe place. Kids want a place where they feel at ease sharing the scary parts of their hearts. Where is that for your teen? In his room? In yours? On a jogging path? If you don't know, it's okay to ask.
4. If you find a place that works, stick with it. Try taking your teen to breakfast or lunch once a week. Establish a habit like this and your kids may get comfortable enough to open up, even asking hard questions about life. Try not to bring your own list of hard questions, though; your teen may begin to shy away from those mealtimes if they turn into interrogations or preaching practice.
How do you start a conversation with a reluctant teen? Here are six ideas to try.
1. Talk about a "neutral" issue. Not every conversation has to be about feelings and relationships. Read a book and discuss the choices the characters made. Watch a movie and talk about it (see PluggedIn.com's Movie Nights). Take an article from a teen magazine and discuss it. Share thoughts about the last sermon the two of you heard.
2. Use time at the table. Family dinners encourage conversations, but let everybody share the load. Think of a few questions for people to answer, and avoid judging the replies. Some possible topics: quizzes at school, favorite films, reports due, assemblies attended, geography trivia, headline news.
3. Refine your questions. Learn to ask gentle questions that require more than a yes-or-no answer. Let's say you and your teen are at a Mexican restaurant. You might start the conversation by asking:
"How is life going for you?"
If your teen just shrugs and bites into that giant burrito, try some less-sweeping queries. "What level of your video game are you at now? What's the most challenging thing about it?"
"How do you think basketball is going? Where do you want to improve? What's Coach Welch say about the team's prospects?"
If your teen still doesn't want to talk about herself, get her talking about her friends. "What do you like best about Sara?"
4. Make the most of drive time. Tired of being your teen's chauffeur? Unless talking in the car disturbs your concentration as a driver, discuss topics that come up naturally. That might include the weather, where your teen would like to go if he could go anywhere, the rudeness of a driver who cuts you off or the kinds of cars your teen likes.
5. Use the cover of darkness. Some kids find it easier to talk at night, especially in the dark. If you go into your teen's room at bedtime to pray, ask for a prayer request; it might lead to his opening up and sharing concerns.
Another nighttime opportunity: Greeting your teen after a date, offering a snack and making yourself available for a chat. One parent told us, "We found that if we waited up for them after a date or a night out with friends, they seemed to let down their guard and share more. Some of our best talks happened late at night. And we would have missed them if we'd just hollered out a 'Did you lock the door?' from our bedroom."
Be sure not to turn these post-date wrap-ups into the Spanish Inquisition, though. My wife and I would start things off with a cheery, "Hey, welcome home! We were just wanting to get a bowl of ice cream with you. Is that okay?" We tried not to stare into their eyes. We'd get that cold stuff on a spoon; right before shoveling it in, we'd ask, "How was it?"
Other after-date conversation starters might include, "You looked so great tonight when you went out. Did you feel that way, too?" "I had fun meeting your date. What was he like?" "What was the best part about tonight?"
6. Try commercial conversations. Watch a favorite TV show together and talk during the commercials. View a football game and talk during the halftime show. Watch the news and discuss the stories during the breaks. These short bursts of communication, conducted without having to sit face-to-face, may be just the thing for the really reluctant talker.
Confrontations happen in practically every home, but they're guaranteed when you and your teen aren't close. How can you communicate in a way that helps you reconnect?
Here are a dozen tips for talking your way through conflict:
1. Start strong. Psychologists say the first three minutes of a conversation generally dictate how the rest of it will go. Begin a confrontation with a soft voice and respect for your teen, and it's likely that the confrontation will be more productive and less destructive. As one teen testifies, "My mom and I had effective communication because I was treated as an equal. Not in terms of who was in charge (that was clear) but in that I had a voice."
2. Let your teen speak first. Young people we surveyed said that if they have a chance to talk first, they're more receptive to what their parents say. Once teens get to speak their minds, they're usually willing to listen to the other side.
3. Don't interrupt. It's tempting to dive in and react to a piece of what your teen just said, but one girl described how that looks from her point of view: "My parents interrupt me and lecture/yell. Then while they're talking and I want to get a word in, I'm yelled at for interrupting. It's really unfair." If either of you tends to talk nonstop, set a timer for two or three minutes and take turns.
4. Watch your tone of voice and body language. Model what you want your teen to do. When parents yell or use sarcasm or point fingers, kids figure it's okay for them to do the same. They also put on their protective gear and get into "fight" position. If you turn angry, use a quieter, calmer voice. If nothing else, your teen will have to listen harder to hear you.
5. Explain what you want and why. Some teens say they just don't understand what their parents are asking them to do. Have your teen restate what you've told him. Explain the reasons for your request or rule. For example: "I understand you'd like to be with your friends at the concert. But you've been out late every night this week and you can hardly get out of bed in the morning. That's not good for you, or for your schoolwork. Maybe next time."
6. Fight fair. No name-calling. Stick to the issue at hand. Don't dredge up past failures. Avoid the words "always" and "never," and don't compare your teen with anyone — living or dead, related or unrelated.
7. Don't beat your teen over the head with Bible verses or biblical concepts. Sure, it's crucial to pass principles from God's Word on to your child. But most arguments don't qualify as "teachable moments." Your teen won't be too receptive if you declare, "I don't care if it makes you look like a nerd! You'll wear that orange sweater to school because the Bible says to obey your parents. Besides, vanity is a sin!"
8. Give weight to your teen's feelings and opinions. You may think it's just "realistic" to tell your teen, "So, the girls said mean things about you. Forget it. You have to get used to people doing that." Instead of feeling like you've just prepared her for the real world, though, your teen will feel dismissed and misunderstood.
