There’s no such thing as a perfect family, but some of our teens face a more difficult situation at home than others. Their parents are divorced, they’re growing up in a single parent family, they’re part of a complicated family structure with step- and half-siblings, you name it. Or they have to deal with unsupportive parents who are not doing a good job in raising them, who take their own frustrations out on their kids.
How do we help our teens to deal with difficult situations like this with their parents? Is there any way we can help them, equip them? Can we in any way compensate for what they miss out on? Here are some of my thoughts.
1. Help them understand
While it’s certainly not their task to be the adult in the relationship, it does help if teens understand their parents better. That means we may need to take the time to explain difficult family dynamics, or educate them on the effects of, for instance, divorce or loss.
We need to be careful not to condone any negative behavior, but we can try to make the teen aware that there are reasons for it. Also, it’s important to realize that this is especially tough for younger teens who have a hard time understanding abstract concepts and emotions, so make it as clear and concrete as you can.
If we can help teens understand their parent(s) better, it’s a good first step in coming up with a constructive approach to the situation.
2. Help them respond
It’s tough for teens to respond well to difficult situations, especially when they feel they aren’t in any way responsible. That’s why it’s good to make teens aware that they may not have a choice in the circumstances, but that they do have a choice in how to respond to them.
What we need to realize is that as Christians we have a tendency to set the bar extremely high in these situations. We tell teens to respond in love, with forgiveness, we tell them they need to be the least, to turn the other cheek. It’s not only impossible to be that perfect, it’s also very abstract.
Instead of giving teens lofty advice, help them find a good response in situations they face regularly. Ask them to name a few difficult situations they have to deal with daily or weekly. Talk these really through with them and then help them come up with a constructive response. Practice it with them if necessary and keep asking how they’re doing. When they’ve ‘mastered’ these situations, help them come up with good responses to other situations.
3. Help them cope
Kids deserve better than dealing with difficult parents. They need our help to come to terms with what’s happening in their home. So give them a chance to talk about it, to be sad about it, to grieve about it even. They have a right. Even when the circumstances are out of control for the parents (like an unwanted divorce), teens need a place to be angry about this. Often they can’t show this anger at home, because they don’t want to upset mom or dad even further. Give them a safe place to work through it.
4. Help them find truth
One of the most difficult situations is when teens only hear negative messages at home, when one or both parents are systematically undermining their self-worth. This is when they need you to speak the truth and God’s truth into their life. You’ll need to give them the messages they need to hear, but don’t get at home. You’ll need to affirm them and so counter the damaging influence of what they hear at home.
In these situations, finding a mentor for the teen who really has the time to share life with them is a great idea. These teens are extremely vulnerable and you need to pour love into their lives as much as you can, so if you can find anyone willing to do that (maybe even someone who can be a ‘parent’ or ‘grandparent’ to them), that could make a huge difference.
5. Help them find help
There’s a fine line between facing a difficult situation at home and neglect or abuse. When you have teens who are at risk for this, do keep a close eye on their situation to make sure it stays on the right side of that line. Talk to these teens, make sure to win their confidence so that they know they can come to you if they’re in trouble. Communicate that they have a safe place with you, that they can come if they need to, that you will help them.
And help them find help when necessary. If things get out of hand, help them report it to authorities. Help them make the right choices.
In all of this, pray for these teens. Pray that God will protect them, their hearts especially, that they will not only survive but thrive. Pray for lasting changes and improvements in their circumstances. Pray for wisdom for yourself, that you may win their trust and do the right thing. Pray that your heart will be overflowing with love for them, so that God may use you to bless them greatly.