Focus on the Family Broadcast

Parenting Teens Toward Adulthood (Part 2 of 2)

Parenting Teens Toward Adulthood (Part 2 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 2 of 2)
Original Air Date: August 24, 2022


Dr. Ken Wilgus: So do you understand now that your teenager is not an old child? He and she are a young adult. You should think of a teenager as an adult in training. And your task is to move them on.

John: Today on Focus on the Family, we’re continuing a great presentation about parenting preteens and teens, featuring Dr. Ken Wilgus. And your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller.

End of Preview

Jim Daly: This is really good stuff. Dr. Ken has been talking about progressively giving more and more responsibility to your child. And allowing more freedom so that they can learn to become competent adults while they’re still under your roof. And he’s also emphasizing the importance of good communication, which can be a bit different when you’re dealing with teenagers. And if you missed part one of Ken’s presentation yesterday, get in touch with us. We can send you the entire message on CD or audio download. Or you can get the Focus on the Family app for your smartphone.

John: And we’ll have details at Or call 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY.

Jim: Dr. Ken Wilgus is a psychologist who specializes in adolescent behavior. He’s the author of the book, Feeding the Mouth that Bites You: A Complete Guide to Parenting Adolescents and Launching Them into the World. And man, we cannot more highly recommend it.

John: It’s a wonderful resource, and you can get a copy from us here when you get in touch. Let’s go ahead and hear now from Dr. Ken Wilgus, speaking at an event sponsored by Christ’s Church of the Valley in Phoenix, Arizona, on Focus on the Family.

Dr. Wilgus: If you listen to my podcast, one of the episodes, I’m interviewing my own children, dangerous thing to do. They’re like, 30 and 20, no late 20. And one of the questions I asked them was, I said, “Now, as you know, I tell parents not to make speeches. Did I ever make speeches?” And all three of them went, “Yes Dad, you gave speeches.” And so I’m grasping at straws, right? So I’m like, “Okay, but were there at least some things in my speeches that were helpful?” And my middle girl, the sweet girl said … and I quote … “Daddy I remember that you made speeches. I don’t remember anything you said in any of your speeches.”

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: Okay. That’s not, communicating. Many of you need to learn two things that’ll be important. One is the art of giving advice. Giving advice is mostly what you’re trying to do. But you try to crank it up, like, “Lis- listen to me, don’t- now- I- now- I’m telling ya.” And an adult that is seeking to be equal to you, it feels like you’re talking down. So instead you take the big pill of what you want to tell them, and you chop off the front and the end. Like I did with one of my kids, I shall not say who, and I said, “You know, I know that you’re gonna break up with your boyfriend by the end of the summer.” And I said, “But, you know, this is none of my business, ’cause you handle your dating. Fine, it’s your deal.”             “But I was just thinking that you’re gonna be kind of worried about this all summer long. And I just thought maybe it’d be better if you just ended it now. But I’m sorry I even said anything. You know me, I’m a shrink. I probably worry too much.” Did you hear me chop off the front and the back? I owned it. I’m only talking about specific. And I definitely signaled, “You can blow me off if you want to.”             Broke up with her boyfriend that day. So, thank you. You’re welcome.

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: It does not always work quite like that. The point is, that is more effective. Very often when you’re worried, you want to actually crank up. “Well, listen, I have lived a few years.” And you think that’s gonna make it easier for them to hear you. They won’t. Advice giving is very important, and you stick with that. So that’s the two things: the not yelling, and then the advice giving. So, that’s how it helps your communication, and you need to know that. That if you understand that your teenager is an adult in training; if you start with planned emancipation and working openly in your house, “We are for your eventual being out from under us. You will not need us.” And you’re working toward that, then communication opens up hugely. Got it?

The other thing that will happen is how you discipline your children, your teenagers. Because number one, with communication, you probably will not need as much discipline. But when you do, this is funny. When I talk about emancipation, people think I’m kind of like, “Let ’em do whatever.” But then when I talk about the discipline part, everyone is like, “Whoa, that’s a little rough.” Well, when you are saying, “These are the things you don’t need to answer to me about,” then that helps. Because then when there’s things “That you do answer to me about, and there will be consequences,” you need to not kid around about that.

