Focus on the Family Broadcast

Parenting Teens Toward Adulthood (Part 1 of 2)

Parenting Teens Toward Adulthood (Part 1 of 2)

Dr. Ken Wilgus encourages parents to deliberately work their way out of the parenting role by the time their child is 18, and instructs them to see their teenagers as young adults, not large children. He offers tips on how to progressively give your teen more responsibility, along with examples of how to have difficult conversations on a range of topics, from music choices to dating. (Part 1 of 2)
Original Air Date: August 23, 2022


Dr. Ken Wilgus: I call it planned emancipation. Planned emancipation is you taking the reins and marshaling an orderly retreat out of your teenager’s lives.

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John Fuller: If you’ve got teens or pre-teens, stay tuned because we have a plan for successful parenting that you won’t wanna miss. Your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: Well John, you and I survived the teen years with our kids.

John: Mm-hmm.

Jim: And although it’s a tumultuous time, it’s also a great time to be training them for adult life and all of the responsibilities that come with it. And today’s guest Dr. Ken Wilgus offers a very firm yet friendly strategy that I think our listeners are gonna want to embrace. Dr. Ken is a psychologist, author, and speaker who specializes in adolescent behavior. and he has a private practice in Dallas, Texas. His book is called, Feeding the Mouth That Bites You. And he’s been in the studio with us a couple of times in the past.

John: And this is gonna be a little bit different than those times. We’re sharing a presentation from Dr. Ken that he gave to a big crowd at a parent’s event sponsored by Christ Church of the Valley in Phoenix, Arizona. With that here now is Dr. Ken Wilgus on Focus on the Family.

Dr. Wilgus: So here’s what we’re gonna do, there’s kind of two parts. The first thing is that I want to talk to you about what is close to a magic thing that you need to know. There is a thing that if you, and it’ll take about 15, 20 minutes for you to be enlightened. And if you know this thing, it is the closest thing to a key to unlock and be more effective with your teenager. I’m not kidding. So it’s important that you think about this because the parents that know this, the teachers, I’ve done teacher training, the teachers that know this can be much more impactful and those that don’t just, it’s just a struggle. So then after I do that, Dustin’s gonna come up and he’s gonna ask a bunch of questions so that we get to specifics.

But the first thing is for you to understand something about your teenager. And it was the thing that I first understood, it must have been the first day in adolescent psychology class, when the teacher said now, “Of course, you know, that modern adolescence was created about a hundred years ago and the term teenager was invented around 1942.” And the class just sat there, and I was like, “What?” What he’s talking about is something that is critical for you to know. When you think about teenager, with the things we joke about, surly, argumentative, emotional, rebellious, all those things that we think about 150 years ago, no one would know what you’re talking about. A 13 and 14-year-old boy was out working with the men. A 14-year-old girl was very likely married and pregnant. This is a new thing and it’s important that you know that this was created. And what’s been created, and there’s many books about this, but the clearest statement is that we have artificially extended childhood to a very, very long, never-ending stage. You are living in a culture that does not know how to translate its children into adults.

And it’s gotten worse over the years, and this has been going on. It was there with your parents and your grandparents, but it’s gotten worse and worse. It went from what we do in America is you have a thing you can’t fix; you make a movie out of it. So we had Rebel Without a Cause, and then it becomes Failure to Launch. It just gets harder and harder. So here’s the thing that you need to know, and I am not kidding. The thing that was known all around the world for all of time and it is this, childhood comes to its natural end by about the age of 13. That is virtually when it is over, it does not mean your job is over. But this is the part that I cannot emphasize enough, your job changes. Because teenagers are not old children, they are very young adults. Now don’t panic, they’re very young, very poor adults. They own nothing.

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: You know, and they’re very inexperienced, but they are, and they have crossed over into adulthood. Your job will change from teaching to training and the most common mistake that parents make is using childhood parenting techniques with adolescents. When he was seven or no 10, he never liked cleaning his room and would say, you know, “Justin, I mean it, you need to get in there and clean your room.” And he would finally go in there. Now he’s 15. And I think there’s a hearing issue. I don’t know, but we have to scream at him. And even then, he says, “Just a minute.” What is this a cognitive thing? He has changed from possibly a strong-willed child to an adult that is really wanting the answer to one question. And I want you to think about this question. Somewhere in every teenager’s soul is the question, “Hey, I’m beginning to look and think and act more like an adult, when will you say that I am completely an adult? The same as you.”

