Focus on the Family

Focus on the Family with Jim Daly

Parenting Your Teens When Times are Tough

Parenting Your Teens When Times are Tough

Dr. Greg Smalley offers encouragement to parents who are struggling with the challenges of raising teens.
Original Air Date: June 30, 2016



Dr. Greg Smalley: I think it’s in those moments that hope is about us taking the next step. I mean, one of the things I learned on the mountain was just … just do something. Just take a step forward, even if it was the wrong step. I think just moving forward is a part of what God calls us to do as a parent.

End of Teaser

John Fuller: Well, if you’re a mom or a dad and you have challenging moments, especially with a teenager, we’ve got some encouragement for you today about the value of persevering and taking that next step. Our host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly and I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: You know, being a parent, let’s face it, it’s hard work and we hear from people each and every day here at Focus on the Family where they’re struggling. And I want to say at the top of the program, we’re here for you. I am one and John, you are one. And if you’re having difficulty, we want to be the first place you turn for help. Believe me, there’s nothing you’re gonna tell us that we haven’t heard over the last 40 years of ministry here at Focus on the Family.

And you know, there is no formula for raising healthy, self-reliant, persevering kids. That’s something we gotta do away with. So many good parents call us and say, “You know, our teen is movin’ down the wrong path.” Don’t beat yourself up. Just find some new tools that can help get that child on the right path. And we want to encourage you to do that and to mostly, trust in God with the outcome of your kids.

John: And you’ll find a variety of parenting resources to help with your specific situations at And Dr. Greg Smalley is on staff here at Focus. He’s the vice president of marriage and family formation and Greg has written a number of books and one that he co-wrote with his dad, the late Gary Smalley, is called The DNA of Parent-Teen Relationships. That’s gonna serve as the foundation for today’s conversation.


Jim: You know, one of the things I love about you, Greg, is you have the gift of being able to tell great stories that really get the points across. But when you look at this parenting journey, you related it to a hiking trip that you had with your daughters. Tell us what happened.

Greg: I had the opportunity to go with my two oldest daughters—at the time 17 and 20–

Jim: Their names?

Greg: –Taylor and Murphy, to hike Mount Elbert, which is the highest peak in Colorado, so it’s 14,433 feet.

Jim: That sounds exhausting. (Laughter)

Greg: You know, I don’t even know why I said yes when they talked about doing this, but we went. I tell you what; it’s a remarkable experience, filled with some of the best moments I’ve had, some of the most terrifying moments. At one point I didn’t think we were gonna make it.

Well, it started off great. Here we are hiking through the trees and the woods and we’re crossin’ over streams and talking and my girls are asking me questions that I’ve never heard them ask before. I mean, it is a father’s dream come true, with my daughters in a place in the elements with challenge and everything was going great until we cleared the tree line.

Now we’re sort of on this little mountain goat path kind of thing, no trees around and then once we got past that, once we got past that into just where it was rocks and now we’re really high up in the air, something happened that I never, ever would’ve guess would’ve happened. I didn’t prepare for it, didn’t think it was possible.

Jim: What was it? I mean (Laughter), I’m on the edge of the cliff. (Laughter)

Greg: So, I’m in shorts, ’cause this was during the summer, so I have a little sweatshirt on, shorts, a little backpack, some food, water and all of a sudden, the clouds rolled in and a storm hit, but it started to snow. This is in August, so it’s sleeting. The wind picks up. It’s goin’ like 50 miles an hour and our faces [are cold]; so, we’re freezing. Every step you couldn’t even see, ’cause of how hard the wind was blowing. And I have never been more miserable in all my life. I mean, I have nothing basically on but shorts and—

Jim: Well, if you’re that miserable—

Greg: –a sweatshirt.

Jim: –how were your daughters doin’? (Laughing)

Greg: Oh, it was terrible. As a matter of fact, it was Murphy’s 17th birthday and you know, the more that we climbed and just the elements, it was so cold. We were so tired, such a high altitude, hardly can breathe. As a matter of fact, she wants to turn back. She doesn’t want to go on and so, she says, “I’m done.” And now her older sister, Taylor, is perfectionistic. If she says she’s gonna do something then … and she sets her mind to it, it is—

Jim: Nothin’s gonna stop her.

Greg: –gonna happen. Nothing is gonna stop her. So, now they’re fighting. So, now we’re in the middle of nowhere; I’m freezing, the weather. I mean, we’re not dressed right. My daughters are in a complete war, ’cause Murphy wants to go back.