You need to set; so in my book, for example, you’ll have one list. You’ll make two lists. One is a freedoms list, where you literally are writing out, “You no longer answer to us. Use your own judgment in keeping your room however you want, in choosing your own friends, all of these things.” And then on the other side of that page is some responsibilities that goes along with that. The second list will be the expectations and consequences list. And those are very clear statements, for example, “You need to be home by 10 p.m. on weekend nights.” Then on the other side, is consequences for that. And it’s critical that you write that in. Because if you don’t write in consequence, you might as well write in, “Then I’m gonna get real mad and yell at you.” A lot of you that are yelling at your teenagers is, believe it or not, because you’re not pulling the trigger on consequences. Many of you think that by yelling and getting real intense, that helps. It actually makes it worse; you just look like a bully.

What’s really scary to a teenager is when you smile.

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: I mean, picture it! You know, you’re like, “Hey Brandon, I need the phone. I need it right now.” “I’m not giving you, my phone! It’s my phone.” “Give me the phone.” “No! I’m not giving it! Okay?” A), you run over there and get into some bizarre keep away fight that might end up with a Child Protective Services on…

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: … your doorstep. Or B), you smile. There’s nothing scarier than a parent that’s going, “Really? Not gonna give me the phone. He’s not gonna give me the phone.”

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: Because when you discipline your teenagers, you’re not trying to control everything. You’re no longer a policeman. You’re a judge. A policeman has to make sure things happen, and bad things don’t happen. We gotta monitor. We gotta check all this stuff. You’re backing out. Instead, you’re a judge. “When things happen that go against what our expectations are, I will issue a consequence for that.” Because here’s your real power over your teenager. Ready? You own everything that they have. Everything. I love reminding teenagers of that. “Oh, they can’t take my Xbox ’cause my grandmother bought that.” “Really? So if your dad takes your Xbox, who you gonna call? ‘Hello, police? My father took my X- … Hello? Hello?” No, it’s yours. And that’s powerful. And you need to know that. Because it helps a lot. So that you won’t overreact on things that you don’t need to. That’s real power. So, you would instead, in that example, go, “Okay, not gonna give me the phone? Tell you what. I’ll give you five minutes to have it on the counter. And if you do, you’ll only lose it for tomorrow. And then in about 10 minutes, if it’s not on the counter, it’s gonna be three days. And after 10 minutes, just keep it. Because I will brick it. And it will be off. And you won’t have a phone.”

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: Do you hear? That’s much more powerful. Many teenagers love to learn they want to freak you out. “If you’re this mad, I’m in trouble. But if I can get you this mad, then you’ll just go on for an hour and then in at two hours, you’re apologizing and, you know, you’re arguing with your spouse. And I’m off free and clear.”

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: You stay. You’re a judge; you’re a judge. And you let those things come across your desk, and you issue consequences. Does that make sense? So you first have very clear expectations. The chores. Make them clear. “You do trash on Tuesday …” I don’t know why trash is always our kids’ thing, but fine, Tuesday. Instead of, “Just take care of the trash,” it is, “By Tuesday, and Thursday, it needs to be out at the curb before you leave for school. And if not, you will lose a buck.” And then whatever you do, set those consequences for that. And do it. Don’t do more than that. Don’t do less than that. By the way, it’s not a contract. Parents: “Oh, we already tried that. And she wouldn’t sign it.” They don’t need to sign it. This is you promising that “If you don’t do this, we promise we will do this.” And so you do that. You’re gonna get most pushback about phones. And you need to be clear with yourselves that it’ll drift back. You’ll have it clearly set. And the next thing you know, it’s back in a room already. How did that even happen? I thought we had this set, and just dust off, like in baseball, dust off home plate again. Here’s the deal. Now you gotta bring it back out. So that you make clear limits on what they do with the phone. And they will hate that. They will hate that.

But you need to be firm about what the requirements are that are changing each year. Getting more free to do that as they get older. But, when it comes to limit-setting, you’re a judge, not a policeman. Because when you are continually giving over, then you’re not trying to be in their life. You’re even apologetic. “Dude, I am so sorry, but you lost $7 for that little cussing spree yesterday. And I hate that for you, ’cause now, you don’t have much allowance left. Can we talk about it?” You’re not trying to get in there. So many teenagers think, “Oh, my parents are just trying to just (grr sound).” You’re not. We told you. We are trying to work ourselves out of a job. Because I’ll finish with this. If you think about it, many of us are really good parents to children. You know, the age when your kids need to be cuddled and secure, a lot of times they’re really cuddleable and cute. And it’s not really that hard. Because you want to do that. Then when they get older, grade school and so forth, they really need to learn things. Sometimes sports, and skills, and many of us like to do that. “I want to get out there and coach and help you.” And that’s easy. When it gets hard is when your young adult gets to the point where they need to not need you. That’s a difficult thing, because you don’t get anything out of that. Your reward out of that is simply for them. And I think that you believe that you love your children. One of the biggest tests of that is how will you do in this last stage, when you will be giving that which does not give back to you? Because you will teach them to not need you anymore. And you’ll be out of a job and done.

