If there's one phrase that can frighten even the most stalwart parents, it's this one: The Teen Years. We all know stories of teenagers who turned away from their faith or made terrible choices about sex, drug use, alcohol, theft, or violence despite being raised in wonderful Christian homes. These teenagers stand like dark specters in the minds of parents who want nothing more than to find the key to helping their children hold on to their faith despite the challenges of adolescence.
As a teacher and a volunteer, I have observed and talked to teens who continue to walk in the light of faith even when their peers make the opposite, destructive choice. And I've noticed some common threads that seem to tether these teenagers to their faith even in the face of the world's opposition. While there are no guarantees in parenting, I've seen that the most spiritually grounded teenagers have parents who:
1. Speak by example
Pre-teens and teenagers tend to put the actions and words of adults under a microscope. This is part of the healthy psychological development of a teenager who is learning how to live in the world. But it also means that parents need to be active role models during this extremely influential stage. Teenagers examine their parents' actions, and are repelled by any form of hypocrisy. But they are also highly impressed when their parents' lives reflect morality, and will often emulate what they see.
Brad, a teen who volunteers in the worship ministry at his church and is an active member of FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes), attributes his commitment to faith to the role modeling of his stepdad. When Brad's biological father left the family, Brad became a surly, temperamental child. He says, "I was eight when my mom remarried, and I really kept my eye on my stepdad. I watched how he treated my mom and my sister and how he always tried to do the right thing. I guess I decided I wanted to be like him." The miraculous way Brad turned his life around is a living testimony of the power of a positive parental role model. Let your actions match your faith; believe me, your child will notice. "Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth" (1 John 3:18).
2. Discuss the hard topics
Teens are bombarded with a barrage of anti-Christian messages such as evolution, new age "spiritualism," and promiscuity, so it is natural that they will have questions regarding these issues. Your best defense against these arrows is to talk about them with your teenager. No matter how old your child is right now, start a pattern of open, honest communication so that when your child reaches the teen years, she'll know she can trust you with her tough questions.
Lori was a freshman at a state college when she attended an anthropology class that taught evolution. "At first, I didn't know what to think because everything seemed so scientific. Then I remembered what my parents had always taught me about creation and how we are made in the image of God. I decided to drop the class." (Whether you encourage your teenager to avoid situations that might harm her faith or to stand up for her beliefs in the face of opposition should depend on your child's personality and the strength of her faith.) Don't worry about having all the answers; when you're stumped, show your child how to seek wisdom from the Bible and from fellow Christians. "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ" (Col. 2:8).
3. Provide perspective.
Teenagers are notorious for being overly self-involved, and this can be a destructive path if it is not counteracted. Teens need to be given some perspective in order to recognize the incomprehensible blessings that have been given to them by their Savior. Take your child with you to volunteer at a soup kitchen for an afternoon, help with a local food drive for the needy, or go with your child on a mini-missions trip. These experiences will open her eyesand her heartto the needs of others.
Jeremy was a self-described "spoiled" 15-year-old when he went with his dad on a missions trip to Mexico. "We helped build a house for a family down there and we gave them a Bible of their own. I couldn't believe how grateful they were to have a house to live in. They were so poor. It made me thankful for how much I have." All of a sudden, the "little things" your teen was so concerned about will seem less huge, and what really matters will come into focus. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faithand this not from yourselves, it is the gift of Godnot by works so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).
4. Give Christian gifts for no other reason than to express love.
It is amazing the impact an unexpected gesture of kindness can have. Pick up a Christian book, devotional, or CD and give it to your teen on an ordinary day. He or she will feel cherished, and will be much less likely to see an "ulterior motive" than if the same gift appeared under the Christmas tree. You can attach a note saying, "Just because I love you," or, "I thought this looked like something you would enjoy."
Judy, the parent of two teens, leaves little gifts in places that surprise her children. "I will put a CD in the glove box of my son's car, or a book on my daughter's pillow for when she comes home from school. They love finding these little treasures, and I love giving them." These gifts tell your child that he's always on your mind and in your heart. "And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward" (Matt. 10:42).
5. Encourage the fellowship of Christian peers.
A teenager's peers are a powerful influence in her life, second only to parents, so it is important to encourage your child to attend church youth meetings and activities.
Remember, "encourage" does not mean force. Forcing a teen to take part in something she doesn't want to do can cause rebellion; teenagers resent parents who try to pick their friends for them. You can offer gentle encouragement by allowing your teen to use the family car for youth group events, or by giving her an extra $10 to buy snacks when the youth group goes to the movies. These actions are subtle, but they demonstrate approval without getting "preachy."
