By Agnes John
THE MOMENT AN ADOLESCENT APPEARS in a family (intrudes, it almost feels like!), the home ceases to be ordinary. Suddenly and without warning, your docile child has morphed into a sullen, moody, uncommunicative teenager who dyes her hair and rocks with the latest boy bands.
It is easy for us to see children as God’s gift to us. It is more challenging to see adolescents in the same light. And yet they are. Eugene Peterson believes that adolescence is an experience to be embraced as a gift from God. By modifying the way we exercise our authority and readjusting our expectations this can be a time when parents can grow closer to their teenager as well as to God. A lot of hard work and prayer is involved, for in the awkward packaging of adolescence, parents will often find their love and patience tested to the limit.
Adolescence is a time of identity formation. Teenagers are busy discovering who they are, and they are working hard at developing an identity that is separate from their parents. They are no longer the child their parents dictate things to. They want to be different and they provide evidence of this in hair and clothing styles that are different from what their parents prefer. Any comment on the part of parents may be met with a rolling of the eyes. As wise parents we need to choose our battles carefully and not let these kinds of conflict dominate our relationship.
Central to their identity formation is their identity as a child of God. They need to see that their relationship with God is the most significant reality, not their social relationships, not even their emotions. It is God. As they discover their personal identities and make their personal decisions, they do so conscious of the fact that they are a child of God in a world of spiritual reality. In gentle and respectful ways, we constantly seek to remind them that God is at the centre of the universe, not them.
Teens do not want us to make decisions for them. They want to make their own decisions. Yet, they need to be taught decision-making skills and practise making good decisions. One way we can encourage this process is to give them a voice in matters such as household rules (the negotiable ones), family holidays, family meals, home improvement and electronic equipment to buy. They are more knowledgeable than us in some of these matters!
Adolescence is also a time when parental authority is challenged. That parents have authority is obvious. How they exercise that authority is not. Eugene Peterson says that “if one of the essential tasks of adolescence is to learn to internalise acts of obedience and submission … the corresponding task of parenthood is to learn how to exercise the authority in proper ways, in wise ways, in Christian ways.” i
Our authority must be courteous. We are not to shout. Exercising our authority does not mean doing whatever we wish however we wish. Our authority is for the purpose of “discipline and instruction in the Lord”, not a licence to get our own way. God never makes us do anything. He loves us and disciplines us, but He never forces His will on us.
Growing up is difficult enough, and as parents we should strive (with much prayer) to provide a safe and stable environment for this turbulent but temporary phase of their life. Our adults-in-training will become adults one day!
i Eugene Peterson, Like Dew Your Youth. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974) p. 30.
Agnes John serves as a youth worker in TRAC Youth Ministries. She is married with three grown-up children, aged 27, 24 and 22.