John: Mm-hmm. Quite an insight there from Dr. Ken Wilgus. And we’ll encourage you to get a copy of his book called, Feeding the Mouth that Bites You: A Complete Guide to Parenting Adolescents and Launching Them into the World. When you get that book from us here at Focus on the Family, we’ll include a free audio download of Dr. Ken’s entire presentation, with some extra content. Donate today and request those resources at Or give us a call. Our number is 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459. Let’s go ahead and return now to more from Dr. Ken Wilgus, as he’s joined on stage by Pastor Dustin Tappan of Christ’s Church of the Valley. And they’re gonna transition into a time of questions from the audience.

Dr. Wilgus: All right. So we’ll now do some questions to apply a lot of this stuff.

Dustin Tappan: Have a seat, sir.

Dr. Wilgus: Yes.

Dustin: Got questions for you. I’d like you to superimpose the planned emancipation premise over these a little bit and help us think practically.

Dr. Wilgus: Okay.

Dustin: So, let’s start with dating. Help us understand the dating world and how to have conversations with our kids about dating. And what age dating should enter the equation. Say older, please, say older.

Dr. Wilgus: 27.

Dustin: There we go.

Dr. Wilgus: Is that what you’re looking for?

Dustin: Okay.

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: Do you have a daughter, by any chance?

Dustin: I do.

Dr. Wilgus: Yeah. That’s what I thought.

Dustin: I do.

Dr. Wilgus: Yeah.

Dustin: Roll into the dating world for us.

Dr. Wilgus: Well, okay. So, what you may, you’ve seen it, but you may not know it. The pattern of dating has really gotten chaotic. The standard senior in high school dating pattern is like an eighth grader, 30 years ago. So we don’t do dates like we used to. It’s still going on, but it’s very chaotic and not as simple to track. However, I will tell you that if you want to start in the dating thing, the first thing you need to talk to your teenagers about is, when will they have the freedom to choose that for themself? And really, I recommend 16. You can do 17. There’s no need to do earlier than that. And I’m talking about when you can go away in a car, alone with someone that you’re dating. I told my kids at 16, “You’re now, if you want to, you’re free to date. I don’t recommend it.” ‘Cause you know, high school dating, (shriek noise), anyway. But that’s the first thing that always needs to be answered. “Is this up to me? Or is this up to you?” And all of these things, if you skip over that: “Well, I’m not saying it’s up to you or me. Let me tell you this.” That all is emptied at whatever you say after that. The first thing is, “Is this that you’re telling me an advice? Or have to?” And once you’ve made it clear that that’s up to you about dating and who you date, then you’re much more free to have discussions that are important like, “Is that guy, I mean, he honks, and you go out to the car. He doesn’t even come in. Do you like that?” And there’s a reduced defensiveness about that. You can even, a lot of you dads, have your speech that you want to make to a boy. You know, dads love that. “I’ll be holding a shotgun and I’m gonna just …”

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: …you know?” Here’s the big trick. Is that it depends exclusively on your relationship with your daughter. If you are close to her, and she is close to you, number one, then you’ll be talking to a boy that she’s fine with you talking to him. You don’t talk to a boy that she doesn’t want you to talk to. And number two, it doesn’t matter how scary you are. You want to sound dangerous? You do this. You tell the boy, “I’m really hoping y’all have a great time. ‘Cause my daughter and I are very close. And we’ll be talking about the whole evening. So I hope it goes great.” And if that’s true, that’s scary. That’s not fun.

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: So you can’t substitute for that. That means for you dads, you really need to start intervening in your daughter’s life as soon as possible. Taking them kind of on dates. And show them the kind of value that they are.

For single parents, it’s critical, especially moms, that you also look for good male involvement in your daughter’s life. That’s a big part of what church is about. I met with the youth workers here. I call them professional cool guys. Don’t we have professional cool guys that can intervene with our kids? And they are. They’re very cool. They’re very aware. And they can really input in your teenager’s lives in something that important. So, like anything else, you want to have a conversation. It starts the first thing is, making sure your teenager knows, “Is this up to me now? Or is it up to you? And when will it be up to me?” And then everything else comes easy from there.

Dustin: Different category. “What do we do when our teens don’t want to go to church?”

