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20 Things I've Learned Parenting Teens

We are now nine years into what will be our fourteen year teen parenting journey and I have learned so much! Mainly how to parent me. These years are both beautiful and gut-wrenching; exhilarating and exhausting. It's truly been a beautiful and difficult adventure. If you think I am saying all the difficulties have been the teens, I'm not. A lot of the difficulty has been me. Eugene Peterson has a book titled, Like Dew Your Youth: Growing Up With Your Teenager. That's a perfect title and an amazing book. We're all growing up. Growing up is hard. 

I am not a therapist, however I love to read their books and have learned valuable information from them. I am not an expert of any sort. I can't tell you what will work in your family. Every family is different and every child is in a different place. There are things I can't speak to because I've never walked through them. All I can tell you about is where I have been, what I have learned parenting our own kids in our home and how I've grown through it. If you are heading into the teen years, maybe you can find some things that can help you. If you are in the middle of the teen years, I am guessing you'll be nodding your head as you read and could add some things too. If you are past the teen years, you may notice I have a lot to learn.


Here are some things I've learned along the way about parenting teens:

1. It can be lonely

When our kids were small, I could talk freely about our kids. I could ask friends for help in dealing with fits or picky eaters or sleep issues. We could bond over shared stories about life with small kids. I could share funny moments and everyday life.

Now that they are older, I can't. I can't talk about all that happens in everyday life. I have to be mindful of them and if they would want me sharing.  I can't talk about their struggles because they're their struggles - not mine. I can't always talk about what's hard for me in the current season because if I do, I share a piece of their story too. Sometimes it feels heavy, but I want to protect their hearts and to do that, I must carry some things alone with John or very privately. I do this because I know breaking confidence with your kids puts you on a fast track to not hear their heart anymore.

2. It can be very exciting

Watching our kids emerge into adulthood has been one of the most exciting seasons of my life. I love seeing little memories of their childhood in what interests them now. I see clearly that their child version was truly a small version of who they are now. As their young personalities and interests have grown and developed, it has been so fun to see where those have taken them. Our kids' relationships with God have also grown and developed and I love to watch them discover God for themselves. I didn't expect to learn more about Him from them, but I have. It's fun to see them enter the big wide world with all that they are and begin their own lives. The whole world is in front of them.

3. It can be scary

There has been more than once where we have been lied to or surprised by something. I have had to learn not to panic because fear disables love. When fearful, it's easy to respond in ways that shame instead of restore. Fear causes me to want to control which never has a good outcome. In these situations, I have had to sit with God and let Him reorient my heart so that I am not afraid. Only then can I deal with the situation at hand in a productive and truly loving way.

4. My identity must be rooted in God

If my identity is not rooted in God, their behavior becomes about what's good for me rather than what's good for them. Their behavior is not the verdict on 'how good of a mom' I am. When our identity is wrapped up in our children's behavior or successes, our relationship with them will suffer and love will be strangled. Also, their opinion of me in the moment does not define who I am.

5. Disrespect can go both ways

My role as mom does not mean that my actions towards our teens are always respectful. Sometimes I am disrespectful to them and the relationship needs repair. The 'mom card' shouldn't be mistaken for the right to be selfish or rude. 

6. Allowing outbursts against me (to a point) can be a good idea *sometimes*

Before having teens, I would have definitely 100% disagreed with this but hear me out. One day years ago, one of our more buttoned up teens unleashed a torrent of quiet but angry words at me. This is one I had been praying would learn to share feelings more.

When it happened, I drew my breath in sharply and immediately felt myself go into defensive manipulation mode. The words that came to mind were, "I've done the best I can and it's not enough." Thankfully, I didn't say them because God interrupted my defensive thoughts before they became words. He spoke to my heart, "You can say that, but if you do, he won't tell you how he feels and will hold it inside. Do you want honesty or hiding?" 

In that moment, I realized that a lot of times I was expecting our young teens, with their jumbled and chaotic emotions, to address me like therapists. "Mom, I am super frustrated , hurt and angry about something you did. Can you help me understand?" If your teen does this, my hat is off to you. If YOU do this every time,  my hat is off to you as well. In the last few years, I am just starting to see this as a possibility in my own responses yet was asking our learning teens to always be respectful. 

Does this mean we don't teach them a better way or that communicating badly hurts relationships? No. But sometimes it's more important to hear first and then address the issue of their communication later. Sometimes the exchange originates with a way we have hurt them, but when they express the hurt wrongly, we make the exchange about them and never deal with us. They are learning and learning to communicate well is messy.

**However, this does not mean we allow them to speak disrespectfully as a regular mode of communication. Yelling is stopped every time and they are asked to speak again in a better tone. If they can't at the moment, they can come back and try again. 

