Empowering Your Teen

by Ron Flowers 

Theme: With greater understanding of the dynamics at work in the family with adolescents and by developing more effective skills in living with their teenage children, parents can strengthen family ties and help young people develop emotionally and spiritually.

About this Resource: The following resource is designed to assist pastors, family ministries directors and other church leaders in conducting several sessions for parents of adolescents. The content addresses several issues in families with adolescents-how to understand this particular developmental stage and how to negotiate the changes that are necessary to foster greater adolescent autonomy. The material may also be adapted for use in parent support groups or for distribution to individual parents in the absence of a seminar or support group.

Session One: The Adolescent Family

Supporting Material: Parenting Seminar Resource Getting Understanding

Presentation Helps: Draw from the following material-“Introduction,” “Good News About Teenagers,” “Parenting Teens is a Disciple Making Mission”-to introduce the seminar.


Adolescence is a challenging time in the life of a young person and the young person’s family. It is an era of transition into which the family is plunged when the first child reaches this stage of development. Some of us as parents did not have very good parental modeling during our own adolescence, so we need guidance and coaching as we help our own children through this period. Even in the case of those of us for whom parental modeling was wholesome and effective, rearing adolescents at the present time can be quite different from our experience growing up. As Christians, our parenting mission at the time of our children’s adolescence continues to be that of introducing them to Jesus who loves them and is their Savior and encouraging them as they hear and respond to His invitation to them to be His disciples. In adolescence this, as with other tasks of parenting, becomes more complex. The purpose of our meeting together is to become more aware of the dynamics at work in our family relationships at this time, to be informed regarding the best skills and tools available to us today for developing and maintaining wholesome relationships, and above all, to support one another as fellow Christian pilgrims in this journey of parenting teenagers.

Good News About Teenagers 

Adolescence is not an inherently difficult period. Research on adolescence in the last 25 years has brought some very good news and some revised thinking about adolescence. On average, psychological problems, problem behavior and family conflict are not more prevalent in adolescence than at any other stage of human development. About 10 percent of teenagers are troubled or get into trouble. Study given to the 90 percent has shown that, though adolescence is a time of change, these are waters which can be successfully navigated by children and their families. 

“Good” children rarely go “bad” because of their friends. Adolescents generally choose friends whose values, attitudes, tastes, and families are similar to their own. 

Parents remain the major influence on their adolescent child. Teens care what parents think and listen to what they say, even if they don’t always admit or agree with every point. Teens want parents in their lives, though they may not always say so. Parents can make a difference. Change in any part of the family system affects the whole system. Growth on the part of parents in understanding their children, in understanding themselves, and in developing parenting skills can make a significant difference. 

Adolescent change must be seen positively. The way we frame our relationship with children is critically important. Adolescence is a time of change. Though once the parent was responsible for directing the life of an immature human being, now the role is more like that of a partnership-the senior partner (parent) has more experience, but anticipates the day when the junior partner (adolescent) will take over the business of running his or her own life. The adolescent doesn’t want the parent to solve every problem anymore. Adolescents will find ways to assert independence. Some ways are relatively benign-demanding more privacy, wanting to choose their own clothes, music, friends, and asserting the freedom to decide about their participation in extra-curricular activities and when they will do schoolwork. Other ways, less benign, put them at high risk for sexual promiscuity, drugs and alcohol. If we welcome the changes as signs they are growing up, this can be the most rewarding time in our parental career.

Parenting Teens Is a Disciple Making Mission 

In His great commission, Jesus directed His followers: “Go and make disciples . . .” (Matt. 28:19). Christ identified two major characteristics of true disciples. “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (John 8:31). To “make a disciple” in this sense is to impart cognitive truths, information and values. Elsewhere, Jesus presented a relational component to discipleship: “All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:35). To make a disciple in this context means to develop the capacity for love and loving by nurturing a loving relationship with someone and encouraging his or her reciprocal response. It is in the experience of parenting that these “working definitions” of disciple making-teaching cognitive truths and bonding relationally-come together. 