Now, I want you to take a minute. Don’t compare your answers but think about it. When would you say that this child of yours is at your point, at your level an adult? Got your answer, fix an answer, ’cause I’m gonna tell you, there’s three answers in this room, usually, almost always. One is, an age, 18, 21, it’s usually a dad. It’s like, it’s clean. It’s easy, whatever. Okay.

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: But that’s not most of you, most of you then will throw the other one, which is the, what I call the under my roof theory. “Well, as long as I’m paying for it, then, you know, it’s, you’re gonna answer to me.” Right? And then there’s many of you, the more sensitive ones, that’s the know it when I see it, “When she shows us that she’s got the, the responsiveness,” whatever your thing is.

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: And that’s virtually, always what we answer, but you’ll notice we don’t all have the same answer. Because we live in a culture that doesn’t give a clear answer to a very good question. There are problems. By the way, you think the age thing is dopey, it’s not as dumb as you think. For the ones that are the under my roof category. Do you know what a boomeranger is? Okay. Those are young adults that have left home and then for divorce or whatever, they come back home and they’re living at home and they’re under my roof. And, you know, they’re very cooperative ’cause they’re not doing anything and maybe a little job, you know? And is that an adult? Because under that theory, no, they’re still not… Yeah, they’re an adult. That 30-year-old at home is an adult. Thank you. That’s right. The know it when I see it, right? Whatever your thing is, don’t you have uncle so-and-so that’s like 50 and he never learned that, so he’s not that either. What you’re doing is you run into the problem of, I am waiting for my teenager to show me when they’re done. Like the very old Kung Fu show that the guy would say, “You’ll know you’re ready to leave the temple when you can snatch the pebble outta my hand.” What if they’re not even trying to snatch the pebble out of your hand…

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: …seriously, give it a shot. I won’t even look, go ahead. It’s a problem where we wait for them. And what needs to happen is that instead, like all of history, you can make your household work against that confusion. You can put in place in your house an orderly retreat from control and instilling the message that in this house you will grow up, you do not have to get away. And one of the things that is interesting when I talk very often to Christian families, is that Christians tend to have a high percentage of families that are the ones that you just have to get away. Because of fear and some sense of what God is requiring of me, whatever. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but our faith is looking more and more ridiculous to the world. It’s getting darker out there and we cannot afford to be producing kind of obedient weak-willed adults who don’t know what they think and have never really practiced, they need to be ready. Don’t you think? For the, the kind of assault that they are given, and this is critical that Christians do this.

So do you understand now that your teenager is not an old child? He and she are a young, they are a young adult. You should think of a teenager as an adult in training and your task is to move them on. And how do you do that? So that’s number one. You’re now enlightened. Got it. You will be the one to, instead of them prying control out of your cold dead hands, you will instead give it over in orderly pace that makes sense to the… “You’ll know.” So how do you do that? I call it planned emancipation. Planned emancipation is you taking the reins and marshaling an orderly retreat out of your teenager’s lives. It is sort of like, and I don’t mean giving more privilege with responsibility. That’s good with children like there’s a whole series of parenting with love and logic. Very good series that some people go, “It’s the same thing.” No, what you’re doing is that you have put, in es- essence, a clock on the wall that is now ticking down to the end of your job. Eighteen isn’t actually the end. The end is when they finish high school, that’s when they need to be ready. Even if they stay at your house, they need to be ready.

John: Well, that’s Dr. Ken Wilgus on today’s episode of Focus on the Family and we do recommend his book, it’s called, Feeding the Mouth That Bites You: A Complete Guide to Parenting Adolescents and Launching Them into the World. Get a copy of that book from us and we’ll include a free audio download of the entire presentation from Dr. Wilgus, including some extra content. Donate today and request the book and the free audio download at or give us a call. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. Let’s return now to more from Dr. Ken Wilgus on Focus on the Family.

