I first published this post in 2014, but am rerunning it now for the sake of many new readers who may not have seen this.
Having been involved in raising five teenagers (three biological children and two step-children), I have sometimes been approached by other parents for advice with their teens. Perhaps it is providential that this doesn’t happen very often! When people do seek my advice, although the various situations differ widely, the problems usually revolve around the same sorts of general issues, and so I usually end up saying the same things again and again. For what it’s worth, I’m going to share below what I normally say. This advice is what I wish someone had told me before I ever had teenagers.
With regard to the personal anecdotes I will share, some of the circumstantial details have been altered to preserve the anonymity of the subjects.
Finally, a disclaimer is necessary for those who may happen to know me: I am still learning to apply these principles myself. It is one of the ironies of life that by the time we finally learn all the lessons we need to know about being good parents, our last child is already grown.
A Rewarding Challenge
Parenting teenagers is extremely difficult. But it can also be very rewarding. The teenage years are a rewarding time when we can transition to an adult-to-adult relationship with our sons and daughters. But it can also be a time of confusion, doubt and heartache, a time when we remember back to the precious girl or boy and think, “What happened? What did I do wrong?” If that is your experience, take heart. The struggles you are facing are normal and have been faced by countless other parents throughout history.
While there is no way to avoid the inevitable challenges that come with the stormy waters of the teenage years, there are nine things we can do as parents to more effectively navigate these difficult waters, and to leverage these challenges for the spiritual growth of ourselves and our teenager.
#1: Be Strict When Children Are Young, But Don’t Over-Parent When They Reach Teenage Years
One of the chief mistakes parents make is under-parenting in the formative years and then over-parenting in the teenage years. There is a connection between these two: if we are too lax when our children are young, then we are sowing weeds that will begin appearing in the teenage years, prompting us to feel we need to clamp down and over-parent.
When children are young, their problems are small and even cute, and so we are tempted to ignore things that we ought to be addressing. But when the same child reaches fourteen or fifteen, suddenly these same problems we were ignoring are no longer benign. Your 9-year-old that you allowed to say “Oh my goodness, gosh!” whenever he was asked to do something he didn’t like, is now swearing and yelling at you when he doesn’t get his own way. In such situations, parents typically realize their mistake (“I should have been stricter”!) and so they clamp down. But this only makes things worse because the problems that have been unaddressed for so long have become habitualized. Disordered habits that took fifteen years to germinate are not going to disappear overnight because now we realize we have a problem on our hands.
Saint Theophan the Recluse often encountered this problem when parents would come to the monastery seeking his advice. Listen to his words, from the book Raising Them Right: A Saint’s Advice on Raising Children:
“At the monastery, we continually hear from parents who visit or have called, asking for prayers for their child who is ‘suddenly’ showing signs of being in real trouble: expressing anger, depression, talking back, wearing strange or immodest clothes, wanting to get a body piercing, using obscenities, listening to bad music, using alcohol or drugs, or maybe even having begun cutting themselves or attempted suicide. This change seems to happen all of a sudden, but usually the child has been unobservedly falling away for some time and only ‘suddenly’ made the decision to no longer hide the previously hidden, double life.”
The solution, Saint Theophan the Recluse taught, is just what I said above: parents should be VERY strict while the children are still in their formative years. As the Saint put it in The Path of Salvation: A Manual of Spiritual Transformation,
“The simplest means for consigning the will within its proper bounds lies in disposing children to do nothing without permission. Let them be eager to run to their parents and ask: May I do this or that? They should be persuaded by their own experience and that of others that to fulfill their own desires without asking is dangerous; they should be put in such a frame of mind that they even fear their own will. This disposition will be most fortunate, and at the same time it is the easier one to be imprinted. Since children for the most part do address their questions to adults, realizing their own ignorance and weakness, this state of affairs has only to be elevated and placed as an absolute law for them.
“The natural consequence of such an attitude will be total obedience and submission in everything to the will of the parents even against one’s own will; a disposition to deny oneself in many things, and the habit or ability to do this; and, the chief thing, the conviction, based on experience, that one should not obey oneself in everything. This is all the more understandable for children from their own experience, because they desire many things and often those things are harmful to their bodies and souls.”