In all our parenting tasks, our central spiritual mission is to invite our children to meet Jesus and become His disciples. “You may be evangelists in the home, ministers of grace to your children,” wrote Ellen White ( Child Guidance , p. 479). The mission of parenting is the gradual induction of the child into a lifestyle of Christian discipleship. Because of the natural processes of attachment and interaction that God designed to occur between parent and child, no one is better positioned to accomplish the discipling function than a parent. For this, reason Christian parents do well to understand the nature of the changing relationship with their adolescent children and to discover the most effective ways of continuing their spiritual mission of disciple making. 

  • Group exercise: Getting Understanding. Read and discuss the Parenting Seminar Resource for Session I Getting Understanding , in groups. You may choose to assign the three parts-“Understanding Teenagers,” “Understanding Ourselves,” “Understanding Us”-to three different groups or to divide the overall time for this exercise into thirds and assign the three portions accordingly. Allow time for group members to read the material aloud to each other and to discuss it. Then debrief as a large group. To what extent do these identifying marks of adolescence, mid-life and the adolescent family correspond with life in your family? What difficulties have you faced? What resolutions have you found? 
  • Additional exercise: What It Was Like For Me. Draw a picture of your family of origin. Using a bird’s eye view of a room or several rooms in your childhood home, remember a typical family setting when you were about the age of your teenager. Draw stick figures to locate yourself and other members of your family inside or outside the house. Write one or more adjectives beside yourself and each other person which describes him or her-i.e., happy, sad, frightened, angry, contented, worried, anxious, withdrawn, moody, cheery, lonely, upbeat, revengeful, etc. Describe to others in your group your situation as an adolescent. What insights from your adolescence have given you insights into your child? 
  • Homework assignment. Retrieve a personal photograph of yourself during your teen years. As you reflect on the photo, in what ways are you more sensitive to the adolescent experience of your child? Show the photo to your child and note his or her observations or questions. (Remember, your purpose is not to lecture your child about “the way it was” or “what life has taught you,” but to manifest your sensitivity to adolescence and to open dialogue.)

Session Two: Changing Boundaries in the Adolescent Family

Supporting Material: Visual aids. A floor plan drawing or blueprint; string; a rod or stick about 1 meters in length.

Presentation Helps: The following material may be used to develop the didactic portion of the seminar. The presentation may be interspersed with the group exercises included.

Family Boundaries 

“Good fences make good neighbors,” said Robert Frost. Fences form boundaries between properties. Countries create boundaries between them or within themselves. The Great Wall of China is an incredible visible boundary, 25 ft. high, 20 ft. wide and stretching 1500 miles across the northern and northwestern frontier of China. It was designed to be a defense against raids by nomadic peoples. Some countries have boundaries which are quite invisible. Usually everyone near the boundary knows where it is, however, and knows the rules that are related to the boundary, i.e., crossing the boundary is permissible only at designated points; transport of certain goods across the boundary is prohibited; authorization is required to work in the adjacent country. 

It is necessary for families to have boundaries also. Boundaries define the family as a whole and its sub-groups or subsystems. Important subsystems which must have appropriate boundaries are the husband and wife (the marital subsystem), the person(s) responsible for parenting (the parental subsystem, which may or may not be the same as the marital subsystem), and children (sibling subsystem). Boundaries function by protecting the family and its subsystems from inappropriate interference from outside or from one another. Boundaries allow each family subsystem to carry out its special tasks. For example, a father and mother go out alone to their favorite restaurant to celebrate their anniversary, leaving their children in the care of a competent sitter. Though the children may want to go too, their parents explain that this is a special time just for them. In effect they are maintaining a boundary around their marriage, which gives them opportunity to attend to that which is very significant for them as well as for the family-strengthening the attachment between them. 