Dr. Wilgus: So planned emancipation is essentially, think about it this way. your teenager feels like an occupied country. So picture a nation with your kids’ name on it. You know, Brandon or whatever, this is, you know, my kid’s. And it’s divided up into states, little territories called friends, clothes, school, money. These are different areas, discreet areas of control and management. You understand? That’s the map. Now I want you to mark and kind of scribble in each state where you are still in control of it. This is where your troops are occupying their territory, that’s how teenagers feel. They don’t get rebellious; they actually feel like you don’t need to be in this business. This is not your business. Did you know teenagers, this will stun you, if you asked many teenagers, “Did you finish your homework?” They’ll say yes, but here’s the thing, they didn’t.

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: They will, they will lie to you and it’s not uncommon, they don’t even feel guilty about it. “Dr. Wilgus, I think it’s a social, is he a psychopath?” “How could he…”?

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Ken Wilgus: There is actually normal lying. Normal lying is essentially a passive war against you. And I’ll tell teenagers, I’m like, “Dude, you didn’t need to be lying. You need to have the guts to tell your mom what you think, which is, ‘I don’t think this should be your business. And I don’t want to tell you the truth and you can’t really find out.’” That’s what teenagers, you’re an occupying army in their territory. Does that make sense? So what you do is that you announce at the beginning of adolescence, you announce that we are going to be retreating out of your life, one state at a time and we will be gone. And you want to keep letting them know that you will grow up here. The answer to most all of your questions is never no, it is not yet. So if you want to be able to do this and that, not yet, but it will come to this point. And the more that you give over freedom, freedom is not, I will give you a chance to do it, we’ll see how it goes. Freedom is this is no longer our business; this is up to you and God, and we are out of it. And you pull your way out so that eventually that map they are in control of all of that. Does that make sense? I’ll give you some examples and just so you know, that’s my wife. Sally standup, wave. Sally 40 years, we’ve been married. Thank you. And that poor woman had to put up with all of this stuff with this mad scientist husband of hers, that we did all this stuff. So for example, when our kids turned 13 among whatever present they got, you no longer have to keep your room clean. Stay with me.

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: I’ve had mothers bring a photo going, “You mean this room?”

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: And you know, don’t bring up asthma either, they’re not gonna die. Don’t do that. You don’t need to keep your room clean anymore. With freedom always comes responsibility. That’s, “You know where the washer and the dryer are.” “You’ll be doing your own laundry.” “You don’t want us going in, messing with your stuff. It’s now up to you.” “Oh, and you can keep food in there if you can afford an exterminator. But since you cannot, I’ll probably charge you 50 cents or a buck for any plate, whatever left back there,” almost like a landlord.

But here’s the thing. Number one, you may know this. Do you know how much conflict and just strain goes on just to try to get the room clean? And then you work your head off. Have you been to any freshman dorm in this country, boy’s dorm? They’re all raised in barns apparently, you know, for them, it’s their first room. So, but again, listen to me, this is not you giving up. I would recommend to you that if you understand, if you pay attention, it will increase your effectiveness with this teenager. Because now you will not be shielding them from the natural consequences of a dirty room. The first time he comes out and goes, “Quick, I gotta have this ironed for the concert today,” you sit with your coffee and go, “That’s a bummer.”

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: And nothing. And you, you know, you’re like, “Do you remember when we…” Yeah, we did that. I’m not going to rescue…that’s worth 10 cleanliness is next to godliness speeches. It’s just the real thing. And that’s an example of training and yet we did that early. The room is an easy one, that starts early, 13. There’s other things, I’ll tell you one that you should start, whether you like it or not, your kid needs to be told, your teenager that what you listen to in music is up to you. Do you know why you need to give that freedom? Because they are listening to whatever they want to unless any Amish families here? If not, then you’re just looking silly with your, “You can’t use explicit lyrics thing.” It happens in my office all the time, 15-year-old girl, parents going, “Oh, no, we don’t let her listen to that kind of music.” And I look at her and she looks at me and we’re both going, basically, “Are you, you gonna tell her, I’m not.” YouTube has every single song ever put out; you cannot control that. So instead because this is oxygen for your teenager. “When will you say things are up to me?” You wrap it up and make it a gift. No longer, it’s now up to you, between you and God.

