Hope for Parents of Troubled Teens

Think carefully about your family's relationship to the church

The church we choose to become a part of will have a vital and undeniable influence on every member of our family. The church has a tremendous capacity to help both the family and our emerging adolescent. Conversely, it is possible for the atmosphere of the church to be detrimental to the growth of the young person and the family as well.

The church can provide a place where truth can be presented across the generations. As parents and children sit together listening to the same message, they may have different responses, but if parents will seek to have conversations about what they heard in church, they may get insights into how their children are thinking. It's possible they'll hear that their children are tuned out completely. That is important to know. The parent might consider offering an incentive for "answers" to specific questions gleaned from the Sunday morning message—extra game time, television time, maybe even money! It's possible your teen might consider listening in order to pocket some change. And he may hear something that will stick.

The church can provide a supportive extension of the family's values. This may be the only place in the teenager's world (aside from the family) that he hears a message that provides a restraining check on questionable activities. The church family, including youth leaders your teen likes and respects, can provide listening ears and counsel—someone to talk to besides Mom and Dad.

The Church Provides Opportunities for Social Growth and Service to Others

The social climate the church provides can be a place for the teen to find "something to do." It is important that the church community understands their role in providing positive and safe activities for its youth. For the teenager who feels he doesn't fit in with any group at school, he may find his place of social acceptance and belonging within the church.

The church can provide young people an opportunity to serve others and find a social conscience. Many churches plan short-term mission trips where the teen can experience firsthand some of the tremendous needs of the world we live in. Sacrifice whatever you have to in order to give your teenager such an opportunity.

Difficult Choices

If the church can be such an important part of our teenager's growing up experience, what is a parent to do when their child begins rebelling against attending services or youth activities?

First, the parent needs to examine what their particular church has to offer. One author suggests parents ask the question: "Is your church still breathing?" Is there a functioning youth group? Are the youth leaders "in tune" with adolescent thinking and wants? Does the church truly preach the gospel and biblical truth? Is this church too legalistic? Too liberal? Is it a small congregation with very few young people? Are you, the parent, bored with services but still attending out of habit? Is this church alive and growing, not necessarily in numbers but in spirit? Is it a healthy environment for young people?

It is important to be loyal to your church. It shows dedication and conviction to be supportive of the church family you may have been part of for many years. But to stay in an unhealthy environment out of obligation may be detrimental to your children. Many dedicated parents stay year after year in such a church while their children leave and find their excitement elsewhere.

Parents must realize that their first responsibility before God is to their family. If the church has become more important than the relationships within your family, it is time to do some soul-searching and ask God to help you set your priorities in order. There is no question that leaving a church one has been part of for many years is hard. There will be those who do not understand and who will criticize your decision. There will be those who will turn away, and friendships may be lost. But there will also be those who understand and may even wish they had done the same thing before it was too late for their own children.

Leaving the church may not be necessary if you can encourage your child to become part of another church's youth group. You may be able to teach loyalty and commitment to your child by staying, while exercising positive alternative opportunities at the same time.

Moving to a new church may not solve all the problems with your teenager. If he has not reached a stage where Mom and Dad feel threatened about making any request, they should insist he go with them to services. If it has always been understood that the family attends church together, this will not be surprising to him. Unfortunately, parents sometimes fold when their child begins to resist and becomes uncooperative about attending church. The misconception is that by making him attend church they will turn him off to God and the church, making him antagonistic to their beliefs. The truth is, he is already antagonistic and is asserting his right to make his own choices. Let him know you appreciate his cooperation in attending with the family, and you expect it will continue as long as he is living in your home.

Requiring a child to attend services isn't what turns him against the church. It is often the hypocrisy he sees there or in his home that makes the church a shallow mockery. We need to make our children aware that no church is perfect. We will always be able to find something wrong, something to criticize or be upset with. But in spite of imperfections, church is a place to have fellowship and group worship experiences that can be important to our spiritual growth.

It may also be true that your teen's growing interest in unacceptable activities may make him uncomfortable or cause him to rail against the "unreasonable" rules for behavior the church teaches. Let him be uncomfortable for an hour on Sunday morning. At least he is hearing an opposing view to what he is thinking. And if the view has some reasonableness attached to it, it may lodge somewhere and cause him to reconsider the choices he is making.

We should be careful not to give our children the impression that church attendance is what makes a person a Christian, or that he cannot find God anywhere except in the church. The institutional church can have real value for us as individuals and as a family, but God transcends the church as an organization. If our young people fall into the error of equating God with the imperfect church, they will have plenty to confirm their rebellious attitudes.

If parents do not make a serious attempt to keep their teenagers involved in youth meetings and social activities within the church, these teens will soon drift and make friendships that take them even further from the church. Boyfriends, girlfriends, and peer associations all pull hard to entangle our teen in activities that make Christian parents feel uneasy. It is better to insist they be part of youth activities in the church and encourage them to bring their friends—at least until it is obvious that their rebellion is uncontrollable.

God has created within us a need to socialize. We want to be loved, sought out, and included in whatever is going on. The church has the potential for being one of the finest sources of social contact available. Too often, however, selfishness and impersonal attitudes permeate even the life of the church.

Everyone, not just parents of teenagers, is concerned about the problems facing young people today: alcohol, drugs, promiscuous behavior, and rebellious attitudes; but far too few people are willing to do much about it. In the church, most recognize that a dynamic youth ministry is important, but too few want to be on the youth staff. Too many parents don't want to open their homes for social activities. Youth pastors often burn out after a few years of intense activity and too little help.

There seems to be a notion that working with teenagers takes a special gift, an unusual talent, or extensive training. Not so! The primary requirement for someone to work with young people is to love them. If a teenager senses your genuine concern for him as a person, he will respond to you. Nonjudgmental, unconditional love will go a long way toward drawing teenagers into a circle of friendship within the church.

What Can Parents Do?

You know your teenager needs more good, clean, wholesome activities to keep him busy and to help him grow socially. You know your church is lacking in some important areas, but there may be no other church in your community that can offer more. You are concerned about the interest your teen is developing in questionable activities. You know the time is coming when he will no longer accept your wishes about involvement in these things. So what steps should you take?

1. Go to your pastor and tell him your concerns about the need for more activities for young people in your church. Based on the responses you receive from him, be prepared to get actively involved in a parent group to promote more social opportunities for your teenagers.

2. If you have a youth pastor, talk with him and ask for suggestions as to how you can help him in this important area. Be careful not to imply criticism of his youth programming. Let him know you understand the limitation of his time and energy and you want to help. Offer to gather with a group of parents who will get teenagers together to plan some activities themselves with a little adult input and cooperation. If your youth pastor is married and has young children, offer to babysit so he and his wife can participate together without having to spend their meager salary on babysitters.

3. Get involved. If a bigger and better social life has the potential for drawing your teen back into the fellowship of the church, do not spare any effort to help.

Prayer

Father God, help me to open my heart and my home to the friends of my teenager. Give me ideas and energy to find ways to keep my teenager occupied in good, wholesome activities. Give me wisdom to discern the potentially dangerous and damaging influences on my child and help me to be strong in standing for what I believe is right. Amen.

Adapted from Hope for Parents of Troubled Teens. Copyright © 2012 by Connie Rae. Used by permission of Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

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