Rules. Boundaries get established by the family rules. Rules are the unwritten laws in families about how things are supposed to be, how people are supposed to act and interact, when and with whom. Our rules may have such sources as our culture, our families of origin, our religion, or be influenced by our personalities and temperaments. These rules are usually hidden, unspoken, and operate in the unconscious realm, but they are very real and powerful. In the preceding illustration about the couple celebrating their anniversary alone, there is a rule that governs their behavior: “In this family mother and dad have special times together that are just for them.” That rule sets an appropriate boundary around the marriage, the marital subsystem. Healthy families seek to understand their rules, to discuss them and to decide together about them. 

The boundary around the children in a family (sibling subsystem), which identifies them as a special sub-group in the family, is important. Children, especially as they grow older, should be able to play together, relate to each other, and work out problems and conflicts together without inappropriate interference from adults in the family. An appropriate rule would be: “In this family children are allowed appropriate individual space and opportunity to work out problems and conflicts without adult interference except where health and safety are involved.”

Illustration. One mother, who cared for her own and several other children during weekdays, found herself frequently besieged as they brought their power struggles with each other to her for resolution. She would help them to listen to each other and clarify their feelings with each other, believing that it was best if they could work their problems out themselves. Once she heard the children racing up the basement stairs to seek her adjudication of some matter or another. Then she heard the oldest child stop and say to the others, “Look, she’s only going to tell us what we said, so might as well figure it out by ourselves.” The children evidently found a way to resolve their concerns, for no one complained. 

When parents open their teenager’s mail, read their diaries, invite themselves into their conversations with their friends, or consistently step in to settle quarrels, they violate the boundary around their teen. Parents should not emotionally abandon their children nor avoid being closely enough involved in order to nurture them and teach them. But, at some point, particularly as children enter adolescence, parental interference in their affairs must be kept to a minimum. This protects the sibling boundary. 

A “generation line” exists between children and their parents. This boundary is crossed inappropriately when marital problems cause a dissatisfied husband or wife to seek emotional support from one of the children. In this sense the child becomes a kind of substitute marital partner. In the same way, when a parent abdicates responsibilities in the home, some one of the children, often the eldest, may feel obligated to pick up the parenting tasks. Once again, the generation line has not been respected. While in some cases it may be necessary to distribute some parental tasks to children, healthy families find ways to let children be children. 

Rules can be healthy or unhealthy. A family may have the rule: “Individual family members are allowed to think their own thoughts and feel their own feelings.” Such a healthy rule establishes an appropriate boundary around each family member, whereby he or she is respected as a person. An unhealthy rule is, “Nobody is ever allowed to challenge the parents in the family or make them feel uncomfortable in any way.” This rule certainly puts a boundary around the parents, but one which is too restrictive and does not allow sufficient relational contact with their children. 

  • Group exercise: Family Rules. Discuss with your small group the following family rules. Which are more healthy? Which are problematic for families? Which are likely to be challenged by adolescents? How could the unhealthy rules be altered to be more healthy?
    1. Children get responsibility when they get to be adults. 
    2. Teens set their own bedtime. 
    3. No one is allowed to change; everything and everyone must stay exactly as they are. 
    4. Parents make all major decisions for their children. 
    5. Parents involve their teenage children in major decisions regarding the teens. 
    6. Fathers do not hug adolescent daughters. 
    7. All parts of the house are always accessible to parents. 

How many windows and doors? Think of a floor plan for a house. Each family subsystem is like a room in the overall plan. (Use visual of a house floor plan). A room is a room, because it is connected yet separate from the rest of the living space, by virtue of its walls, doors, and windows. The walls and doors make for privacy and security inside. Some things are kept in and others are kept out. Likewise each subsystem needs space to be itself and to carry out the tasks that are appropriate to it without interference from other subsystems.

Boundaries can be closed, porous or open (See figure):

Closed ___________________

Porous – – – – – – – – –

Open . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Continuing the illustration of the rooms in the house, a closed boundary is like a room which is completely walled off with no windows and no doors, or, if there is a door, it has been locked. Relationships with closed boundaries are either cut off or characterized by little or no communication, rigidity, and indifference. An open boundary, on the other hand, is just the opposite; it is too permeable, and therefore weak. The room, we might say, has insufficient walls, or maybe too many windows or open doorways. Passage in and out is completely unrestricted. There is no privacy. Families with open boundaries believe that everyone must think and feel and do everything together. 