This type of strict regime when the children are still young (strictness with kindness, clear boundaries with gentleness) will render unnecessary the common tendency of parents to start over-parenting when their children become teenagers. By then it is too late and over-parenting ceases to be a virtue and becomes the quickest way to drive your child away from you.
Bishop Irenaeus of Ekaterinburg made a similar point when talking about parents who neglect to properly train their children when young and then try to clamp down when it is too late. From his book, On the Upbringing of Children:
“Very few parents can boast of giving their children a truly good upbringing. Many parents, even preeminently pious ones, have children who unexpectedly display bad characters. One of the basic reasons for this phenomenon must be sought in the parents themselves. Many parents are indifferent to the moral and religious training of their children, or are so blinded by excessive and irrational love for them that they do not want to see anything bad. They are deaf to the observations of well-meaning people and refuse to listen to their good counsel. Only when the defects of their children become unbearable for the parents themselves do they begin to think about correcting their sons or daughters; only then do they resort to training them. But by then it is too late; that is why I think it indispensable to explain to you why the training of children must begin in their infancy…. Finally, their eyes are opened and they decide to concern themselves with training their spoiled child. But now it is too late – the sapling has grown too big!”
This is very wise advice, and concurs with advice from St. John Chrysostom. The souls of young children are soft and delicate like wax, St. John pointed out, so that by impressing the right teachings on them, these impressions later harden as a waxen seal. This is precisely why, to state things in the most simplistic terms, parents should be really strict when their children are young and significantly less strict as their children get older and grow into their teenage years. By “strict” I mean that the parenting of young children should include clear boundaries that are enforced consistently with gentleness and love. Here are the words of the golden-mouthed preacher:
“Do you complain that your son is unmanageable? You could easily have corrected him while he was yet a child; you could have accustomed him to order, to study, to consistency in his duties; you could have treated the weaknesses of the soul. When the ground of his heart was still suitable for cultivation, you should have uprooted the thorns, before they were firmly rooted. Because of your negligence, your child’s passions will now be very difficult to overcome.”
We might express the same point by using the analogy of a tree: the Lord made the brains of young children flexible so that training them is like bending a two foot tree that will retain the course you have set. But trying to change a teenager is like trying to bend a twenty-foot oak.
Ideally, this process of backing off from being strict happens naturally as our children become teens, because if the child has been trained to know and love God’s standards while young, then he or she will grow into teenagers who have internalized those standards as their own. But in the real world this is often not the case, and parents have to cut their losses and take their teenager as he or she is, not as we would like them to be. Even the best parenting when the child is young does not preclude issues of rebellion in the teenage years.
Although this article is about parenting teenagers, it may be helpful to clarify my point about being strict with younger children. When I speak about parents needing to be strict with younger children, I do not mean harshness or excessive scolding. Harshness will kill a young child’s soul just as surely as too much lenience. To avoid harshness, try never to discipline when you are angry. If you feel so frustrated with your children that you want to discipline him or her, then don’t – wait until you’ve calmed down. Send the child to his or her room, or to the bathroom or laundry room, until you have collected yourself, and then you will see clearly to discipline the child in love and gentleness. As Elder Porphyrios commented,
“Parents, especially the mother, often cause hurt to a child for some act of misbehavior by scolding it excessively. The child is then wounded. Even if you don’t scold the child outwardly but bristle with anger inwardly or look fiercely at the child, the child understands. The child believes that its mother doesn’t love it and asks, ‘Do you love me, Mummy?’ The mother answers, ‘Yes, dear,’ but the child is not convinced. It has been wounded. The mother loves it, she’ll caress it later, but the child will pull its head away. It refuses to be caressed, regarding this as hypocrisy because it has been wounded.”
(For further tips on parenting young children, see Presbytera Juliana Cownie’s book Young Children in the Orthodox Church: Some Basic Guidelines and Elder Thaddeus’s book Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.)
#2: Learn to Strategically Ignore Problems
Over a decade ago when I was struggling with parenting issues, I wrote to a well-known author for advice on certain abstract and theoretical questions about the theology of parenting. The author’s secretary wrote back to me with advice that annoyed me at first because it didn’t address my specific questions. However, what he did say turned out to be exactly what I needed to hear, and over the years I keep coming back to his advice.