9. Don't try to control your teen's side of the confrontation. It doesn't work! Let's say your teen is "sassing" you. You could retort, "You will not talk to me like that!" Not a good move, since a statement like this challenges him to prove he, not you, controls his tongue. Instead you could say, "I'll be happy to listen to you when you speak to me more respectfully." Now you're saying what you will do — something you can control.
10. Keep the issues in perspective. How important is this fight, anyway? Is it possible to work toward a win-win solution, or at least one everybody can live with? Are you choosing your battles wisely? Stand up for the values that are most important to you and to your teen's welfare — but consider flexibility on lesser matters.
11. Take a break when necessary. If you or your teen are getting too wound up, take a time out. It doesn't hurt to put a conflict on the back burner until people calm down.
12. When talking fails, write a letter. Writing gives you time to sort through your thoughts and express yourself carefully. It gives your teen time to respond instead of reacting defensively. A notebook passed back and forth can work, too; so does e-mail. That's what a mom and dad discovered when their 13-year-old son wanted to see an R-rated movie; they kept telling him no, and he kept arguing. Finally Mom wrote him an e-mail, explaining their reasons. The boy never asked about it again, and seemed warmer toward his parents than he'd been in quite a while.
Want to close the gap between you and your teen? Communicating is the key to every relationship, even yours. It's never too late to start communicating with your teen.
My years with four teenagers in the house were definitely the toughest of my life. My heart broke into a million pieces as I shared my kids' many pains during those wild and turbulent times.
It set me to praying — every day. I asked God to make those six teenage years golden years. I prayed that my kids would have godly hearts. I prayed for their sexual purity, for their ability to stand alone against peer pressure, for their self-images, for their desire to honor and obey us, for wisdom, for their friends and teammates and teachers and coaches and future mates. I prayed that the example of my life would be more consistently godly.
I made many mistakes with my kids, but I didn't quit. I tried to be diligent in doing what I thought was right, adjusting my tactics with each situation and each kid, and adjusting again when my methods didn't work.
In the process, I discovered some tips you might find useful. They're the kind of thing you might be tempted to forget in the heat of the parenting moment — the kind of thing that takes daily diligence.
1. Allow choices whenever possible. When we're rushed, or when our teens have disappointed us, it's easy to step in and make the decisions ourselves. But kids learn to make good choices ... by making choices. If good choices lead to pleasant results and poor choices produce painful consequences (which they often will if you don't "rescue" your teen), you'll probably find your son or daughter making more of the former than the latter.
2. Remember the power of saying, "No." It's part of a parent's job, so don't be timid! "Everybody" may be doing it, going to it, watching it, listening to it, drinking it and using it, but "In this home, we're not!" Don't just issue declarations, though; keep working on the relationship and explain the reasons behind the boundaries.
3. Follow through with appropriate consequences. If your teen comes home before curfew, praise her. If she ignores the limits you've set, withdraw an allowance or privilege (driving, phone use, going out at night, etc.). In the interest of fairness, let your teen know ahead of time what the limits and penalties are. For example, coming home 15 minutes late means coming home 15 minutes early next time. Write it down so no one forgets!
George Callahan is one dad who discovered the value of appropriate consequences. He and his daughter Miriam spent way too much time bashing heads — especially over getting the girl to school on time. Finally George decided to lay out what he was going to do: "The car is leaving for work at 7:30 a.m. If you're ready, I'll take you to school." If Miriam wasn't ready for school then, she had to find another way to get there.
George says, "It changed everything to just get out of the power struggle and say, 'We don't have to struggle. I simply present the consequences. Those aren't negotiable.'"
4. Re-evaluate your habits occasionally. Every so often, honestly assess where you are and how you're doing as a parent. Give yourself credit in the areas where you're doing well, and thank God for His help. In other areas, create a simple, step-by-step plan for improvement. Be firm with yourself, but not harsh.
5. Be consistent. Some parents find this the toughest task of all. But teens like to know where they stand and what's expected of them. When rules change and they get in trouble, they withdraw or lash out. Some families find it helps to draw up agreements, even in the small things, so there's no confusion about what's expected.
One teen boy said, "I've never had a set curfew. One night it will be 12 and the next night, even if I haven't done anything wrong, they'll be like, 'Oh, come home at 11 tonight.' It was very confusing."
6. Be patient. Give yourself — and your teen — a break. You're going through a time of upheaval and delicate wire-walking. Allow yourself some slack when it comes to measuring progress.
One wise parent puts it this way: "We had to take on a different perspective and realize that all things weren't going to be fixed or worked out. There would still be conflicts. That relationship didn't have to suddenly be right for us to be happy or content."
7. Keep up with your teen's world. Even in the midst of chaos — or because of it — you need to know about the culture that's pressuring and misinforming your son or daughter. Bookmark PluggedIn.com and The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.
8. Enjoy your teen. Being a parent to a teen is not all hard work. There can be a lot of fun, too. Teens are daring, willing to play and explore life; they're often enthused, outrageous, crazy, insightful. They can be great companions when you're running a quick errand. Think of your teen as a new friend you'd really like to get to know. Try not to lose sight of that, even when you don't think you could love this kid one more second.
9. Meet apparent rejection with acceptance. "No matter how sullen they were, we hugged them," one parent said of her teens. "[We] said we loved them. It didn't matter if they responded. We did it anyway. Now there isn't a conversation that doesn't end with, 'Love you, Mom!' 'Love you, Dad!' They open their arms and hug freely."
10. Make encouragement a habit. One teen says his mother posts a new Bible verse every day on his mirror. This young man is honest enough to say he doesn't always read them. But he loves that his mom is consistent and caring enough to do it, even though she knows he doesn't always read them. Her diligence shouts love to him.