Porous boundaries offer the best balance between togetherness and individuality. They allow people in families to be differentiated . Porous boundaries can be compared to a room that has a reasonable number of windows and doors which can be opened at times and closed at other times. An individual can be free to be himself and yet fully engaged as a member of the group. Flexible boundaries like this are characterized by clear communication, a healthy sense of self, and the ability to distinguish between one’s own thoughts, feelings and problems and those belonging to others. 

Boundary Problems

Problems at the extremes. At the extremes, very open boundaries create enmeshed relationships. With closed boundaries, family members are disengaged from each other. Serious problems may be present in these types of relationships. 

Illustration: Invite several volunteers to represent a family of four or five members. As the group is clustered tightly together, wind string or cord tightly around them to represent enmeshment. Ask one to fall down (carefully) to further illustrate what happens when one in the family has a problem. The tightly enmeshed family are likely to all be taken off balance since they do not have sufficient differentiation to help the distressed one. 

Illustration: Invite two volunteers to represent two family members. As the two face each other, tie each one to the end of a stick or rod long enough to separate them so that their hands cannot touch. Invite one or the other to fall down (carefully). Observe that the one cannot do anything to help the other. They are connected, as illustrated by the stick to which each is tied, but their disengagement keeps them from being able to help one another. 

Triangles. Triangles are formed whenever two people are experiencing conflict and focus on a third person or activity or thing which draws attention away from the conflict and relieves some of the pain it is causing. Triangles often result in boundary violations. The story of Isaac and Rebekah clearly illustrates boundary violations in the family (Genesis 27). Conflict evidently existed between Rebekah and Isaac, stemming perhaps from temperament differences, cultural differences, family of origin differences, lack of communication. Isaac turned to a favorite son for emotional nurture. Perhaps his rather lackluster life was brightened by the adventurous Esau. Isaac’s boundaries were open, diffuse, weak toward his son Esau. Esau grew up undisciplined, disrespectful, disdainful of his birthright. Isaac evidently never so much as expressed the family displeasure over his marriage to the Canaanite women (see Gen. 28:8). Esau is admitted to certain privileges with Isaac which are not available to Jacob. A problematic triangle developed because of unresolved conflict between the parents which led to Isaac’s alliance with Esau against his wife Rebekah. 

Rebekah does something similar toward Jacob. Jacob was his mother Rebekah’s favorite. Jacob was quiet, single, domesticated, and without the rugged physique of his twin brother. In contrast to Esau, Jacob was a “smooth” man (Gen. 27:11). Jacob and his mother formed an alliance and schemed to increase Jacob’s power in the family. They teamed up against Isaac and Esau. 

The Matthew 18:15 instruction for resolving conflict avoids triangulation: “Go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” God knows the human tendency to form emotional triangles. He is aware of the pain and stress borne by the individual who gets trapped in the middle of conflict between two others, be they his relatives or his friends. God would have us learn to communicate and to take responsibility for resolving our conflicts with one another directly, in ways that will avoid drawing others into them unnecessarily. His methods will leave our family relationships much stronger.

Renegotiating Boundaries

Adolescents’ sense of boundaries can often be erratic, with an expectation of parental involvement in their lives one minute and a desire for independence from parents the next. A popular book for parents Get Out of My Life But First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? (Wolf, 1991) expresses these mixed emotions. Often adolescent boundaries toward parents will grow more rigid. Typically, they want privacy and more time with peers. This requires family renegotiation of rules to allow healthy differentiation of adolescents while keeping the family stabilized and connected.

Rules Renegotiated Rules
Parents are able to come and go at will in the house. -> Parent-Teen Renegotiation -> Parents knock at their teenager’s door before entering.
It is disrespectful to challenge the parents in the family. -> Parent-Teen Renegotiation -> It’s okay to question and dialog with parents about their views.
Children sit with their parents in church. -> Parent-Teen Renegotiation -> Teens may sit with friends during church.

