Parenting Adolescents – Boundaries and Caring Support


Scripture quotations are from the NIV


Adolescence is the most chaotic and stressful of all stages of family life. One humorist described it this way, ‘As children grow from 13 to 18, parents age twenty years’. A vast knowledge gap, where teens think they know everything and their parents know nothing, may also emerge. In addition, the complexities of contemporary life have made adolescence a major developmental period compared to the ritualized transition it has been in traditional cultures and past generations.

Developmentally, the adolescent stage begins when the oldest child reaches age 13, and continues until all children in the family have reached age 18. The primary tasks of this stage are accepting the reality of adolescence and allowing clear generational boundaries to emerge. Parents and teens often are at a loss as to how to proceed, and wonder what constitutes a normal adolescent family environment.

Biblically, I refer to adolescence as the period of time it takes a child to move from Ephesians chapter 6 verse 1 to chapter 6 verse 2. Childhood is represented by the chapter 6 verse 1 directive, ‘Children, obey your parents in the Lord’. Adulthood is represented by the chapter 6 verse 2 directive, ‘Honour thy father and mother’. The time required to refine obedience to parents into honour and respect for parents is adolescence. The inference is superficial but it makes the point.

Characteristics of adolescence The essence of adolescence can be summarized in four words: unpredictability, identity, change and transition. Each expresses the nature of a teenager and represents the dynamics that impact the family.

Unpredictability: One psychologist stated that the only predictable trait about adolescents is their unpredictability. Emotional, physical and mental vacillation typifies their development. One mother described her daughter this way, ‘She can go from the height of ecstasy to the depth of despair in seconds. One moment she can be in a horrible mood and the next she is bubbling over with joy. In the house she is morose, but as soon as she walks out the door and meets her friends, she is transformed into the very picture of happiness’. Such is life with a teenager.

Identity: The primary growth task of teenagers is to develop an identity by answering the question, ‘Who am I?’ in a manner that develops self-confidence. Failing to develop this confidence results in insecurity that undermines the teen’s ability to handle life’s tasks and relationships. The answers to this question that teens absorb, during their search for identity, become the foundation for their personalities as adults.

Change: Change permeates a teenager’s life from the inside out, unleashing changes that transform a girl into a woman and a boy into a man. These changes affect all dimensions of their life, including their relational world. Parents, peers and significant adults outside the family are all involved in these social shifts. Teens begin to throw off family loyalties in exchange for preferred peer associations and approval from significant adults outside the family. Morally, teens change the basis for decision-making to seeking approval, typically of peers, and as the basis for what is now considered ‘right’. Thus, both the inner and outer forces in a teen’s life generate turmoil in the family.

Transition: In many ways, adolescence is really the practice field on which teens learn skills, values, roles and strategies prior to entering the game of life as an adult. However, like an athletic contest, the conditions of the game are never the same as those anticipated in practice. Therefore, that preparation must include a biblically grounded spiritual perspective or the teen will go into the world unprepared and vulnerable.

Parenting teens: a labour of love and a work of faith The objective of parenting teens expressed by the psalmist, Psalm 44 verse 12, is to produce sons who are ‘well nurtured plants’ and daughters who are ‘pillars carved to adorn a palace’. Both cultivation and sculpting require hard work and concentrated effort. In other words, parents need to be actively involved in parenting teens. They cannot simply turn their children over to the Lord and pray for the best results.

In the work of parenting, however, we are not on our own. Paul uses the same analogies of cultivation, and construction in 1 Corinthians 3. 6-15 to refer to the effort required to produce healthy fruit or a strong building. In building up the church he says, ‘We are God’s fellow workers’ and assures us that it is God who makes our efforts productive ‘God makes things grow’. The same is true in parenting.

Parenting teens requires stamina, resilience and conscientious effort often in the face of frustration, disappointment and confusion. However, parents are not left on their own. Our partner in the process is God, who knows the pain and anguish involved in parenting. Listen to His words, ‘Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the Lord has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they rebelled against me. The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know. My people do not understand”’, Isa.1.2-3. God can empathize with parents of rebellious teens.

Effective parenting through the teenage years requires the emergence of a generation gap, and the need for parents to be boundary setters/keepers in the lives of their children. When clear boundaries are established, teens have a sense of security and a defined arena in which to test their perceptions of themselves. They need to test the boundaries to get a sense of their identity. If parents do not set the boundaries, teenagers will look for boundaries to challenge outside the family. Then they will be influenced by other adults or their peers. As teens encounter boundaries, they develop a sense of identity, and their fragile egos are strengthened. In my work with Christian parents, typically I have found that they try to find ways around this necessary role of boundary maker. They use the excuse that ‘things are different now than when you were a teenager’. This ‘nothing in common’ theme is often strongly defended. I am not convinced, however, I point out the wisdom of Solomon who stated, ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun’, Eccles. 1. 9. What I usually find is that the parents remember all too well their own teenage years and are afraid that their teenager is going to get into the same trouble they did. Their fear is more of the ‘known’ than the ‘unknown.’ This is especially true of parents who were teens during the 70’s and 80’s, when illicit drug use, rebellion against authority and sexual promiscuity were very much increased. In many cases these parents are seeking ways to keep their teens from making the same mistakes they made.

