It has always been difficult for me to talk to my parents. We moved from Hong Kong to Canada when I was 6 years old. As members of an immigrant family, my parents and I would have identity-forming experiences that were worlds apart. Relationally, it felt like an insurmountable obstacle.
Looking back, the loneliness, confusion and shock from feeling perpetually displaced must have been more mutual than we realized. However, in those hectic early years, it never dawned on me to draw on my parents for support. My parents were just so busy dealing with the stress of such immense life change, most of the time they were in survival mode. In their own adolescence, they had never known the luxury of parents who were safe to confide in either.
During my teenage years, I developed a desire to be understood and supported, to receive genuine empathy. More often than not, conversations with my parents left me with deep hurts, and I felt misunderstood and unseen. So I leaned into my closest friendships, and the Lord was gracious to give me a safe haven in the Christian home of my best friend who lived three doors down from my house. Two or three nights a week I hung out in my friend’s kitchen, doing homework and snacking on her mom’s baking. In later years, the homework parties turned into debriefing sessions. We poured out our hearts as we poured the tea, and the Lord ministered to us through the safety and security of her family’s unwavering welcome.
Now, as a parent with kids nearing their teenage years, I want a different relationship with my kids than my parents had with teenage me. I want my kids to find in me a safe place to express themselves, to share their struggles and heart matters. I want to speak into their lives, imparting godly wisdom wrapped up in loving encouragement, as my friend’s family did for me.
As I reflect on my own teen years, conversations with other parents, and talks I’ve had with the youth I lead at church, here are some characteristics I’ve found to be helpful in being viewed as a “safe place” to others.
Speak With Grace
In Colossians 4:6, Paul sets a high standard: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Sometimes we conflate upholding convictions with talking badly about other people, and our speech quickly descends into the territory of slander (Titus 3:2). In my home, sometimes I am so eager to ‘make an example’ of someone else’s foolish choices or sins, that my language and tone end up communicating condemnation instead of discernment and wisdom. When our teens hear us speaking with disrespect and a lack of grace towards other people, it won’t take long before they conclude that we might react the same way if they come to us with their struggles. Worse yet, our “judge-y” speech drowns out whatever wisdom we were trying to convey in the first place.
Apologize Well, Fail Well
Teens are keenly aware of how they fall short of expectations, both internally and externally imposed. They are also observant enough to notice that parents don’t always walk their talk either. So when our teens see us apologizing – owning up to our mistakes, being remorseful over our sin, asking forgiveness, taking responsibility to make things right by turning in the right direction – they are really seeing us model how to fail well. We are helping them visualize an essential part of life in Christ: the process of the “godly grief” in being faced with our sin that “produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:10). Parents become a safe place to confess sin and discuss failure when teens can see that we need the forgiveness of the gospel just as much as they do.
Love the Kid You Have, Not the One You Hope They’ll Become
Teens are being told all the time that they need to “do better.” Tiktok and Instagram tell them that they need to look better, teachers tell them they need to get smarter, and coaches tell them they need to hustle harder. Make no mistake – our teens understand just as well as we do that striving for holiness and excellence in their calling is a necessary and God-pleasing thing (Heb 12:14, Col 3:23). They would probably agree, along with us, that there is room for improvement in many areas of their lives.
But what makes teens feel safe with us is knowing that we value and cherish them just as they are, not because they have the capacity to become who we want them to be.
We get this message across the most clearly when we show our appreciation for them just because. When we tell them that we want to hang out with them, without requiring them to talk, make us feel good, perform, hustle, or excel, we are saying that we love them and we enjoy them, just because of who they are. We want our kids to know that we don’t only interact with them when they need correction, but because we genuinely like them and want to know them.
So let there be the occasional “no strings attached, no hidden agenda” hangout with your teen, one where you are not going to lecture and correct them, give any unsolicited advice, or otherwise try to “fix”them. Those things are necessary and important, but require their own time and place. Sometimes, just let them lead and be along for the ride. In doing so, we reflect the way Christ loved us first, even while we were hopeless sinners (Rom. 5:8, 1John 4:19).
Listen First, Listen Well
Teens, like you and I, want to confide in trustworthy people. We all want to find a place where we are welcome to speak honestly and be understood. Granted, we parents listen imperfectly, unlike Christ who can sympathize with all our weaknesses, and who understands suffering more than anyone (Heb. 4:15). But we do well to follow James’ wise counsel, for the benefit of all our relationships: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19).
Being in youth ministry has taught me that rapport has much to do with consistency and presence. Declaring once that “I’m available if you ever want to talk” is great, but showing an active interest and seeking first to listen illustrate love and respect like nothing else.
We show our teens that we are actively listening by paying attention and not being dismissive of what they’re saying, no matter how uninteresting (or incomprehensible) the subject. If nine times out of ten I am too busy to hear about matters that (to me) are trivial, my daughter may not trust me with the important matters that are close to her heart. Instead, be curious. Ask thoughtful questions. Respect boundaries. Let the speaker set the pace, don’t interrupt, and be patient to let your teen finish speaking before jumping in. As much as we as parents want to dig for our kids’ most close-to-the-heart thoughts and feelings, we should respect their boundaries by not pressuring them to talk (unless there is cause for immediate concern, in which case, pushing gently is necessary).
It takes time, but when we are consistently interested in what our teens are saying, we’re backing up the claim that we’re “always available” to listen.
Slow to Speak
Listening before speaking helps us parents better minister with our words when it does come time to speak (Proverbs 18:13). I might have already had my TedTalk planned out long before my daughter even uttered the first word in our conversation, but hearing her out gives me pause, affirmation, or some insight into how to address the issue more effectively. Sometimes, it is even during that time of listening (and silent praying) that the Lord answers my plea, and the better words are on my tongue by the time I need to speak (Luke 12:12).
I’ve found that saying less in one sitting creates an ongoing conversation rather than a lecture (Proverbs 18:2). Currently, I’m working on spreading out what I want to say over several talks instead of jamming it all into one anxious panicked encounter, trusting that the heart of my teen (and my heart, too) are ultimately the Spirit’s work, and he will transform our hearts and minds in his wise and perfect timing (2 Cor 3:18).
We parents long for our children to see us as safe, because we want them to experience the security they have in being our beloved children. Even if they don’t see it now, and even if it is sin (theirs and ours) that obscures that reality, the fact that we love them and desire their good will never change.
I’m reminded that I fight the same fight of perception in my relationship with my heavenly Father. I work to taste and see his goodness, so that I can enjoy the safety secured for me in Christ (Ps 34:8). But unlike me, my heavenly parent is perfect, lacking nothing, and doesn’t “need” his children to fulfill some part of him (Acts 17:25). In his son Jesus, God displays his unrivaled faithfulness, making good on every last promise (2 Cor. 1:20). Fellow parents, he is the safest, surest, most steadfast place of all, for us and for our teens.