He said to think of parenting teenagers like tending a garden. If you are a gardener, the goal is not necessarily to have a weed-free garden but to have healthy plants. Sometimes the way to achieve healthy plants is to weed the garden, but it is sometimes also necessary to focus on strengthening the plant before you attack the weed. For example, a particularly delicate plant might not be strong enough to withstand the gardener vigorously attacking the nearby weed, especially if the weed has deep roots nearby the plant itself. In such cases, the gardener needs to focus on nourishing the plant so that it will become strong enough to withstand an attack on the weed. In some cases we need to step back and simply let the plant become strong enough to deal with the weed on its own.
As with gardening, so with parenting. When parenting teenagers, our goal is to have spiritually healthy men and women who will multiply the love of Jesus on the earth long after we are gone. In order to be instruments in facilitating this, it is sometimes necessary for us to ignore the weeds of character and just focus on strengthening the plant of the soul. This liberates the parent of a teenager to take a positive approach instead of micromanaging every little problem. It means learning to strategically ignore certain problems for the sake of the teenager’s overall flourishing, just as we might ignore a weed to focus on strengthening the plant.
Again, this is different to the approach with younger children. When you correct and appropriately micromanage a younger child, the child feels cared for and loved, assuming of course that everything is done within the context of affection and warmth. But when you over-correct a teenager, he or she can wither and become alienated from you. This is especially the case if your interactions with the teenager are tinctured by harshness. As Saint Gregory the Theologian said in the 4th century when discussing the responsibilities of parents:
“Every harsh and contentious word is but training for strife on a larger scale. And just as we mold our children’s character from infancy, so that they will turn from immoral behavior, so too – in dealing with words – we must not adopt an ignorant and rash manner when small issues are involved; so as not to make it a habit in greater ones. It is easier to hold out against a vice from the very start, and avoid its assault, than to beat it back and gain the upper hand against its advances…”
Given what I said above about not over-parenting teens, and about strategically ignoring problems, my readers might get the impression that I am saying you should never correct your teenage son or daughter. I am not saying that, and future tips will address the issue of boundaries and punishments. For now I want to emphasize that in light of what I said above about gardening, how you correct your teenagers is as important as whether you correct them. It is better to ignore problems completely than to deal with your teenager in an attitude of harshness, frustration, or anger. And sometimes weeds have to be ignored completely in order to exclusively focus on creating healthy plants.
Incidentally, this is also the same approach we can take regarding our own spiritual growth. From St. Porphyrios, Wounded By Love:
“It is not necessary, therefore, to concern yourselves with the weeds. Don’t occupy yourself with rooting out evil. Christ does not wish us to occupy ourselves with the passions, but with the opposite. Channel the water, that is, all the strength of your soul, to the flowers and you will enjoy their beauty, their fragrance and their freshness.
You won’t become saints by hounding after evil. Ignore evil. Look toward Christ and He will save you. Instead of standing outside the door shooing the evil one away, treat him with disdain. If evil approaches from one direction, then calmly turn in the opposite direction. If evil comes to assault you, turn all your inner strength to good, to Christ.”
#3: Decrease Amount of Rules, Increase Amount of Enforcement
I once listened to a lecture from Douglas Wilson where he said that in most cases he’s come across, parents need to decrease the amount of rules by 95% but enforce the remaining 5% of the rules 100% of the time. What typically happens instead is that parents put more rules in place than they are able to enforce, and so children are never sure when they really have to obey and when they can get away with it. How much better would it be if the parents decreased their rules to only those which they are able to enforce 100% of the time. Whatever problems Douglas Wilson may have in other areas, I think he was spot-on with that advice, especially when it comes to teenagers.
Sometimes parents of teenagers get frustrated, and then they start trying to work on everything all at once when they should be stepping back and working on one issue at a time, just like God does with us. By working on one or two issues at a time, you can really do a good job, and you can backup what you say with appropriate enforcement mechanisms.
In the typical parent-teenager relationship, the parent will sometimes stand firm and enforce the rules, while at other times the teenager will get away with disobeying the rules by wearing down the parent. The problem is that the teenager never knows which of these two situations it’s going to be until he or she has gone through the entire provocation cycle. This means that every situation becomes a stand-off to see who will back down first.