Maintaining Boundaries 

The skill of listening with empathy is a primary tool that parents can employ to help maintain family rules and boundaries. Cloud and Townsend (1998) provide a list of statements which parents can use as they endeavor to listen to their children, but hold the rules in place: 

I understand how frustrating this must be for you. 

I bet that’s a bummer, since other kids are getting to go. 

I know. I hate it, too, when I have to work instead of doing things I want to do. 

That’s really sad, to miss something you were really counting on. 

I know, I know. It’s hard. 

I know. I would rather be playing tennis than doing the wash. Isn’t this the worst? 

Homework assignments: 

  1. My Family’s Rules. In the following categories, try to put into words the rules of the family in which you grew up. In what ways did the rules change or not change as you became an adolescent? In what ways were you or were you not involved in the adolescent rule-making process? What aspects of your own family’s rule making process when you were an adolescent would you like to retain? What would you like to do differently with your own adolescent? Think about your present family rules regarding selection of friends, activities with friends, dating, communication, asking permission, sex, spending money, extracurricular activities, home chores, going to church, homework and school performance. 
  2. Renegotiations. Identify several areas of boundary difficulty you may be having with your teenager. Select one area in which you sense your teenager would appreciate some renegotiation. Put into words the rule which governs the boundary as it is now. How do you see the rule being modified with your teen to be more suitable? What changes will this mean for your household? Plan how you will discuss this with your teenager and manage the changes that occur.

Session Three: Encouraging Adolescent Autonomy

Supporting Material: Parenting Seminar Resource Choices and Consequences

Presentation Helps: The following material can be used to develop the didactic portion of the session. The presentation can be interspersed with group exercises.


“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me” (1 Cor. 13:11 NIV). Adulthood differs from childhood-in speech to be sure, but also in ways of thinking, reasoning and relating. The verb in “put childish ways behind me” has the sense of “abolish,” “wipe out,” “set aside.” It is more than just “leaving the past behind”; becoming an adult involves an intentional, decisive break with childhood. This acknowledgment by the apostle Paul of the appropriateness of parting with childhood can be helpful to adolescents and their parents as they endeavor to understand and cope with the radical, and often stressful, transition that occurs between childhood and early adulthood. 

Life ownershipAutonomy comes from two words-“self” and “law,” i.e., “self-rule,” “independence,” “self-government.” The development of autonomy in offspring is one of the primary goals of Christian parenting. “The object of discipline is the training of the child for self-government” ( Education , p. 287). One way to think of the development of autonomy is to think of it as assuming life ownership, taking responsibility for one’s own life. Key to the task of parents in helping teen development is to allow autonomy to develop gradually and steadily. Autonomy is not something which suddenly emerges at the end of adolescence. There are forces within the developing child which instinctively encourage him or her toward independence and autonomy; there are also forces within the child which resist taking responsibility, along with the accompanying loss of the privileges and prerogatives of childhood. The parent of a teen constantly encounters these two forces as he or she helps the child acquire autonomy. The amount of personal responsibility granted to children, and expected of them, needs to keep pace with the physical and intellectual changes which are occurring within them. 

Doing too much or too little. The development of autonomy in adolescence and the parental role in the process is like helping a child learn to climb stairs. The child’s balance is shaky at first, so the parent remains close by, perhaps touching or holding her. As she becomes more capable, the parent gradually moves away, until at last the child possesses the necessary strength and skill to navigate the staircase unaided. Some parents carry their children up and downstairs longer than they need to. Some are not as watchful over the child’s stair-climbing as they should be. Likewise with the development of autonomy in adolescence. Some parents do too little for their children, forcing them to assume more responsibility than is appropriate for their developmental stage. David Elkind (1981) speaks of the “hurried child” who is required to grow up too fast too soon. Other parents are over-responsible and do too much, encouraging an under-responsibility and dependency in their children. The goal of parenting is to achieve balance between doing too much and doing too little for children. 