Five Things That Don’t Work I have identified five unproductive strategies that parents of adolescents, including myself, have tried. Each is briefly described below:

1. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em: Some parents try to avoid the inevitable clashes with teens by adapting to their culture and its music, fashions, language and interests. This creates the illusion of togetherness but robs teens of the difference their generation needs to distinguish itself from that of their parents. This approach delays the developmental process. 2. Parent abdication: Some parents get so frustrated that they put up their hands and say, ‘Do whatever you want. I don’t care’. This produces a respite in the conflict but turns the teen over to other adults or their peers to find boundaries. Teenagers need boundaries and, if parents do not provide them, they will find them in society; the boundaries here they may seek to challenge are called ‘laws’. 3. Parent flip flop: These parents do a good job raising their children, but when adolescence hits, they panic. Their fears prompt them to give their teens a refresher course to prepare them again for what they are already prepared for. This intensive recycling of childhood lessons produces confusion and anger in the teen. One boy stated, ‘When I was in elementary school, I could walk all over town by myself and ride my bike with my friends. But now that I’m seventeen, I can’t even back the car out of the driveway without written contract and parental supervision’. 4. Do it my way or else: These parents revert to power to control their teens. They take a ‘my way or the highway’ position and have repeated showdowns with them. This power play works until the teens develop enough anger to break out, usually leaving hurt feelings on both sides. 5. The pressure cooker approach: Some parents try to hold on to the schoolage family way of doing things rather than make the transition into adolescence. They tell themselves, ‘Things are fine the way they are, and we want to keep them that way’. This approach ignores the fact that their child has outgrown the school-age parameters and needs room to grow. Only when a blow-up occurs, like steam released from a pressure cooker, do parents expand the boundaries. However, they tend to repeat the same pattern, and this results in a series of blow-ups throughout the teen years.

So what does work? From the beginning of time, the biblical principle for parenting teens can be summed up this way: ‘boundaries plus caring support’. Have you ever wondered what stage of life Adam and Eve were in when God created them and placed them in the Garden of Eden? Gen. 1. 26-28; 2. 4-25. Based on the account of their creation, they were mature enough to care for the garden, Gen. 1. 28; 2. 15, but inexperienced enough to need guidance, mentoring, and boundaries, Gen. 2. 16. They were mature enough to make decisions without supervision, Gen. 3. 6, but impulsive to the point of making decisions without considering the longterm ramifications, Gen. 3. 7-24. They were physically developed sexually as a male and female, but uncomfortable enough with their nakedness after their sin, to feel ashamed and to want to hide, Gen. 3. 7. Together, these characteristics present a picture not unlike that of late adolescence.

God’s boundary for Adam and Eve is the prototype for boundaries that parents need to emulate, His compassion for them once they transgressed is the model for parents who must deal with teens who transgress. God demonstrated His caring love for Adam and Eve both in setting the boundary and in responding to their transgression. The characteristics of God’s boundary for Adam and Eve should typify parents’ boundaries for their teenagers, Gen. 2. 16-17.

Boundaries should convey a message of latitude, not restriction: ‘You are free to eat’. Boundaries should provide specific expectations, not generalities, ‘But you must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. Boundaries should be clear about consequences, not vague, ‘When you eat of it you will surely die’. The most effective boundaries are: clearly stated as to expectations and consequences; firm, but having built-in flexibility; subject to being tempered by negotiation. These types of boundaries demonstrate caring because the maker of them has thought through them beforehand, and will exert the energy to maintain them. They provide security to the teen and also consider the teen’s perspective. Most importantly, they provide a continual reminder to the teen that the maker cares. More than anything else, they will help teens work out and appreciate the values inherent in the boundary, even though their actual behaviour may not be in compliance.

Conclusion The importance of biblical boundaries cannot be over-emphasized. You may have heard the famous, ‘Just Say No!’ adverts that prompt teens to abstain from drugs and alcohol. This concept has a biblical origin. Titus chapter 2 verses 11 to 14 says, ‘For the grace of God that brings salvation … teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness, and to purify for Himself a people that are His very own, eager to do what is good’. Parents who implement the ‘boundaries plus caring support’ principle in relation to their teens are promoting the cause of godliness by equipping their children not just to be good, but to do good in this world while preparing them for eternity.

Reprinted from the magazine Grace and Truth October 2000 issue, with permission.


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