Top Tips for Parents
What advice would you give to a group of parents and other adults involved in the lives of teenagers? That was something I had to think about earlier this year when I was asked to speak to a group of teenagers and parents about the transition from being a teenager to being an adult.
I’ve already shared the advice I offered to teenagers. In this post, I’m going to summarise what I said to parents and other adults.
For parents – Three things to understand
1. Understand that you don’t understand.
I’m sure we all said it, and I imagine a number of us have had it said to us: ‘You don’t understand.’ Of course, in lots of ways, when a teenager says that to a parent or adult, it’s not true. We’ve all been teenagers and we’ve lived long enough to know a fair bit about life and existence. If you’re an adult, you have wisdom to share with younger generations.
But at the same time, I think we need to recognise that it is partly true, and probably more so now than in previous generations. Being a teenager today is hard. Today’s teenagers are growing up in a world that is wildly different from that which we grew up in: The internet, smartphones and social media are defining features of life. They have lived through a global pandemic in some of their most formative years. Popular media, social media, friends, and sometimes even school are telling them they need to work out and express their own identity and their sexuality and gender. They are watching a seemingly endless stream of authority figures be shown to be corrupt and abusive, and they look into the future and see a growing environmental crisis left by previous generations. Being a teenager today is difficult, in ways and to an extent that we probably can’t fully appreciate.
And in many ways, we are not living in the same world as today’s teenagers. When I was a teenager, there weren’t that many TV channels, we could only access the internet on a couple of devices in the house, there was little social media and no music streaming services. My parents were largely aware of the media I was consuming and were usually encountering a lot of the same things I was. That’s just not true anymore. The online world, the exponential growth of popular media and social media, the proliferation of devices that connect us to the internet, all of these mean that teenagers are often living in a world in which we are not.
How should all of this shape us? It should birth love, compassion and patience. It should drive us to want to support more, not to withdraw from supporting. It should birth in us a desire to learn, not just to teach. We need to listen to learn about the pressures and challenges facing young people, asking them what life is like for them and how we can support. We also need to learn by engaging with their world. We probably can’t live in the same world as them, but we can visit. We need to have at least some engagement with the media with which our young people are engaging so we understand something of the context in which they live.
We need to understand that we don’t understand and that therefore we need to learn.
2. Understand that questions are healthy.
As adults, we learn and grow through questioning – we ask, wrestle with and reflect on questions and as we do we decide what we believe. Teenagers are emerging adults. They are transitioning from childhood to adulthood so questioning becomes increasingly important.
Childhood is a time when we are told what is good and true and when, on the whole, our beliefs are strongly shaped by those around us. That’s how it’s meant to be because our brains are not yet fully developed. As adults we need to reach our own decisions on what is good and true. We’re still shaped by what’s around us, but by our mid-20s our brain is fully developed and we’re able to think for ourselves.
Teenagers are transitioning from being a child to being an adult. Starting to think for themselves is not always just rebellion, it’s about becoming the adult God has created them to be. A key part of that is questioning, so we need to recognise that questions are healthy and allow teenagers to ask and wrestle with their questions, even if that means they are thinking afresh about things they have been told or have believed.
For parents, this can be scary. It can take teens into the grey, when most of us feel safer with the black and white. It’s also scary because we don’t know where their questions will lead them. The temptation, therefore, is to shut down questioning and to more strongly declare what is true. But if we do this, we’re not allowing teens to own their beliefs – they’re not able to put down roots which will allow them to continue to stand when the supports of parents and others are removed. You see this in the stories of many in my generation who have deconstructed their faith – they weren’t allowed to ask questions, so they never owned their beliefs, and when exposed to other ideas and experiencing life’s challenges in adulthood they drifted away from what they had believed earlier in life. In the long run, allowing questioning is more protective of faith than not allowing questioning.
This doesn’t mean we encourage radical scepticism, but we don’t close down questioning and we accompany young people on the journey, engaging in dialogue, asking helpful questions in response and pointing to good resources.
And we do all this trusting in God. We’re not abandoning teenagers when we allow them to start thinking for themselves; we’re entrusting them to God. That doesn’t guarantee a certain outcome, but we do so knowing that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.
3. Understand the power of example.
Because teenagers are becoming adults and are learning to think for themselves, they become less open to direct input from parents and other adults. We can easily see this as a negative, and I imagine it must be a hard thing for parents to adjust to. But there is good in this. It’s part of the journey to becoming an adult.
But that doesn’t mean that parents and adults have no role. There’s still a place for speaking into the lives of teenagers, offering wisdom, guidance, encouragement, challenge, sometimes even commands. Speaking is still important. But also important is example. We shape young people not just through what we say, but through what we do.
Example is powerful. Don’t underestimate how powerful it can be. That’s a clear biblical theme for leaders (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:1; Hebrews 13:7), but I think it also stands for parents and other adults.
Have you ever noticed that when people talk about the adults who shaped them in their younger years, they almost always talk about what those adults did more than what they said? It is often people’s example that we remember and that has a more lasting impact than their words. We need to consider what we want our young people to embody as an adult and then ask, ‘Am I embodying that?’. We help teenagers become the adults we want them to be by being those adults ourselves.
There are lots of ways we need to set an example for the teenagers in our lives. The four areas I highlighted for teenagers are a good starting point to think about.
These are my top tips for parents and other adults who want to support teenagers as they journey through the transition into adulthood. We get to play an important role in this significant transition. We get to be those who walk alongside, cheering on, supporting, making space for questioning, and setting an example.