Characteristics of overly-dependent children. Osborne (1989) lists characteristics of overly-dependent children, such as whining, clinging, tattling, blaming others for their problems, expecting others to make them happy, omitting common courtesies, having difficulty conversing with adults in nonmanipultive ways, showing poor sportsmanship, dropping out of activities and projects, fear of new situations, and giving up quickly. Encouraging children’s autonomy, i.e., their life ownership, helps them develop the capacity to solve their own problems, to take responsibility for their lives, and to relate more effectively with others.

An Empowerment Curve 

The New Testament counsels us to “build each other up”(1 Thess. 5:11). “Build . . . up” comes from a word meaning “to strengthen.” Jack and Judy Balswick (1987, 1989) bring this text into the arena of parenting by offering a design for Christian parenting which they call “a maturity-empowering model.” “Empowering can be defined as the attempt to establish power in another person. . . . Empowering is the process of helping the other recognize strengths and potentials within, as well as to encourage and guide the development of these qualities” (Balswick & Balswick, 1987, pp. 44, 45). 

Optimal parental empowerment of children moves through stages. 

  • Telling -when children are young and unable to make decisions 
  • Teaching -when communication is more two-way and children take some responsibility, but still need careful instruction and monitoring 
  • Participating -when parents are modeling appropriate behavior for their pre-teens and working alongside them 
  • Delegating -when highly mature children are both able and willing to take responsibility and perform tasks on their own.

Across these stages, as the child matures, parental control and direct involvement diminishes. While younger children respond positively to their parents help to master task, adolescents may interpret such help as a sign their parents do not have confidence in them.

The Power of Parental Words 

1 Thess. 5:11 also admonishes us to “encourage one another.” Since adolescents are extremely sensitive to the words that are spoken to them, one of the challenges for parents is to affirm their teens without being patronizing. One helpful concept is to be aware of the difference between praise and encouragement. Praise tends to evaluate the person; encouragement recognizes effort, contribution, and feelings of confidence and satisfaction.

  • Praise. Praise is an external evaluation which places value judgments on the child or the child’s behavior for the purposes of social control. “You’re such a good girl!” “You always do such good work!” “You got an A! That’s great!” “I’m so proud of you!” Such praise can be counterproductive as the child may feel that he or she is not always “good” or that one is only deserving of affirmation when one gets an A. 
  • Encouragement. Encouragement attempts to motivate through internal means, focusing instead on a description of the effort or contribution and the person’s internal evaluation of the outcome. “You worked hard for that A, didn’t you. I can see that you’re proud of it.” 
  • Words that empower. “I liked working with you in the kitchen this morning.” “You’re handling that well.” “Look at the progress you’ve made!” “It’s coming along quite nicely isn’t it?” “I’m impressed by the way you worked at the project.” “I have confidence in your judgment.” “Let me know if you need my help.” “That’s a tough one, but I think you can work it out.” “We’ve got a problem out there. Could you go handle it?” 
  • Statements to avoid. “If you’ll just do it like this . . . .” “Don’t forget to do that.” “Please remember what I told you last week.” “If you do it, you might get hurt.” “You’re hopeless! Just let me do it.” “You are SO slow!” “Do I have to do it myself?” “You plan to earn an award in tennis? But you’re just a freshman.” “Are you sure you want to take guitar lessons? It takes a lot of practice to be any good.”

As Your Teen Learns Something New: A Few Guidelines 

  • Give clear instructions. If necessary, walk her through the project, but don’t make it sound as if she’ll be incompetent.
  • Ask questions like, “What else do you think you will you need for this project?” “When will you need to start in order to finish painting the porch in time to go on your hiking trip?”
  • Let him do the project or job assignment alone. 
  • Remember: It’s okay for her to fail. Let her make a mistake, if necessary. 
  • Help him out, but don’t bail him out. Instead, give a suggestion to point your child in the right direction. If you must show him, only show him. Let him do it on his own. “If you give him the perception that you will jump in, that you won’t let her do it anyway or you can’t even let her try, your child won’t want to develop a skill, much less have the motivation to try it” (Sanders, 1997, p. 106).