And so, literally other hikers are having to somehow get around my two girls who are fighting. They’re in this huge argument. I mean, I’m lookin’ at ’em goin’, “I work for Focus on the Family. I head up the parenting department,” (Laughter) you know and I’ve got this—

Jim: And they’re—

Greg: –all figured out.

Jim: –goin’ (Laughter) at it.

John: [I] just met these girls; have no idea who they are, but I’m tryin’ to help.

Jim: Yeah, my boys—

Greg: Yeah, exactly. (Laughing)

Jim: –my boys just never fight; you know what. (Laughing)

Greg: I mean, it was terrible. Well, I mean, the thing I’ll never forget is, when all that was happening, I literally remembered losing the will to continue going. I remember in my mind thinking, “What does it matter? Why do we even have to go to the top? There [are] clouds. We aren’t gonna be able to see anything anyway.” And I’ll never forget the utter despair, which I know so many parents of teens go through.

Jim: That difference between Murphy and Taylor, your older daughter, the perfectionist and then your younger daughter, who was ready to turn around, that plays out in households every day. Temperaments are different. Your children are different, even though they come from the same genetic pool. (Laughing) How do you manage that in a different context? Talk about that in the household when you’re not climbing Mount Elbert.

Jim: What is it like in the household? How does that play out when you have a daughter or a son going this way and the other one going that way?

Greg: Yeah, I think for me, one of the best things I’ve learned is, you don’t parent looking at the problem. You parent looking at the child. So, we have to understand—

Jim: As an individual.

Greg: –yeah, their temperament, their personality, all of those things factored in. I knew in that moment that Taylor is so driven, that unless her legs were both broken, she was going to crawl up and finish and get to the top, versus Murphy. Murphy hates to feel controlled and so, here Taylor and I are going, “You can do it and this is gonna be so awesome at the top. You hang in there.” For her, that feels like we’re tryin’ to manipulate and control her, so she just digs in like she did on the trail.

Jim: Well, how does your older daughter and you, how do you succeed? I mean, what happened? What’s the next step? How do you motivate her to get movin’? I can understand that frustration that Murphy [felt]. I think I’m more like your older daughter. I’d be goin’, “Come on; let’s go. We can’t be that far away.”

Greg: Well, literally, okay, picture this. We’re up in the snow, the rocks, hikers all around us and Murphy lays down—

Jim: On the trail.

Greg: –on the trail (Laughter) and she’s done and I’m goin’, do I drag her? What do I do? And I just said, “Hey, Taylor (my oldest), just go on. You can do it; go to the top. We’ll be right here. You obviously have to come back by us and we’ll just go back down after you’re at the top.” And that was it. I sat with Murphy. I mean, every part of me wanted to lecture. Every part of me wanted to give her the Knute Rockne speech, of you can do it and yet, I’ve learned over the years with Murphy, if I sit there and just be present, she will come around.

And now, the key for me though was someone came down the hill, so there was a hiker and as soon as he came to us, I said, “Buddy, man, where are we? You know, are we anywhere near the top?”

Jim: So, you actually asked for directions. That’s impressive. (Laughter)

Greg: Well, I did. I needed. I mean, that’s the realization of how damaging despair is. You know, when people get lost out in the woods, I’ve always heard that it’s despair that really kills ’em and it’s when we give up. I needed something and all that guy did is, he just said, “Oh, hey, you guys literally, it’s up a couple more switchbacks. It’s right up there. You can’t see it because the clouds are there, but it’s right there. You can do it.” And he just kinda patted us both, cheered us on and literally, I’ll never forget how powerful that was the moment hope returned.

Jim: So, that’s what he gave you was hope.

Greg: And it was such a visceral reaction to going, “Whoa, Murphy, we’re right there.” And she got up and we just took it step by step, heading in that direction, but that’s the power of hope.

Jim: And Greg, there [are] so many analogies. It’s a great story to apply to life, but you know, sometimes it’s harder than that. It’s not just a trek up a large mountain. It’s the prodigal son or daughter, you know, parents that have 15-, 16-year-olds where the communication is not happening. They don’t want to talk about how far away the peak is. They’re not listening to you. They don’t want to talk with you. And frankly, they won’t listen to that hiker comin’ down the hill. Talk to that parent that is in the middle of that mountain journey.

Greg: You can’t control your child and so, the hope was not for my daughters in that moment on the mountain; the hope was for me, because as the dad, as the leader of my family, I was the one that needed the hope. I was the one that needed to keep pressing forward, even if Murphy would have stayed, you know, laying down on the trail. I mean, that was all for me, because in those moments, that’s our job, that as parents, we need something to grab hold of.

And what I love, like one of my very favorite verses is Romans 15:13. It says, “God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace, because you trust in Him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, that’s what I needed as their dad in that moment. I needed the hope.

