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Failed First Flights

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(by Mark Gregston, founder of Heartlight)

I found the following blog to be a note of great encouragement to any parents who may be struggling with a rebellious teenager. It is written by Mark Gregston, founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens. His perspective is realistic, wise and totally reliant on God. – Dawson McAllister

Want to know what you can do to guarantee that your children won’t fall prey to drugs, sex, and peer pressure in the teen years?

I often talk to people who believe that teaching good values — taking their kids to church every time the doors are open, putting them in a religious school, and promoting family togetherness — will guarantee that all will be well in the teenage years. Like buying an insurance plan, they think that doing the right things will guarantee the right result.

Sticking with the insurance policy analogy, why do we buy insurance? To help protect us if any unforeseen incidents occur, right? Car insurance is to protect us from the actions of other drivers as well as our own mistakes. Health insurance is to take care of anything that can happen to damage or weaken our bodies.

Do you see where I’m going? The things you did when your teen was a child WERE insurance policies. The problem is that insurance doesn’t guarantee safe passage through life, it just helps protect us in case something does happen. The foundation that was laid in childhood remains throughout a person’s life — good, bad or indifferent, it will always be there.

Let me tell you, based on years of experience with struggling teens and their parents, that thinking you can somehow provide safe passage through adolescence with a strong, scripturally-based parenting style is just plain wrong. Thinking you can do it all on your own is taking God and his redemptive grace completely out of the picture. So, to answer the headline of this article, there is NOTHING you can do to GUARANTEE your children won’t fall in the teen years.

Some quote the scripture “train up a child in the way he should go,” but that says nothing about the turbulent teenage years — just that they will end up coming back to your teaching later in life. You’ll want to remember the biblical characters with seemingly perfect spiritual upbringings that had difficulties themselves in their younger adult lives. So don’t forget the passage goes on to say,”…and when he is old he will not depart from it.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider a teenager as being very “old.”

Failed First Flights

Stuff happens along the way that is out of our control as parents, and even if we do everything right, stuff still happens. One angelic teenager in our family can lead us to think that we have found the right formula, right up until we see our next child go down a completely different path. Welcome to the real world — where God gives each of our children a free will.

One parent wrote me saying, “We’ve done everything right. We took our son to church, raised him in a Christian home, sent him to a great Christian school, home-schooled for a few years, have taken him on mission trips and poured our life into him. What has gone wrong? How can he reject all that we’ve taught, and all that we’ve been striving for?”

These parents raised their teen in the church and taught him good and strong values. Then one day, he decided that those things no longer worked for him, so he started “trying on” other values – values of his peer group. He was not interested in how his behavior made his parents feel. He was “in control.” He acted as he chose to act.

Every trick in their parenting bag failed. Their arsenal was empty. Did they do everything right? Possibly.

The pain and stress comes when we, as parents, recognize that our children have chosen poorly and are clearly (at least to us) heading down the wrong path. This is not just when their choices are self-destructive — drugs, alcohol, sexual promiscuity, etc. — but also when they begin practicing a different religion (or denomination), or to decide that after years of playing piano and winning competition after competition, Julliard no longer matters.

When your teen is struggling to discover his or her identity and trying to become independent, it can be an extremely frustrating and painful process for all involved. But it can help us better understand how God must feel when he see His children fail.

No parent is perfect, nor is perfection the answer, for even though God is perfect He still had a couple of rebellious kids. So, it’s not about the parent, and it’s not always about how they were raised. It’s all about the child and his God-given gift of individuality and free will, which is first exercised during adolescence.

I’m sure you really did lay a firm foundation for your teen. You did a great job! You did such a great job that your teen feels safe to create his own immature views. It may not seem like it now, but that is a very good thing. This is how teens become mature, well-grounded adults, who can contribute positively to this world. They are stretching their wings and preparing to fly.

Sometimes these “first flights” are hard for parents to experience, especially when they typically involve several failed attempts. The important thing is to be there when the wounded teen wobbles back to the nest, to encourage a stronger and more skilled flight the next time around.

Being a parent of a teenager can be hard work. There is emotional pain and even feelings of betrayal when our child gets off track in the adolescent years. But I know this — it makes us parents spend a lot more time on our knees! The process is therefore worthwhile. For in our journey, no matter how bumpy the turbulence, we may learn what God is trying to teach us as well.

greg dunstonMark Gregston is founder and director of Heartlight Ministries, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, TX. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy. His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173. (Read the original blog here.)

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