Let’s take a typical example. I knew a mother who let her 17-year old daughter borrow the car to go out in the evenings to visit friends, but the mother had a rule that her daughter had to be back by midnight. The mother made clear that if this rule was violated, then for the next week her daughter couldn’t go out at all. Then one night the daughter didn’t come back until 3:00 AM. As previously stipulated, the mother grounded the daughter from going out for a week. While being grounded, the daughter was invited to an evening birthday party that she really wanted to attend. At first the mother remained firm, but the daughter put so much emotional pressure on her mother (saying things like, “I’ll be so embarrassed I’ll never be able to look my friends in the eye again!”) that eventually the mother relented and let her go to the party. Predictably, the next time the daughter was grounded, she felt that if she made enough of a fuss her mother would relent. Usually the mother stood firm, but about one in every ten times the teenager would win, but only after exerting extreme emotional pressure on the mother. “Why does she do this?” the mother asked me. I replied, “Your daughter has no way of knowing if you’re going to stand firm until after she’s made a horrific scene. Although you usually hold your ground, your daughter has no way of knowing for sure until she’s gone through the entire provocation cycle.”
The solution is simple. Don’t put down rules or consequences in the first place unless you’ve first asked yourself if you are prepared to follow through. Don’t implement hasty punishments unless you’ve thought through all the ramifications and are sure you can stick to it. If your teenager begins wearing you down and you are unsure what is right anymore, ask a third-party for perspective. This is so important because every time you enter into a situation where you’re going to have to back down, you are inadvertently training your teenager to think that everything you say is potentially revisable. You are inviting your teenager to endlessly enter a provocation cycle over every little thing.
Once again, decrease the amount of rules, but increase your enforcement of the remaining rules. The remaining rules should be very clear and lacking in any ambiguity. So suppose your rule is that your teenager isn’t allowed to use the family car without first asking, or that she’s not allowed to swear at her parents or hit her siblings. You should then explain these rules to your teenager very clearly two or three times before implementing. Tell her very clearly what the consequence will be of violating the rules, and write it down so you have something to refer to later on. Then have a trial period before the rule goes live. Then once it goes live, stick to your guns at all costs.[Editorial Update: since writing this post, I had the opportunity to explore how these principles can be applied with regard to restrictions on technology (i.e., computer games and smartphones). We addressed this in The Robin & Boom Show #13.]
I want to emphasize the importance of writing down your boundaries and expectations. This is because teenagers tend to have selective memories. So if you have a rule that your teen isn’t allowed to swear at your younger children, and that if he does he’s grounded from videos for a month, you shouldn’t even think about enforcing that until it’s written down. If there is any ambiguity, a teenager will exploit it. A teenager will conveniently remember you said he would only be grounded for a week and not a month, or that “damn” isn’t included in the swear words. So learn to be very concrete and specific with your teenager, even at the risk of being pedantic. Don’t expect them to use common sense in knowing what you mean. Make yourself very clear.
Clearly, this type of regime can only work properly when there are only a few rules and if both parents are completely united about them. This last point is crucial. If the teenager feels he can manipulate one parent against the other, then rule-enforcement will be a disaster from the get-go. All rules and boundaries should be discussed by both parents before going live in the implementation stage.
#4: Don’t Mind-Read
Teenagers can say and do some incredibly stupid things. When that happens, it is easy to think you know what’s going on in their heads. It is easy to assume that your teenager is feeling what you would feel if you said a comparable thing.
Resist the temptation to mind-read, and especially resist the temptation to announce to your teenagers what they really meant when they said a certain thing or what they are really thinking. If you suspect that something was going on in their minds, ask them. And if they say that they didn’t have the motives that you are imputing to them, take it at face value and believe them.[Editorial Update: since writing this post, I have published a book with Ancient Faith that has an entire section in the sixth chapter on mind-reading.]
#5: Give Your Teenagers Freedom Before They Are Ready
God gives us freedom before we’re ready. Extend the same grace to your teenage son or daughter. Many parents think “I’ll wait until my teenager is ready before I give them freedom.” But your teenager may never be ready. They will learn as much from their mistakes as anything.