Judy encouraged her son to join their church's summer softball league. "Michael is shy, but he loves sports, so I thought it was a good way for him to get involved. He made so many friends, and then started to join other youth activities." The bottom line is that teens need to spend time with other kids their age, and church youth activities are a way for them to have good, clean fun. "But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness" (Heb. 3:13).
6. Share faith intentionally.
Even though this seems obvious, it is surprising how many parents have never taken the time to share with their children their own personal stories of salvation, and the difference it has made in their lives. It is our responsibility to share our faith with our children, and yours may be the most powerful testimony your child hears. And don't stop there. When you sense God at work in your life, talk about it with your teenager. Show him what it means to have a living, active faith.
Miranda, a fun-loving Christian teen, was touched by her mother's testimony describing how she accepted Christ. "I thought my mom's story was so cool. It was weird to think about what my mom was like before she was a Christian, but I'm glad she told me because now I feel like I know her better." Remember, your children most likely did not know you before you were saved, and they need to hear about all that God has done in your life. Your passion for Christ and his saving grace will impact your teen and his decisions. "The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe" (John 19:35).
7. Forgive mistakes.
We all sin and do things that we regret, and the same is true for your child. The important thing is to allow her to ask for forgiveness, and then to forgive. This does not mean that there won't be consequences, because even forgiven sin has consequences. But it means that, like God, you will put her past mistakes aside and allow her to regain your trust.
If your teenager stays out past curfew but admits it and apologizes, dole out a fair consequence, then move on. If trust dissolves after just one mistake, your teenager has no motivation for doing what's right. She may rebel and become secretive and sneaky.
Brad tested his boundaries when he drank a beer at a party. "I told my mom and stepdad about it. I could tell they were really upset and they told me they expected better from me. I expected better from myself, too. I told them I'd make better choices from now on, and they believed me." Resist the urge to punish your teen by withholding privileges indefinitely. It's far better to believe that your teen will make the right choice the next time because you raised her to do so. "Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4).
8. Commit to family devotions.
The whole is only as strong as its parts, and every member of the family has something to contribute to God's kingdom. It is important to instruct and encourage one another by meeting together and studying God's Word. This does not need to take up an entire evening, or happen every week, but it should be a consistent and positive time that the family prioritizes and looks forward to.
Miranda remembers some of the most special times during her childhood were family devotionals. "We would pray for one another and read out of the Bible. Then, my dad would lead a discussion. I especially liked it on Christmas and Easter because it made the holidays so much more meaningful. I will do devotionals with my children someday." Some of the most influential Christian instruction your child receives will come from you. When this teaching is a regular part of his family life, it will stay with him and impact the decisions he makes. "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it" (Prov. 22:6).
9. Respect spiritual insights.
Although parents are to provide spiritual leadership for the family, it is important to encourage and allow your children to share their opinions as they become older. Ask your teen what she thought of the pastor's sermon or ask for her insight on a passage of Scripture you're studying in your personal devotions. Have your teenager help you and your spouse plan family devotions. In each case, take her ideas seriously and give her the respect you'd give any other Christian. It is incredibly empowering for a teenager to feel that her thoughts and opinions are valued.
Deb enjoys asking her 16-year-old son his opinion on spiritual matters. "I am amazed at how he is able to apply Scripture to his own life. Sometimes he will actually deepen my insights on a passage. I feel like I really benefit from what he has to say, and I also think he enjoys giving his opinion." "Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will praise you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise" (Psalm 79:13).
10. Pray a lot.
This is the single most powerful thing you can do as a parent to keep your teenager walking in the light of faith. Ask God to bless your teen, to direct him, to bring positive influences into his life, to protect him from evil, to light his path. Pray for the Holy Spirit to work in your teen's heart.
Praying requires patience and perseverance. It may seem easier to just continually tell your teen what you want him to do, but that will not be nearly as effective. Teenagers need to start making some decisions on their own, but they also need the protective presence of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (Phil. 4:6).
Teenagers long to do what's right. They long to be loved and cared for by their parents. They long to grow into healthy, fully functioning adults. Unfortunately, they sometimes make choices that derail their best intentions. But with God's help, they can indeed survive adolescence with the light of God shining brightly in their lives.
Jenny Nordman lives with her family in Colorado.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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