By: Bill Wattenbarger, PhD

Parenting adolescents can be an especially hard thing. But truly, it has never been harder to be an adolescent than now. 

Small children are taught to obey their parents. Parents must take authority because life is dangerous, and a child cannot know enough to escape dreadful harm. Now, fast forward to age 12, more or less.  Things start to change.  Children cannot remain children forever. The very word adolescence means “becoming an adult.” 

Adolescence is a kind of uniquely human metamorphosis that takes 12-15 years to complete. The changing is almost imperceptible day to day and sometimes not to the parents’ liking. This transformation extends from being a member of the family to being an extension of the family to autonomy. These changes cover physicality, sexuality, language, reason, sociality, independence, identity, meaning, purpose, morality, spirituality and for the faithful, identity in Christ. These changes occur simultaneously and add up to how we shall live (as adults), and why. 

As children change, so must the parents. Over these same years, parents must shift from commander to advisor, from law-giver to redeemer, from judge to counselor. In Scripture, God urges parents to teach their children God’s ways and admonishes children to honor their parents. All cultures propagate themselves by one generation teaching the next. Maturation is a generational thing. 

While there have always been differences between young and old, the family, culture, and tribe have always found ways to promulgate their world views and beliefs as they propagate. These differences are more maturational than generational. The generation gap is man-made. 

A multigenerational family is “vertical”, including children, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. This verticality has a real-time significance, providing the context of older and younger in which the child grows to adolescent, to adult, and to elder themselves; it connects past and future generations with the present. It creates belonging which informs one’s understanding of self and others. Life is bigger than one’s self. The individual becomes an essential part of a progression with transcendence at the top. This same belonging is the predicate to obligation, responsibility, and values that go beyond one’s narrow experience. 

In contrast, a horizontal society groups persons by age, gender, appearance, achievement or some such.  The whole shift to public education, a recent development in human history, is built on peer groups and developmental levels in academics, socialization, athletics, extra-curricular activities, etc. Belonging is replaced with mere membership in an identity group. A horizontal family spends much of its time closing one and preparing for the next horizontal day. As horizontal time increases, vertical time decreases. The result is a collective which owes little to the individual’s family. This homogeny replaces truth with group-think. As the child becomes more like the collective, they become less like the family.  Life becomes about self or one’s identity group. 

Predictably, parents of teenagers often lament in the counseling office that they have lost all influence with their child and often the child gets the blame. Their teen may have become unruly, disrespectful and even defiant. They often do ill-advised things. The school may label them a behavior problem. 

Trying to influence a teen away from their identity group(s) brings the ultimate feeling of helplessness. Ironically, modern parents themselves are increasingly the product of the same kind of group-acquired values and beliefs. A collective culture inadvertently recognizes the need for belonging it cannot provide when it speaks of a “school family” or a “work family.” Neither school nor work provides the verticality of a true family. 

Parents, grow with your teens:

  • Keep your families vertical.  Youngers will require special allowances; they are not just nuisances.  Adults have great responsibilities and must consider the needs and contributions of everyone, not just the adolescent.
  • There is a blessing in honoring one’s forbearers. Their stories can be enchanting and their lessons enriching.
  • True belonging is worth the inconveniences.
  • Family is the best place to learn forgiveness. 
  • Cut back on peer-time; replace it with multigenerational alternatives. 
  • Do not be afraid to talk with your adolescent in grown-up terms.  They need the practice.  They can handle it. 
  • Talk to them about lofty things (Philippians 4:8) such as truth, beauty, purity, nobility, the pursuit of excellence, duty, honor, and love.
  • Don’t be so bossy.  Stop telling them they are wrong all the time.  Ask them about what they feel, want, think and the choices they are making – and then listen! 
  • Challenge them to give a good reason for what they say they believe.  Get ready, for they will challenge you back.  Do your homework.  Be prepared.  Teach them how this is done.  This can be a lot of fun.  (What’s so wrong with “all my friends are doing it!”?)
  • Witness to them God’s working in your own life. 

Bill Wattenbarger joined the Joy House team in May of 2015 to work in the Counseling Center. He provides biblical, Christian and pastoral counseling services to those who are hurting, confused or overwhelmed. He earned a Master’s Degree from the University of Florida and a Doctoral degree in Counseling from the University of Georgia. The Joy House Counseling Center exists for the purpose of providing a faith-based option for residents of the Highway 575/ 515 corridor who seek guidance with life’s problems. We have locations in Pickens, Gilmer, and Cherokee Counties with fees based on income and ability to pay. We offer counseling to all ages, from 7 to 70, with professional services to a wide variety of individuals, families and their needs. Contact our Counseling Center via phone at 678-452-2037 for more information.