And there’ll be all other things as well that you orderly give over every six months, every year until you’re done. Last one will be curfew. The day after they graduate, you need to let ’em know, you don’t have to come in at any specific time at our house because that’s a given. But everything else you think about. Choice of friends, how you dress. You can divide that into style of dress. But for our girls, very often, we still control modesty and so forth. But then at a point you let go of that, how they manage their money, all kinds of it. School, I will not micromanage school, but that’s what planned emancipation looks like.

But here’s the thing you need to know that for many parents you’ll think what I just said is just get ’em an apartment and a car and just do whatever they want. That is not what I’m saying. That is a false dichotomy that thinks that parenting is control and teaching. And there are tons of parents that think that’s basically what I’m here for, that God has given me this child and stepped back and crossed his big fingers and hope that I don’t screw it up. That is not our faith. You’re not with your teenager right now, but Jesus is, the Spirit is there. And he’s not really needing your help. You get to participate in this and how you do it, and the fear that comes with it says a lot about your own sanctification, your progress in the faith.

So here’s the thing you need to know, when you’re doing this that is the thing, this need for individuation. Your teenager needs individuation, is the answer to that question. I need to know when I am free of your control, and I am an adult and there is no other need that is equal to that. That is the primary. And what you see, what we call normal teenage behavior is teenagers when we’re stepping on their air hose of any kind of respect and, uh, freedom, and they’re pushing back and, and we’re going, “Look at ’em flopping around there, what’s the problem.” Step, get off the air hose, give them some freedom, some respect. And here’s the effect that it has, and this is important. Two areas, communication, and discipline. The first one, because it’s more important is that when you’re stepping out of their life, when you are announcing, “Oh yeah, I forgot, that’s up to you, that’s your friend. I wouldn’t be friends with that guy but, hey, that’s your call.” When you’re regularly doing that, then it changes your communication in ways that many of you haven’t even thought about.

Do you realize that when you stop pretending to be controlling their music, for example, you are then free to go, “Hey, can I look at your playlist?” And you can talk about it. If they’re defensive, you go, “Dude, I already told you, that’s up to you, I just wanna see what you’re looking at.” And then you can talk openly. “Does it bug you to listen to Kendrick Lamar on the way to church or is that okay with you?”  And you can really talk through things that some of you have never had that. You may never have had it with your own parents. But that kind of communication is important, and it affects their behavior more than control.

Communication is critical. It’s more important first than discipline, because it’s communication that will take you into adulthood. Many of you know that even now you can barely talk to your parents. Sometimes parents still try to control well into adulthood. Some of your parents are telling you how to parent right now and not respecting what you’re doing. You’ve seen all this, that’s pretty common. We’ve been confused for a long time. But you can, instead communicate with your teenagers when you’re pulling out. It very often opens up the floodgates of communication. Teenagers want to communicate with you, but there’s pretty common problems. If you haven’t guessed already the most common communication problem, you have is a control battle. “You can’t make me talk.” And don’t tell me you haven’t tried, right? You’ve done that thing where it’s like, “We’re not leaving this room until you tell me what is going on.” You can’t make that happen because it is always by invitation. And the key is you don’t have to make that happen. By being free with this, it makes it much easier for them to talk to you.

So make sure they know that you know that “I’m not trying to make you talk to me about stuff, I just miss you and I wanted to find out what’s going on.” See, I’ll, I’ll give you a psychology secret. When kids, teenagers come to my office, I always do the same thing. I always go and talk to them first cause parents are always like, “Sorry.” But you introduce yourself and they’ll come into my office. And I say, “So when did you find out you were coming here?” “10 minutes ago?” “That’s what I thought, your parents were afraid to tell you.” Anyway and so I do all that, the parents leave, and I tell the kid, there are four rules in my office. Rule one, you don’t have to talk to me about anything unless you want to talk about it. And you can just tell me, “I don’t wanna talk about that.” That’s a rule. Well, that’s just obvious, like I can’t make, but I want this kid to know that I know that I’m not gonna be making you talk to me. Second, you can talk about anything in here, you can’t bring up something that’s gonna shock me. It’s been a long time. Third, whatever you tell me, whatever we talk about will stay in this room. And fourth, there’s a couple of exceptions to rule three. If you tell me you’re gonna kill a guy or hurt yourself real bad, but I’ve outlined and, they just talk. It’s that’s simple. But what I outlined was a couple of important things. One, I am not gonna battle with you about this and you can do that same thing.