And I can’t control Murphy. I mean, there wasn’t a speech I could give or I couldn’t literally sling her over my shoulder and carry her up. I think it’s in those moments that hope is about us taking the next step. I mean, one of the things I learned on the mountain was just do something. Just take a step forward, even if it was the wrong step. I think just moving forward is a part of what God calls us to do as a parent.

Jim: In that prodigal situation, where you, again you have a more desperate scenario, a parent sitting down, I mean, I like that metaphor, where you sat with your daughter. Talk about that application of just being present, not having to give parental advice or wisdom, which in that context can so often be rejected, but your presence is appreciated, the fact that you’re willing to sit with your prodigal child. What does that mean and what does it look like?

Greg: Yeah and I know climbing a mountain is very different than some of the experiences that a parent can go through with their child—drugs, alcohol, rebellion, whatever it is—but I tell you, what I’ll never forget is the despair that I felt, the confusion, the clouds, the sleet in my face. I lacked perspective. I didn’t know what to do and I know that that’s a feeling that’s real common with a parent who’s gonna go through that with a prodigal child.

I think what I’ve learned is that first and foremost, we need to be the rock for our kids. We’re gonna go through our own emotions and we need to know how to deal with those and we need to know who to go to, to help us deal with those. But our kids need a rock. They need us to be a present strength in their life.

And I think what that does is, that cultivates safety. When our kids go through these tough times, they need to feel safe and the best way that we can start to help them to feel safe is, people don’t care what you know until they know that you care—the old Teddy Roosevelt quote. And I love that as a parent, to keep reminding myself, ’cause as a dad, I want to instruct. I want to teach. I want to say the right things, but in those moments what our kids need first and foremost is our compassion. They need our love. They need our tenderness. They need our presence and I think what that does is, that sets us up then to also be able to share what we know. But they’re never gonna listen. They’re never gonna care if they don’t feel that we truly care for them and are that strength.

Jim: I’ve gotta ask you though, Greg, that’s hard to do something, because there’s sore disappointment. There’s pain in that if they’ve made very terrible decisions and for many parents, their coping mechanisms may not be as strong as they need to be and so, you have this conflict that occurs, because the disappointment is so deep, a parent can tend to respond to that in unhealthy ways. Describe the unhealthy parental response and what we can do in a better way to respond to that moment.

Greg: On that mountain, I was so frustrated. Part of me wanted to go down. Part of me wanted to say, we’re here; let’s get to the top. Why are you laying on the ground? I mean, there was all of that.

I think what we need to also be watching for is the closing of our own heart. See, I think that’s what happens to us as parents, is that our kids do things to frustrate us, to hurt us, to embarrass us. We end up feeling like failures, whatever they’re doing.

Part of what happens is it shuts us down. It closes our heart and when our hearts are closed, see that’s when we are so ineffective as parents. We’re gonna say the wrong thing. We’re gonna do the wrong thing and when I was shut down, what I noticed was the power of the other hikers moving forward that also helped to give me strength.

I think that’s a part of what we have to cultivate. When our kids are making choices, we cannot face this alone. You know, the old line, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I think that so much of that applies to us as parents. Don’t do this alone. I needed the support. I needed the encouragement. I cannot tell you how many other hikers would come by and just pat me on the back and pat us on the back and just say, “Hey, you can do it, man. You’re doin’ great. We’re almost there.” That’s the power of community. I think that’s a big part of what can keep us open.

John: Well, our guest on “Focus on the Family” today with Jim Daly is Dr. Greg Smalley. And he’s on staff here and he’s written a book called The DNA of Parent-Teen Relationships. That’s gonna give you hope and encouragement to persevere as a parent and you can get a copy, as well as a CD of this conversation at or when you call 800-A-FAMILY.

And today, when you make a generous contribution of any amount to support the ministry of Focus on the Family, we’ll send the book to you as our way of saying thanks.

Jim: Greg, let me ask some real practical questions. I’m thinking of the mom and dad and again, answer it from both viewpoints, The mom, let’s start there, who has that 3-, 4-, or 5-year-old. Moms understandably, they mother. They have that instinct to—

Greg: Yeah.

Jim: –to be there, to be present, to alleviate pain, to keep them safe. It’s all the instinct that God has given them. At some point, it can be a hindrance to the child learning failure, leaning what it takes to succeed. What advice do you have for that mom who may be asking herself, am I turning into that helicopter parent? Am I overdoing it, because I don’t want them to fail?, when failure actually plays an important role in knowing who you are and knowing who God is.

