What Teenagers Need From Parents: Loving Relationship, Not Friendship

Recently TGC ran an article that caught our attention here at the Rooted blog. In What Teens Need from Parents: A Counselor’s Perspective, counselor Leia Joseph shares six insights she has received through working with teens in crisis. We liked her list so much we decided to explore each point separately, and we’ll add a couple of ideas of our own. We hope Joseph’s guidance – and our additional thoughts – are helpful to you as you love and lead your teenagers.

I was not close to my mother growing up. She did an amazing job of keeping me fed, healthy, clothed, and on time to all the various places I needed to be, but there was an emotional void between the two of us that I longed to be filled. I wanted a mother who I could confide in, who cared about the details of my social life, who was a constant source of comfort and encouragement for extremely insecure me.  My mother instead seemed mostly concerned about my shoes being left in the living room, again.

When my time came to be a mother, this void in my childhood and adolescence was hugely imprinted on my heart and mind. I was determined to be the emotionally available mother to my kids that I had not experienced with my own mother. I was going to be that fun, accessible parent who was into the details of her child’s daily life. Oh, and I was not going to care where they left their shoes in the house.

In God’s generous grace towards me, I was granted moments of that aspiration, but my relationship with my children did not unfold as I had dreamed it would (of course). I learned along the way that being emotionally close to your child has both benefits and risks.  Here is some of what I learned:

You can’t be a parent and a best friend at the same time.

     This seems obvious, but parents like me persist in trying to achieve such an impossible duality. A best friend is someone who shares in all aspects of your life, and adolescents cannot, and should not, fill that role for a parent. In matters of adult concerns such as financial stability or marital strife, to name only two, our children are not equipped emotionally to be able to share in those burdens. An adult and a teenager cannot be in an emotionally equal relationship.

Parents need to exercise their God-given authority over their children.

A friend does not have authority over you. My bestie can tell me she does not approve of something I said or did, but I can ignore that correction if it doesn’t suit me. This should not be so between a parent and a child. Children and teenagers need to hear, “No, you can’t do that” and know the restriction will be enforced.

Proverbs 3: 11 – 12 says, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” The author of Hebrews quotes this proverb in Chapter 12: 6 and goes on to write, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.”

We are called to discipline our children because we love them. I’m so grateful for this picture of our Lord reproving us as he delights in us. Perhaps we cannot be both a best friend and a parent to our children, but we can both discipline and delight in them.

Delighting in our children is a relational experience.

     When we delight in something or someone, we are singularly focused on that source of delight.  Be it a piece of music, or one of our children, when we are delighting in either, we are engaged at a concentrated emotional level. When we show our children that they delight us, we are saying that we know them and we love them. Who as a parent has not experienced this? From the moment they are conceived, we marvel as they develop and their personalities are unfolding. We know these little beings, and we delight in them.

Delighting in our teenagers, however, can be challenging.

Let’s be honest, delighting in a baby and finding real and sincere times for delighting in a sullen teenager are not even close to the same thing. Surely teenagers are not always sullen, and even in the murky years of adolescence they can be incredibly delightful, but I suggest the role of disciplinarian is amped up to full decibel during the years we are parenting a teenager, and this can produce tension and alienation in your relationship.

I have a hunch that if I could go back to my teenage years and observe the dynamics between my mother and me, I would be convicted by some very rude and disrespectful behavior on my part. What’s delightful about that? While I wanted an emotional and close relationship with my mother, in my adolescent confusion, I was being my own worst enemy by building walls to keep her out. She, in her hurt and confusion (no doubt), was respecting the walls.

Make the effort to genuinely delight in your child.

     If you are raising a teenager who requires a whole lot of discipline, your child especially needs your consistent, expressed love and delight. When I was that teenager who had constructed walls around herself, I needed my mother to persistently ask to be let in. Is this not exactly what the Lord does for us? King David says in Psalm 18: 19 “He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.” Discipling our teenagers is identical to the Lord rescuing us from our waywardness and sin. And the Lord rescues us because he delights in us. This is the playbook for a human parent.

I found it easier to delight in one of my teenagers when we could enjoy time together just the two of us. This could be a spontaneous time together in the car, or a planned activity designed with my child in mind. I refrained from correcting, nagging, pep talking, or making suggestions for improvement. Most importantly, I paid undivided attention to my child.  There were occasions when I didn’t break down any walls, but I believe the effort alone communicated love.

Several weeks ago I asked my grown son who was visiting us for a few days to take his shoes out of the living room before guests were due to arrive. He sweetly complied and I had to admit that our Lord has a great sense of humor. I felt like He was delighting in me in that very moment.

Carolyn Lankford lives in Birmingham, Alabama and has three grown children with her late husband, Frank. Formerly a co-director of Christian Education at the Church of the Advent, Carolyn served as the Advancement Officer at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University before transitioning back to the Advent to work as Interim Director of Women's Ministry from 2021-2022.

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