The same applies to trust. In most normal situations, in the absence of any egregious violations of trust, you are better off pretending that you trust your teenager even when you don’t because this may help him or her live up to your expectations.
Obviously it is possible to go too far in granting your teenager freedom, so this piece of advice should be contextualized in the light of all the other tips I’m presenting.
#6: Don’t Make Decisions in Haste or Out of Emotion
Teenagers are in a difficult position. Because they are able to function like adults in many respects, we put high expectations on them and expect them to behave like adults. But because they aren’t yet adults, they inevitably disappoint us, often surprising us by their immaturity. When that happens the temptation is to take things personally, to get defensive, and to make hasty decisions.
Your teenager is often unaware of how deeply his or her words and behavior are affecting you or other members of the family, and if you try to explain he or she may feel defensive. If your teenager is defensive, then as a defense mechanism he or she may become dismissive of what you’re saying or feeling. This in turn may make you feel even more like your teenager doesn’t care, which then leads to a vicious cycle. In the middle of this cycle it is tempting to lash out and make decisions in haste. We begin parenting out of emotion rather than wisdom, saying things like “You’re grounded for a month! How dare you – two months!”
First, we fortify the teenager’s impression that “Dad only said that because he was angry.” The self-reflection we had hoped to stimulate within our teenager becomes sabotaged by our own immature response. The teenager can think, “He’s just angry right now” instead of “Boy I really sinned.”
Second, when we make emotional and impulsive decisions, we discredit ourselves since often we end up having to backtrack from what we decided in haste, especially if it was unrealistically harsh.
Third, when we make decisions in haste or out of emotion, we discredit ourselves because we can never be sure if our spouse is going to be on the same page as us. The last thing you want for a teenager is to know that there is division between Mom and Dad.
Hence, the cardinal rule with teenagers is to avoid emotional decisions and never bind yourself to long-lasting decisions without first talking to the other parent. Both spouses need to talk together in advance before putting rules and consequences in place. If you follow tip #3 where the rules are very minimal, then this should not be a problem.
#7: Work on Yourself and Your Marriage
Sociologists who have studied statistics on the transmission of religion from one generation to the next have identified parental inconsistency as a primary (though unconscious) factor that motivates children to abandon the faith, or to retain the faith with less fervor. What these researchers found was that when parents’ words are repeatedly contradicted by the parents’ actions, children are trained not to take the faith seriously. I once said to Susanna, “Do as I say, not as I do,” and she replied, wisely, that it was actually the other way round: she would imitate my actions and ignore my words. Well, there you have it.
In light of this, the best way to train a teenager to practice Christian love and piety is to model these virtues in your own life. Again, our children learn more from observing who we are than what we actually say. Consequently, the best thing you can do to help your teenager is to work on your own spiritual life.
Teenagers love to point the finger at us and are highly sensitive to parental hypocrisy. So be quick to confess your sins to your teenage son or daughter. Let them see that you acknowledge that you are a work in progress just as they are. The success of parenting, like the success of marriage, does not depend on the absence of sin, but on how the sin is dealt with. One of the worst things that can happen is to be constantly working on your teenager’s sin while neglecting your own, and letting your own unrepentant sin poison the atmosphere of the home. Here’s what Abbess Michaila of Saint Paisius Monastery observed, as cited in Orthodox Christian Parenting:
“We cannot begin to speak about our youth without an understanding of our own fallenness, our own calling to love as a means of healing our primordial sin, and of the essential requirements for those bonded together in matrimony. With all of this in mind, we will turn our attention to our God-given responsibilities with our children, and the place wherein we daily nurture their souls, the home.”
In short, teenagers need to see that their parents are working on their own sin-issues; they need to see that the closer their parents grow to God the more aware they become of their own fallen condition.
Working on yourself also includes working on your marriage. Although it is always important to work on having a healthy marriage, this is particularly important during the years when you have teenagers, and here’s why. When your children become teenagers, the pace of life often accelerates: you start having to drive them to soccer practice, music lessons, to help them with increasingly demanding home-work and college prep, at the same time as, perhaps, still dealing with the needs of younger children. In all this hustle it’s easy to forget that staying close as a husband and wife takes just as much work as managing your kids. If you’ve stayed together all these years until your children are teens, it could be that the marriage feels like a fixture, something solid and permanent. But however fixed a marriage feels, a marriage that does not have constant maintenance will stop working. No marriage is strong enough to survive when we go on cruise control. That means you need to stay close to your spouse by being proactive and carving out time alone with each other. It means you need to be quick to address problems that arise between the two of you before those problems trickle-down and start affecting your teenager. It means having regular periods of re-grouping with your spouse to assess the needs of the family. It means taking time to prioritize emotional connection and physical intimacy. If the husband and wife are not totally one, a rebellious teenager will be able to exploit this and pit his parents against each other to get his own way.