Dr. Wilgus: Yeah. Okay. So, church would be a thing that it’s not, “No, you have to go.” It is, “Not yet.” Everything is “Not yet.” So you should have a plan for at some point in your house they would have the freedom to choose not to go to church. And you need to announce that to them. I suggest senior year. Maybe spring of senior year. The answer to “Why do I have to go to church?” is, “Because it’s what our family does. It happens to be the most important thing in my life. And silly me, we want you to come with us.” What you want to emphasize is, “We get it that you don’t agree with us. And we can’t make you see it this way.” And that’s really important that you establish early. You could drive home with an 11-year-old, even. But start by, “Hey, we thought today’s lesson.” Well, 13, teenager for sure. “Well, we thought today’s lesson was great. What did you think?” “What?”

You know, ask them what they thought about it. And certainly, give them the message that you are free to think differently from us. The inside scoop here is that when you do show them that we understand you have the freedom to disagree, you cannot say “Yes” to something that you’re not allowed to say “No” to. If you give them the freedom to say “No,” it’s much more likely that they will be prepared and own it themselves. And that’s what I started with. You can’t afford to have kids that obediently passively just do the religion thing. You need to be asking them. “What do you think? Where are you in this?” And making sure they know that they’re free to tell you.

Dustin: All right, last category. This is your time to shine. You’ve got your soapbox. You want to pontificate about isolation.

Dr. Wilgus: Yes.

Dustin: Roll.

Dr. Wilgus: There is a thing that … He even asked me, “Is there a thing you really want …” Yes. So, bear with me. My biggest concern for your teenagers is isolation. I cannot believe in 30 years what’s happened to social relationships. I even have to explain the importance of friendships. I have to explain this to girls. You never had to explain. That’s what drama is. You know? Girl drama. “She came in, tried to steal my best friend.” That’s just good stuff of connection.

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: And girls have always known that. Now, even many of our girls are losing that. And it’s funny, because before COVID, I taught something like this. And I had slide. I looked at it. It was five years ago, of concern about the pandemic of isolation. That was before COVID. And now, I’m really concerned that you, first of all, you need to be connected. I hope that you’re connected in your church, and with your people that you live around, and real friends. Because I can’t imagine, and you can’t believe how many families come to see me and, they don’t go anywhere. And they don’t know anybody. And their teenager knows nobody. And here’s the thing. I want you to encourage your teenagers to really focus in on the one or two people that they really feel closest to. And stick with that person. I had a girl in college I was talking to just the other day, and she said something about friends. I said, “Well, what about Stephanie?” She said, “Yeah, no, we don’t talk anymore.” I said, “Wait! She was your best friend six months ago. You don’t just not talk to her. You need to go talk to her.” I said, “You’re living a life like a sitcom, and you’re in the third season, and all of the supporting cast have shifted, and you’re still playing the part of you. You need to…” And she did. I said, “Best friends go and talk things through.” And she did. So I would encourage you to… not groups. Your teenagers will be very discouraged if they’re seeing snaps from they’re all out and I’m not. But you don’t make friends with a group. You do make friends with one or two people that you’re close to. And by the way, guys and girls can’t be best friends. I don’t want to even argue that. It’s just true.

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: But the one or two friends. And encourage them to stick with them. I don’t even care if you don’t like that friend. It is important that if they have shared that intimacy, that connection, that you really encourage them to do that. Because I mean it; as you can tell, it worries the heck out of me that we are isolated. Our teenagers blink and look down, and they don’t even know how to shake my hand. It’s critical. You know, that’s a huge part of our faith. It’s part of whatever the entire depth of when Jesus says, “When two or more of you are gathered in my name, I am there.” “Why two? What about just me?” It’s critical that the body of Christ is in us. And so, that’s my soapbox. (laughs) Let’s really try to encourage your kids, your teenagers, to get out there and connect and … Last thing, over the, uh, over the internet is not really being there. “Dr. Wilgus, I get with my friends every afternoon.” “You do? Where do you meet?” “We play Call of Duty.” “No! No, dude.”

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: “A headset and a screen is not there.” And you know what they’ll do? They’ll go, “What?” Never do they go, “Good point.” They literally don’t even know. And I have to explain it. “This is three dimensions. I’m here, and you’re here.” It’s so, it’s really important that you try and encourage that as best you can. Because COVID has even added … especially our marginally anxious kids that never really liked getting out there, anyway. Push it. Get them out there as best you can. Because the isolation is really worrisome to me.

Dustin: Yeah. Could you just, you said something to me talking about how our parents today put so much pressure on…

Dr. Wilgus: Yes.

Dustin: … themselves. And, you said something that was really encouraging in there about us being, we’re better at it than we think we are.