Greg: It’s one of the greatest gifts we will ever give our kids, is the gift of failure. I so want my kids to fail first and foremost in my home, so that I can at least be there to help guide and instruct and teach and mentor, opposed to tryin’ to keep them from any sort of pain, any sort of failure, only thinkin’ about success. And then I release them into the world, where they’re going to fail.

Jim: Greg, let me go to that point for this mom of a 5-year-old and she’s noticing now maybe she needs to let that child fail. How do you anticipate that? How do you construct that environment to allow that failure to happen? And then let’s take it up to the 15-year-old, when those consequences are more difficult.

Greg: As parents, I think we always have to cultivate an environment that failure is okay.

Jim: What does that look like? So, I don’t do the job I should’ve done at a 5-, 6-, 7-year-old level. What do you say to me as a parent?

Greg: Well, so first of all, I need to model for my kids and let them see me fail and then watch me make it right.

Jim: So, fail as a parent so they could see it.

Greg: Absolutely. We are failing as parents all the time. There [are] so many times that I have an opportunity to sit my kids down and go, “You know, I blew it. That was a terrible choice. That was a terrible decision, how I treated you.” I mean, whatever it is, dad is not perfect. I made a mistake. I own it and now I’m gonna seek your forgiveness. I think what that does is, it creates an environment where, okay, failure is okay.

I’ve seen parents that explode when someone spills milk. When we come down on them so hard, it doesn’t make them feel safe. One, they’re gonna hide their mistakes more likely and we can’t use that.

Then built upon that, when our kids make poor choices or they mess up in some way, I think it’s going to them with tenderness, making sure that we deal with our own stuff first. Instead of reacting to our kids, sometimes we have to step back, sort of put ourselves in a timeout. You know what I’m talkin’ about? When we’re upset and mad, when we need to–

Jim: And say it.

Greg: –and say it. I need to make sure that my heart is open when I go to discipline. Punishment [is] very different. Discipline is when we’re helping them become more like Christ and we’re using that mistake.

Jim: Move it up now to the 13-, 14-, 15-year-old. Maybe it’s a failure in school. You know, they’re not applying themselves. We can’t motivate them as parents to get the homework done. It’s a constant fight and it’s leading to rebellion. Talk about that example. Do we let ’em fail a class or two, so they suffer the consequences of it?

Greg: My parents let me. I failed Spanish and I begged them to go in and talk to the teacher. “Please, you’re Gary ‘Enormous’ Smalley, come on; they’ll listen to you. Please don’t let me do this. I don’t want to

I remember with my oldest daughter Taylor, when she was, I think, in middle school. She was writing, some paper was due and so, before she went to bed, she goes, “Dad, will you just look at this and make sure it’s okay.” Well, I read it and I went, “Well, this stinks.” I mean, you know, I’m not the world’s best writer, but I mean, this is terrible.

(Chuckling) And so, I went, she’s gonna fail. Oh, no, I can’t let that. I rewrote the thing for her. Her teacher calls me in and goes, “This was a really great paper.”

Jim and John: (Laughing)

Greg: So, I’m thinkin, I’m good.

Jim: What grade is she in? First grade? (Laughter)

Greg: (Laughing)

John: Oh, no.

Greg: She was in college, but (Laughter) no. She was in middle school and so, and here I’m thinking, you know, thank you and she goes, “But I know you wrote this. There’s no way your daughter did this.”

Jim: Busted!

Greg: Ah! And the teacher, I mean it was a great reminder that [that] teacher’s saying, “Let your daughter fail. You denied me the opportunity to teach her through my response and reply on her paper, that she would’ve learned so many things and you took that away from her.”

Jim: Greg, you talked about the treasure hunt in the book and I want to get to that, because I think that’s a good tool. First define what the treasure hunt for your children is and then how we can help as parents.

Greg: It’s the absolute belief that when God says multiple times in the Bible that He will use our pain and trials to grow us, we’d get something.

Jim: It’s a treasure.

Greg: It’s a treasure. We need to find it, so that it might be lying on the ground. We need to hunt for it and that’s somethin’ that I think is so powerful to teach our kids, that as we go through trials it’s always such an opportunity to look back and look for what I would call “the Ebenezer.”

An Ebenezer is a “stone of help, they call that from the Old Testament, the stone of help. In other words, they created a little monument out of stones as a recognition of God’s ever-present help in our lives. And treasure hunting is when we look back and we take those stones that are really diamonds and we begin to stack them up, one, to recognize what God has done in our life, but also as a way to glorify Him. That’s that an Ebenezer is.