Developing Autonomy Through Choices and Consequences 

Many parents have a pattern of rescuing their children, bailing them out of difficulties of one type or another, supplying their every need, fixing their problems. This over-functioning on the part of parents signals that the boundaries between them and their children are too open and weak. Parents can develop healthier boundaries with their adolescents and become better differentiated from them (and enable their children to be better differentiated from their parents) by treating them with dignity and affection, but respecting them as separate persons with their own wishes, feelings, preferences, choices and responsibilities. 

Adolescents are often quite adept at getting their parents to take responsibility for their problems. Often, however, teens display dissatisfaction by whining, complaining, or persistent over-dependency whenever the parent endeavors to do so. The over-functioning parent is caught in a no-win situation. To not help her child is to feel guilty; to help her child is to set herself up for complaints and dissatisfaction. However, in the teen years children should be taking more and more responsibility for working out their problems. Parents encourage autonomy and responsibility when they allow teens to bear the consequences of their actions. Suppose a teen-age daughter calls home and asks mother to bring her the books she forgot. If the daughter is not usually forgetful, Mother may respond, “I’ll bring them as soon as I can get away.” However, if the daughter has a pattern of carelessness and forgetfulness, it would be more appropriate for Mother to say, “It’s too bad you forgot your books, but I won’t be able to bring them to you.” 

Allowing a child to experience the reality of the natural or logical order of things teaches him to reason from cause to effect and to make changes in his behavior accordingly. Such a process will undoubtedly involve some level of discomfort for the child. This is where parents must be supportive, but not undo the lesson that is being learned out of guilt or mistaken kindness. Avoid making the discomfort worse by saying, “I told you so!” Avoid removing the consequences. “We do not have the right to assume the responsibilities of our children, nor do we have the right to take the consequences of their acts. These belong to them” (Dreikurs, 1964, p. 77). A teen must be allowed to experience the consequences of his actions and choices always within the context of a loving relationship with his parents. Parents should not imply that the consequences their teens experience are in any way intended to be punitive. 

Types of consequences. Consequences are of two types: natural and logical (Dreikurs, 1964). Natural consequences (Parenting Seminar Resource Choices and Consequences , Fig. 1) are those that come about because of the natural order of things, events which may be expected to occur if there is no interference. In situations where natural consequences would be unacceptable, then a reasonable substitute must be found, i.e. a logical consequence (Parenting Seminar Resource Choices and Consequences , Fig. 2). Natural consequences represent the pressure of reality without any specific action by parents. Since logical consequences apply a reasoned conclusion which may be challenged by the teen, they may be less effective.

A Word About Spiritual Autonomy 

As young people grow toward spiritual maturity, some may go through a time of questioning, even apparent rejection of at least parts of the faith of their families before they can embrace it for themselves. Some teenagers arrive at their convictions only through a process of rejecting what they have been taught. . . . If teenagers do not care enough about their faith to question their parents’ or their church’s beliefs, their faith will remain undeveloped. (DeVries, 1994, p. 137) 

Parents may feel as if their teen’s questioning or rejection of the beliefs they hold dear is tantamount to a rejection of them personally. In some cases, the parents and their faith have become so closely identified as to be indistinguishable in the teenager’s mind. In such situations as the teen moves toward greater autonomy and differentiation from his parents, he may-at least for a time-also feel the need to separate himself from his parents’ faith. The process of movement toward greater autonomy and differentiation from their parents has led youth to simultaneously separate themselves from the parents’ faith. In their religious education of their children parents can help their children to make a distinction between persons and their beliefs. A healthy sense of differentiation can allow parents to love and accept their child as a person, despite his doubts, questions and perhaps disappointing choices. 