Dr. Wilgus: Yes. You guys are put … Like, that’s good to finish with. I guarantee you, (laughs) virtually all of you are doing better than you think. There’s so much pressure. “Parenting” was not a word when I was growing up. My parents did a good job of raising us. They never thought about going to a parenting class. They just raised their children.

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: Like raising livestock. You just raise ’em and you just sell ’em off.

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: It was just, you’re done.

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: But there’s so much microscopic focus on, “Are we doing it right?” So much, you know, “Are we helping the neurons to connect?” Just take it easy. You’re probably doing fine. It’s not math. It’s more like sailing. You’re trying to get to that goal, and you tack this way, and you tack that way. And you get there. So I definitely want to tell you that. And it’s a good goal; at the very least, just think about: are you a better father than your father? Are you a better mother than your mother? And for many of you, that’s an easy one. “Well, yeah, well, you know.” You know, for some of us, it’s not. My dad was a very cool guy. And I think so, but that’s it. You don’t have to fix everything all of a sudden. You’re doing fine.  And especially as Christians, it is our privilege to participate. It is not up to us. God would never leave our children up to us.

Audience: (laughs)

Dr. Wilgus: I mean, no offense. But really. So yeah, I’m glad you reminded me. That’s important.

Dustin: Um, thank you.

Dr. Wilgus: Yeah.

Dustin: Thanks for being here. Guys, give Dr. Ken a big round of applause. So helpful. So thankful.

John: Our thanks to Pastor Dustin Tappan of Christ’s Church of the Valley in Phoenix, Arizona, for allowing us to share the event that they hosted, featuring Dr. Ken Wilgus.

Jim: Yeah, and that sounded like a great workshop for parents. Well done. And we were only able to skim the surface of the question-and-answer time. So we’re going to post the rest of that online. Dr. Ken covered some pretty sensitive subjects, like sexuality and mental health issues. So I think you’ll want to give it a listen.

John: Yeah, and the extra content is at

Jim: Also, let me recommend that you get a copy of the book by Dr. Ken Wilgus called, Feeding the Mouth that Bites You: A Complete Guide to Parenting Adolescents and Launching Them into the World. It will help you understand your child’s needs as an adolescent, and you’ll get ideas on how to respond to those needs. And that can make the parenting process so much more fruitful.

John: Yeah, and less frustrating. And this would be a great book to go through with your spouse so that you’re kind of a unified front. You’re on the same page as you deal with the kids. It’s real important for that to happen. The kids will see any fissures in your parenting approach.

Jim: Right. Jean and I used Ken’s book in our own parenting. Kids are really good at creating that divide-and-conquer strategies. (laughs) So, get a copy of Feeding the Mouth that Bites You from here at Focus on the Family. And we’ll send that out to you for a monthly pledge of any amount, or even a one-time gift. We want to get this resource into your hands. And remember, when you donate to Focus, the proceeds go right back into the ministry here, where we help people together to thrive in Christ. And we’ll use those funds to provide resources to parents, which I think is great.

Just one example is the evaluation tool that’s been, developed here at Focus called, The Seven Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment. It’s a free quiz that helps you discover your strengths as a parent. Also it helps you to identify areas that may need some work. After completing the quiz, you’ll be directed to articles and other resources that will strengthen those, you know, little weaker areas. Here’s one endorsement from a mom named Ruth. She said, “I took your parenting assessment online, and was surprised to see that I scored lower on grace and forgiveness. I thought those were easy for me. But in reality, they’re not. I’m looking forward to focusing on these areas of weakness, and letting God do a work in me. Thank you for the insight and resources.”

John: Well, we appreciate that honesty, Ruth. I identify a little bit with…

Jim: (laughs) Don’t we all.

John: … what she shared. That survey is so helpful. And I think it’s about 400,000 moms and dads who have taken it so far. Join them and learn how you might do better as a parent.

Jim: Come visit the website to get started. And I hope you’ll, join us in ministry as well.

John: Yeah, donate and find all those resources, including The Seven Traits of Effective Parenting Assessment at And when you’re online with us, donate and request the book, Feeding the Mouth that Bites You, by Dr. Ken Wilgus. Also we have a free audio download of his entire presentation, including, some more sensitive questions and answers that we’re posting online. You can also find out more when you call us. Our number is 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459.

Next time, Laura Hughes shares her powerful story and offers encouragement to anyone who’s lost a child through abortion.


Laura Hughes: I would say that God is not mad at you. He’s madly in love with you. And He wants you to bring your pain, anything that you’ve ever been through, to His son Jesus.

End of Preview

John: On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening today to Focus on the Family. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back as we once more help you and your family thrive in Christ.

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Feeding the Mouth Bites

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