And when my family, when we go through hard times, we will always circle back around and say, “What did God teach us?” It’s the promise. See, that’s the hope, truly hope. On that side of the mountain, people gave us hope when they pointed out, “Hey, you’re almost there; go for it.” And we made it. We have a picture up there holdin’ a little sign. I mean, we made it to the top, all three of us. But the true hope in life is that God’s gonna use all these trials in our life to grow us more like Him.

Jim: Did your daughter ever say, “That gave me confidence?”

Greg: What was really cool on the way down, we were processing and I was not tryin’ to be spiritual. I was not tryin’ to be counselor. I mean, I was worn out. I was like, I don’t even really want to talk.

But I’ll never forget that both girls said, “You know what, Dad? There are gonna be times in our life where we’re gonna face things and honestly, we made it to the top. There’s nothin’ that we can’t face and overcome, because we climbed the mountain.” I mean, it’s become a real Ebenezer in their life.

And I think that’s the opportunity as parents, when our teens are goin’ through something tough, sometimes one of the greatest things that we can do is, just to call out what we know is true in their life and then just trust that God’s gonna get ’em there.

Like when Gideon, remember in the Old Testament, when he was on the mountain and the angel came. Remember the angel called him a “mighty warrior.” Gideon argues with him. This isn’t true. I’m not a mighty warrior, but that angel kept saying, “mighty warrior, mighty warrior.” In other words, that angel is calling out of Gideon what Gideon couldn’t see. And I think that’s one of the greatest things that we can do for our kids when they face these trials, is to continue to call out, “I know who you are. This is not who you are. I know who you are and I know that God’s gonna help you get there.”

Jim: Well, and that gives our children such confidence—

Greg: It’s hope.

Jim: –and hope to grow in the right direction. Greg Smalley, author of the book, The DNA of Parent-Teen Relationships, great to talk with you. Thanks for the perspective of being a good father and I know, Erin, your wife is a great mom, so thanks for bein’ with us today.

Greg: You’re welcome. I’ll see you out on the trail.

Jim: Yeah. (Laughter)


John: Well, what a great conversation and this has really highlighted, Jim, why we’re here at Focus on the Family.

Jim: It has, John. You know, it’s not about us. We want to come alongside you when you’re struggling. And guess what? That’s what happens in life. You’re gonna hit some obstacles. You’re gonna hit some moments when you’re goin’, my parenting just doesn’t seem to be working. I hit those times and it is for that reason that we’re here. We want to be able to provide you some good Christian counseling on how to do it different, maybe hopefully, better. And we have staff here to provide you with that initial counseling consultation and then, if you need it, they’ll refer you to someone in y our area. We have an extensive referral list of Christian counselors around the country. So, take advantage of that.

Also in the last 12 months, we’ve helped, and I love this, 200,000 families work through a significant crisis involving their children. And our counseling department took over 4,000 calls a month to give hope to hurting individuals and families. And you know what? The reality is, we need your help to be able to provide that help to the hurting families. I remember making a thank-you call to someone who gave a significant gift to Focus. And as I was thanking him, he said, “Jim, Jim, it’s okay. We expect you to run an efficient, effective organization for my wife and I to do ministry through.” And at first it kinda took me back, but it’s right.

My goal here is to make sure all of us as team members at Focus are on the top of our game, so that you and your family can do ministry through us. So, when we talk about that marriage saved or that parenting crisis averted, you share in the bounty of that and I hope you feel it. I want you to feel it, because you’re a part of it.

Currently, we’re experiencing a bit of a summer shortfall and we need your help. If you haven’t supported us in a while, can we count on you to give a gift today and when you do, we have some friends who have put together a matching fund that will double your gift. So, when you give $20, $50, they’ll match it with 20 more or 50 more. And it’s a wonderful way, a fun way to be able to motivate all of us to give to the ministry here at Focus on the Family. So, please donate today.

John: Be generous when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY or you can donate online at And when you do today, we’ll send a copy of Greg’s book, The DNA of Parent-Teen Relationships as our way of saying thank you and making sure that you have this excellent resource for your family or perhaps a family in your neighborhood or church.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly, I’m John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow, when we hear from Eric Metaxas about the importance of great men in American history.


Eric Metaxas: Without the faith of George Whitfield, which led to the faith of most of the people during the Colonial Era, there is no America. Without the faith of those who led the abolitionist movement, there is no end to the slavery in America. Without the faith of the people in the Civil Rights Movement, there is no Civil Rights Movement. Faith from beginning to now has been the thing that has blessed all Americans.

End of Excerpt

John: And you’ll hear more from Eric Metaxas tomorrow on “Focus on the Family,” as we once again, help you and your family thrive.

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