So what can you do if you and your spouse are not one? What can you do when you and your spouse are not on the same page with parenting? What can you do when, despite your best efforts, your partner brings discord, anger, or stress into the home? The answer is given in Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Apply this verse by not reacting, and asking Jesus to help you maintain a spirit of peace even if you are fighting an uphill battle because of an unsupportive spouse. Here we can take heart from the words of Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, who wrote as follows in The Church at Prayer:
“Show your martyr’s spirit in the daily arena of your life, in your home, with your husband or with your wife. When your husband comes home tired from work, and speaks to you without being polite, don’t get angry. If he swears at you, don’t answer him back. Show him love, tolerance, patience. If your wife burnt the food, don’t shout at her; eat it. Put a little lemon juice on it to make it more tasty and tell her it is fine. Let love reign in your house. When you see that your spouse has wronged you, don’t start shouting about how much you are in the right. It doesn’t matter what is correct, but what the other person wants. Get out of the way. Deny yourself. Put the other person first. This is life-bestowing death; this is soul-saving martyrdom.”
#8: Get Help
Even if your teenager isn’t particularly troublesome, you still need someone you and your spouse are accountable to that you can go to for help. It could be a pastor, an older person in your church, a monk, a professional counselor, or another parent you respect. Regardless of who it is, this person needs to be someone you and your spouse commit to be accountable to and who will talk to you on a regular basis about parenting issues. Preferably this should be someone that your teenager also respects.
Here’s why this is important. If your teenagers see you submitting to someone else, they will respect that. They will see that you aren’t just making decisions on a whim but acting responsibly based on the advice given by wise men and women of God. On the other hand, it is very hard for teenagers to accept their parents’ authority if they don’t see the husband and wife submitting to God via the authority structures He has provided for them.
Submitting to an authority figure that you go to for regular “parenting check-ups” can also be a key tool for diffusing conflict with your teenager. For example, suppose the teenager is alleging that you are being unjust and tyrannical because you won’t allow him to listen to aggressive rap music when the younger children are in the house. Your teenager wants to endlessly debate this but isn’t really interested in listening and learning from you. In such a situation, if there is someone you are accountable to then you can say, “You know, perhaps you are right; perhaps I am being tyrannical by insisting that you don’t blast your rap music in the house. Let me check with my mentor and get back to you.” In many cases, simply saying this will be enough for the teenager to drop his or her accusations. There have been many times with my own children where saying, “You might be right, let me ask so-and-so about it” has been sufficient to cause them to drop the accusation.
#9: Atmosphere is Everything
Raising children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is more about letting the fruit of the Spirit permeate the home than it is about knowing all the right discipline techniques, having correct rules, or enforcing boundaries. It’s less about trying to get everything perfect and more about modeling infectious love, joy and peace. It’s about instilling an inchoate sense that life in the Kingdom of God is the Good Life. It’s more about heart-orientation than outward appearance; more about parents knowing how to model the love of Jesus to their teenagers than getting uptight about every little mistake they make. It’s about the home being suffused with an aroma of gratitude, prayer, gentleness and kindness that point the children Godward. (See the words of Archbishop Abrose in my earlier post ‘Pointing Children Godward.’)
An aroma of love and peace will cover over any number of parenting mistakes, but if there is not this atmosphere of love and peace, then doing all the “right” things will get you nowhere.
Unfortunately many upright conservative Christian parents successfully inoculate their children against the gospel by approaching the parental task in a way that creates a toxic atmosphere in the home. They have imbibed a false idea of what constitutes godliness, mistaking fussiness for holiness. But the Lord is not looking for families burdened down by an exacting load of perfectionism. Rather, He is looking for love, obedience, growth, faithfulness, joy, and laughter within the context of our fallen world. If we need to loosen up on our standards in order to preserve this atmosphere of joy, love and peace, then by all means we should lower our standards to the glory of God.