With the teen mentioned earlier, I listened and he had some really valid and important points. Him voicing it was a bid for a better relationship and an attempt to be heard. After we dealt with the valid issue he had with me, I was then able to say, "Thank you so much for trusting me enough to tell me that. Can we talk about how it was brought it up? This is a better way to communicate when you are angry....." He was heard and then easily took responsibility for his harsh communication. A bridge was built that day instead of burned. I grew a little more that day and so did he.

7. It can be sad

No one told me that when heartbreak is bigger than a skinned knee, my heart would bleed too. I never knew that I would gladly take their hits instead of them. The thing is, when they take a hit, I take one too. We both get hit. I've wished I could put a bandaid on a broken or sad heart, but I can't. I've had a lot of sleepless nights carrying and praying for their pain. Sometimes I long for the days when their problems were toddler sized.

Also, when you see a picture from the young years, you are sometimes hit with waves of nostalgia and a real sense that the days truly were long, but the years are so short. You sometimes long for the simplicity of those days.

8. When they initiate a hug, let go last.

They know how much they need our hug in a moment, we don't. Never let go. They will let go when they are ready. 

9. Notice bids for closeness

When they ask for time with me, I do whatever I can to make it happen. If I can drop what I am doing, I do. If I can't, I try to make space as soon as possible. They rarely say they need to talk. They usually wander into a room where I am doing something, ask to go to lunch, ask to run an errand or just hang close. Sometimes we've gone to lunch, run errands and when we pull into the garage after getting home, the deep conversation starts. The conversations are rarely at convenient times but always worth it.

10. Greet them well when they wake up and when they get home

When I greet them well, they feel valued and like they matter. I want a culture of feeling wanted and loved in our home and this is created in the small moments. It's very easy to be task oriented and not be intentional with this in the everyday. I do not naturally do this well so have had to learn. Is it bad to say I learned this from the dog?

11. Their mess-ups are opportunities

How we handle mess-ups is the most important part of parenting in my opinion. It is where they see how we respond to them when they are at their worst. Mess-ups are always opportunities for them to witness the unconditional part of our love. This doesn't mean there is no discipline, but our response needs to be 'for' and motivated by love and care - not 'against' motivated by fear or retaliation.

This is where our identity comes in again. If our identity is tangled up in their behavior, we won't love them well when their behavior is wrong. We have had some big relational wins because of mess-ups. It's important we don't discipline 'at' our kids but 'for' our kids. There is a big difference and they can see it. 

12. I bear the brunt of their emotions because I am a safe place, not because they don't like me anymore

Because they feel safe with me, I sometimes am the recipient of suppressed emotions of their day. Whether it's coolness, rudeness, silence or irritation, I will most likely be the recipient of what is going on in their inner world at times. Early on, I always felt this was an emergency and responded as if it was. I promise I saw jail at the end of every bad attitude. I have learned to let it go sometimes. There have also been days I thought they may not like me anymore.

Boundaries with Teens: When to Say Yes, How to Say No by Cloud and Townsend saved my mothering life. They explained that as a parent, we are like a guardrail on a cliff. Our kids are driving their little car and start getting very emotional and driving erratically. They start to bump against the guardrail (us), oftentimes we break and both of us fall down the relational mountain. They explained this isn't necessary. If we, as the guardrail, can stay unmoved and calm, we can gently guide them back on the road and make them feel safe.

If this sounds difficult, it's because it is until we begin to learn how to do it. I found I wasn't a strong guardrail because I needed a lot of work done in my own life. That's a whole other blog, but I've done some work on me. This image now comes to mind every single time something is brewing with a teen and this mental image has helped immensely.

13. Parenting teens requires a lot of inner work

I have seen more unhealth in me than I had hoped for over these years. It's really a whole mess of defenses and self-protection I've had to work through. If you have that, parenting teens will definitely bring it to the forefront!

I have been determined to have good relationships with my family and this is what has kept me doing the work. The more work I am willing to do on me, the more our relationships will thrive. I can't determine who they are, but I can determine who I will be and how willing I am to change. This has taken a lot of courage for me and a lot of time sitting with God and letting Him speak to my heart. There is the identity thing again. It has also required letting go of my own defenses and being willing to listen. "I'm sorry" has become a more regular part of my vocabulary and listening is coming a bit easier. 

14. Giving as much freedom as possible is a gift to them

We try to say 'yes' to as many things as we possibly can, but we also say 'no' when needed. We try to make sure our 'no's' are not just arbitrary or convenient but intentional and well thought out. We also encourage them to talk to us about our decisions. One of my favorite parts of parenting teens is when they ask our opinion, permission or what they should do and we can say, "I think you make good decisions and that decision is yours to make. I trust your judgment and will support whatever you decide." They literally stand a bit taller. It's the best!