This process growth toward spiritual autonomy in the adolescent can be especially unnerving to parents. But the parents’ private intercession for their child, their non-anxious presence and their determination to hold on to the relationship with their son or daughter, despite their questionings, affords their greatest hope that the family’s heritage of faith will be passed on. C. S. Lewis offers this word of encouragement regarding God’s interest in such youth: When a young man who has been going to church in a routine way honestly realizes that he does not believe in Christianity and stops going-provided he does it for honesty’s sake and not just to annoy his parents-the spirit of Christ is probably nearer to him then than it ever was before. (Lewis, Mere Christianity , cited in DeVries, 1958, p.137)

  • Group exercise: Helping Adolescents Toward Autonomy. What would you recommend in the following situations to help parents better develop their adolescent’s autonomy?
    1. Joshua’s mother shops for all of his clothes and decides each morning what Josh, at age 14, will wear. 
    2. When sixteen-year-old Gina and her parents go shopping for her, she doesn’t have a chance to speak for herself because her parents speak for her. 
    3. Father introduces himself to the barber in a shop near the academy, and then says, “This is my son, Kevin, who will be coming here once a month to get his hair cut. I just wanted Kevin to find out where the barber shop is and to meet you.” 
    4. When Tami was a freshman in high school, a group of older girls decided to pick on her. They would chase her down the hall and threaten her. Her father wanted to talk to the principal about it, but Tami didn’t want him to. Her father asked around, got the names of the girls and called each of their fathers. He also called the principal and gave him a piece of his mind.

Homework assignment: Your Teen’s Budget and Resumé. Choose one of the following and work with your teenager to develop a budget or a personal resumé to be used with job applications.

Budget. Budgeting helps teens develop responsibility. A weekly or monthly budget shows income and expenses. Income includes allowances, earnings, interest income on savings accounts, and gifts. On the expense side include expenses for which the teen is responsible, i.e. tithe, offerings, savings, meals eaten outside the home, school supplies, transportation, toiletries, clothes, entertainment, hobbies, gifts and some “mad” (miscellaneous) money. You may decide to design a simple ledger, to utilize a computer software accounting program or to purchase an inexpensive ledger/accounting notebook in which your teen can record the budget along with income and expenses. 

Resumé. Developing a resumé helps teens attain a sense of identity and individuality. A resumé should include: education-the school currently attending, any other educational experiences he or she has had, and any honors or scholastic achievements he or she has received; work experience -with pay or without pay as a volunteer, including extracurricular work at school, such as serving on the school paper or yearbook staff, or any work that required following directions, being accountable and exhibiting qualities of efficiency, promptness and courtesy. Baby sitting, maintaining a paper route, participation in school government are common examples; special skills -such as typing, computer usage and familiarity with software programs, fluency in a second language, artistic layout and design; personal information -birthdate, background, and interests, i.e., music, hobbies, sports; references-names of two or three non-relatives who know the teen well enough to describe his or her abilities, talents and character. The teen should solicit permission before providing a person’s name using them as a reference.

References and Bibliography

Balswick, J., & Balswick, J. (1987, Spring). A theological basis for family relationships. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 6 (3), 37-49.

Balswick, J. O., & Balswick, J. K. (1989). A maturity-empowering model of Christian parenting. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 17 (1), 36-43.

Berger, K. S. (1994). The developing person through the life span. New York: Worth Publishers.

Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. (1998). Boundaries with kids. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

DeVries, M. (1994). Family-based youth ministry. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Driekurs, R. (1964). Children: The challenge. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc.

Dreikurs, R., & Cassel, P. (1972). Discipline without tears: What to do with children who misbehave. New York: Hawthorn Books. 

Elkind, D. (1981) The hurried child: Growing up too fast too soon. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Osborne, P. (1989). Parenting for the ’90s. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.

Osterhaus, J., & Denny, J. (1994). Family ties don’t have to bind. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sanders, B. (1997). What teens need most from their parents. Grand Rapids, MI: Spire.

Steinberg, L., & Levine, A. (1997). You and your adolescent: A parent’s guide for ages 10-20. New York: HarperPerennial.

Wolf, A. E. (1991). Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?: A parent’s guide to the new teenager. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

White, E. G. (1952). Education. Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association.

White, E. G. (1954). Child guidance. Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Association.

Reprinted from Karen & Ron Flowers, Understanding Families. Silver Spring, MD: Department of Family Ministries, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2001.