I understand that if you don’t want to talk to me, I cannot make you talk to me. And the other is you can trust me that I will not tell people that you do not want me to tell, and that’s important as well. And then communication is much easier. I will also tell you that speech making is not communication and don’t tell me you haven’t made your speeches. Some of you are really good at it, you love to kind of, you’re like a coin machine, they just put in, you know, politics and you’ll start it, “You know, politics.” And you go in and they just glaze over because you want to tell ’em you really feel like that’s what I’m doing the right job is, as a parent, by teaching them. And it’s normal that they look like they’re not paying attention. Well, I have news for you, they’re really not paying attention. Parents will tell me; parents love to tell me their speech. “So she came in at 12:30, so here, I let her have it.” “I said, “There’s rape that goes on.” And just lays it out there and then I’ll go, I’ll interrupt him, and he’ll go, “Wait, wait.” He wants to finish telling me the speech, alright? And then I always ask at the end of the speech, “So what was your kid’s reaction?” And that’s my favorite.  “Well, he didn’t say anything, but you could tell he was really thinking.”

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: Really, really? Because that kid will come into my office in 30 minutes and I’ll go, “Hey, your dad told me he kinda let you have it Friday.” “Friday?” “Yeah, you don’t remember?” “Oh yeah, that was… Anyway I gotta talk to you about something else.” Nothing, not there at all. Speeches are not communication, that’s not what we’re talking about.

John: We’ve been hearing some really great strategies for parenting teenagers from Dr. Ken Wilgus today on Focus on the Family and we’ll continue this presentation, which includes some questions from the audience as well, next time.

Jim: We will, John, and that content gets very practical. And speaking of practical, I know you’re gonna wanna get a copy of Dr. Ken’s book called, Feeding the Mouth That Bites: You A Complete Guide to Parenting Adolescents and Launching Them into the World. It’s based on Ken’s 30 years of work with children and their families and contains many more details and tactics than we’ll be able to get to on this broadcast.

Let me encourage you to get a copy from us here at Focus on the Family, where the proceeds go right back into ministry, not into shareholder’s pockets. Join us as we continue to provide help and hope for parents who need that guidance. Parents like Andrew, who said this. “I love the Focus on the Family app. As a father of four I appreciate the insights that help me navigate the challenges of today’s culture. You’ve helped me understand what my kids are facing and how I can adapt to their constantly changing moods. Thanks, Focus.” That’s great. Isn’t it?

John: It Is. I love those kinds of comments.

Jim: Let me add a thank you to the donor community who made it possible for us to launch our app a few years ago, we couldn’t have done it without your support. And if you’re not a donor, let me ask you to pray about that. The best way to help us and to help so many other families is with a monthly pledge that really evens out the budget over the course of the year. And when you make a monthly pledge of any amount, we’ll send you a copy of, Feeding the Mouth That Bites You. And if you can’t make a monthly pledge right now, we get it, we can send the book, for a one-time gift of any amount. We just wanna make sure you get a copy.

John: That’s right. And we’re a phone call away. Our number is 800, the letter A in the word FAMILY. Donate when you call (800) 232-6459 or donate online and request your copy of the book and a free audio download of Dr. Ken’s entire presentation. That’ll be at And don’t forget when you’re online to look for our free Seven Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment. It’ll help you identify your strengths, and maybe a weakness or two, in your parenting along with offering some tremendous follow-up resources. It’s free and it’s called the Seven Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment and we’ll link over to it on the website.

Next time Dr. Ken Wilgus shares from his heart.

Dr. Wilgus: My biggest concern for your teenagers is isolation. I cannot believe in 30 years what’s happened to social relationships.

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Feeding the Mouth Bites

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