15. Well-behaved isn't the same as doing well

Pharisees were well behaved. We really want reality and always pray for what's inside to come out. I heard it said once that we teach our children to be good without God when they are young and then try to tell them they need God as teens. We want what's real and that's not always pretty. We try to deal with behavior at heart level and teach relying on God for goodness. Only God can make us truly good from within and behavior always originates in the heart. Our job is not to teach them to suppress their bad behavior, but go to God who can change their heart. It's easy to fall into the trap of addressing the fruit, when the root is the real problem.

16. It is not my job to ensure they have a relationship with God

My thoughts have changed on this. I used to think it was our job to make sure our kids have a relationship with God. I always felt so much pressure. I've seen all kinds of articles with 'If then' formulas and headlines screaming, "If you do this, your kids will never walk away." Here is the problem. Our kids aren't formulas and that is actually just fear and control masked in good sounding words. Judas was around Jesus and didn't choose Him. Eve walked with God in the garden and turned her back. It would be nice if there were formulas and ways to control our kids to control heartache, but there aren't. Ultimately, their relationship will be between them and God.

In early teen years, I was terrified and was frantically downloading any teaching we may have overlooked to our poor 13 year old who is now almost 22. I heard God speak to me very clearly, "Please get out of MY relationship with Josiah. I am on the other side of MY relationship with Him." This was God kindly reminded me that the burden of our kids' relationships with Him rest on His shoulders. It's too big of a job for us and ultimately not up to us.

Having said that, we can do everything in our power to make sure they know who God is. We can teach them important truths and pray for and with them. We can teach them how to go to God with their own lives and also the importance of community. Most importantly, we can give them a front row seat to what the power of God can do in a life by walking with Him authentically and openly, but we can't save them. That's God's job and it's ultimately their choice.

17. Outside advice is good, but remember to pray for wisdom too.

I believe strongly in a conversational prayer life with God. There are multiple interactions every single day where I am asking God for wisdom or praying for a situation. It is a habit of mine to look to Him for wisdom in my conversations because I realized early on that I don't have it. Advice, articles and parenting books are immensely useful and I've used all of them in my parenting. God can use them to give us practical wisdom. I am indebted to many authors and experts - both Christian and not.

But nothing is greater than the wisdom that God can give us for each situation. I have handled the same situations multiple different ways at different times. One of my ongoing prayers is "How can I love them best in this moment?" Sometimes a teen needs firmness and other times they need gentleness.  I can't know the inner workings of their lives.; neither can a book, an article, or any other tool. Only God knows the inner workings of a heart. We need practical tools in our toolkit of parenting, but God knows best how to reach their hearts. 

18. Teens establishing their own faith can look scary sometimes

Questions are good. This means they are exploring their faith. It takes a while for them to really hold an idea they have been taught and examine it. We need to be there for the conversation and resist trying to box them in with dogma about peripheral things. It's easy to do if we're fearful their questions will cause them to leave the Faith.

Fear masquerading as wisdom is still fear. Fear is never productive and only harmful which is why the Bible warns us not to fear so many times. When we aren't fearful, we are able to have deeper conversations and really hear their true questions. Sometimes we mistake fear for wisdom, but they produce different results. Turn fears into prayers.

After our first few conversations like this caused panic in me, I began to see the value of listening to God while having conversations. This posture has allowed me to more successfully be quiet when I need to, give input when I need to and learn something myself when I need to. The Faith is robust enough for their questions and God is too. Without questions, faith remains shallow. Also, teen questions don't often sound like questions. They often sound like statements and declarations.

If we are wanting them to have a deep and immovable faith, they must be able to ask the hard questions and have the time and space to find the answers. We have learned to pay attention to what they are reading/listening to and read and listen too. This helps us understand what they are processing more fully. Going into this stage, I think I thought I had all the answers for our kids spiritually (pride)and now I realize I don't. I have a lot to learn and have learned a lot! Our kids have had a lot of questions and the result has been a deeper walk with God for all of us.

Sometimes we think if we teach them the conclusions well enough, they will never have the question. This is not true. Questions are good and can pave the road to a deep faith. A healthy faith will always have some questions.

19. Their maturity can surprise you

All four of our kids (including two who are no longer teens) have surprised us with how they have handled hard things this past year. We have also seen them make wise decisions and think through life decisions with maturity I know I didn't have at that age. They are also learning how to love people well. 

One day, I was needlessly short with our daughter. Instead of responding in kind, she looked at me compassionately and said, "Mom, It seems like you are having a tough day. Can I hug you?" This shocked me, convicted me and helped me see the importance of a kind response. 

We can learn a lot from our teens.

20. I love having teens more than I thought I would

I spent a lot of my early mothering years fearful of 'the teenage years.' I wish I wouldn't have because it really may be my favorite stage! 


And there you have it! These are just a few of the things I've learned so far in our teen parenting journey. We do none of them perfectly all the time, but all of them are ways we have found make a big difference in our home. 

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