At a minimum, keeping a healthy atmosphere in the home means you should avoid yelling and outbursts of wrath, while being careful to preserve (as much as it depends on you) an environment free from stress. (For more about the importance of stress-free parenting, see my article ‘What Science Has to Say About Heavy-Handed Parenting.’) If you are upset at your teenager about something, wait until you’ve calmed down before talking to her. The advice given by Abba Dorotheus of Gaza on how abbots should interact with monks under their authority is highly relevant here:
“When mistakes occur, do not be greatly indignant but calmly show the damage the mistake caused. If you are forced to reprove someone, try to find the right time for it. Do not be strict about small mistakes or be inflexible. Do not censure continuously. This is annoying, and endless reproofs lead to insensibility and contempt. Do not give orders imperatively but in humility, taking counsel with the brother. The word based on this is effective and more persuasive and comforting to the neighbor.”
Preserving an atmosphere of love and laughter and joy with your teenager is like depositing money in their bank account, creating relational capital that you can later draw on. We all know that a check is only good if there is money in the bank to back it up. When we ask our teenager to do something difficult, to obey us when they don’t want to, or to sacrifice their selfish desires for the good of the family, we are essentially writing our teenager a check that we want them to cash. But if we haven’t put money in their bank account, the check will bounce. Now the way we put money in the bank account, the way we build up relational capital, is by cultivating an atmosphere of peace and joy in the home.
Consider the following scenario. Rachel was invited to a friend’s birthday party to watch a dumb movie, but her parents had already decided that they were going to have a good family time at home playing a game, doing some crafts and finishing off by reading a section of Shakespeare with each family member taking a different role. Now what is going to be more enriching for Rachel? All things being equal, clearly staying at home and being with the family will be more enriching. Asking Rachel to do that is like writing her a $100 check. However, earlier in the week the parents have been yelling at Rachel, arguing with each other, and creating a toxic atmosphere in the home; as a result, the parents don’t have enough money in the bank with Rachel to insist that she stay home and have “a great family time.” If they force her to, it only adds to the toxic atmosphere because she is doing it out of resentment. She will end up hating family time and maybe also hating Shakespeare. She would be better off spiritually to go and watch the dumb movie.
On the other hand, if parents have invested positively in their children throughout their formative years through consistent discipline and kindness, then when their children reach the teenage years, the parents may have enough money in the bank to occasionally ask their children to do difficult things. The primary way you put money in the bank is having an atmosphere in the home that is permeated with kindness, gratitude, love, prayer, peace and repentance. Saint Porphyrios spoke about this in his observations about family life. His words make a fitting conclusion to these reflections:
“What saves and makes for good children is the life of the parents in the home. The parents need to devote themselves to the love of God. They need to become saints in their relation to their children through their mildness, patience and love. They need to make a new start every day, with a fresh outlook, renewed enthusiasm and love for their children. And the joy that will come to them, the holiness that will visit them, will shower grace on their children.
Generally the parents are to blame for the bad behavior of the children. Their behavior is not improved by reprimands, disciplining or strictness. If the parents do not pursue a life of holiness and if they don’t engage in spiritual struggle, they make great mistakes and transmit the faults they have within them. If the parents do not live a holy life and do not display love towards each other, the devil torments the parents with the reactions of the children. Love, harmony and understanding between the parents are what are required for the children. This provides a great sense of security and certainty.
The behavior of the children is directly related to the state of the parents. When the children are hurt by the bad behavior of the parents towards each other, they lose the strength and desire to progress in their lives. Their lives are constructed shoddily and the edifice of their soul is in constant danger of collapsing….
I believe that parents need to try to satisfy their children in the house so that they do not look outside their house to be satisfied. Show your child love, and they will not seek it outside the house in another shape and form. This is very hard to do. The number one way for parents to do this is by showing their child that: Yes, Mom and Dad believe in God, in prayer life, in church attendance, Confession, having a spiritual father, in being kind, generous, loving, doing projects, activities, etc., and all directed to God. Mom and Dad need to be united and show mutual love and respect for each other.”