It is tough parenting a teenager. Those of us with adolescents in our homes joke about it. We tell others with pre-pubescent kids to “watch out.” It’s all truth in jest. Most of us are hiding our overwhelming feelings of inadequacy. I understood how to put a Band-Aid on a scraped knee and how to give a bottle to a hungry baby. I can stay up with a sick child and care for them. However, one day my “little one” became distant and disconnected. Now it’s no longer simple to figure out their thoughts. A groan no longer means merely, “I am hungry.” Now it could mean so many things—and I don’t understand the language.
I am a youth worker, and I still feel this way! My mantra is, “No matter how much time they spend with us, they still go home.” A youth worker who tells me a parent is “too far gone,” or that I “don’t understand how disconnected they are,” sounds like nails on the chalkboard of my soul.
But there’s good news for both youth workers and parents: There are five things we can do to set parents up for the win!
1) Tell them first.
We like to set the students up as leaders by sharing information with them first about upcoming trips, camps and conferences. Then we expect them take that info home and share it with their parents. Yet, it’s the parents who hold the keys to the schedules and the finances. If our students get hyped up for an upcoming event, parents feel like the bad guys when they have to say no. What if we flipped the script and shared information with parents before the students? Tell them the when, the where, the how and, most importantly, the why. Think through answers to all of the questions they might have, like questions of safety, chaperoning and fundraising. Parents become the heroes if they’re the ones who get to ask, “Hey, do you want to go to camp?” instead of being blindsided with, “Mom can I go?”
2) Respect them in front of their kids.
Each parent has a reason for the decisions they make about their children. We will not always agree with those choices, and that’s alright. But the last thing we want to do is drive a wedge into the relationship between parent and child. It may feel like we are supporting a student when we side with them against their parents. We are not. Always respect decisions and parenting styles in front of the child. If you have genuine questions or concerns, approach the parent without the child present.
3) Encourage your students to talk to their parents.
One of the best ways we can set parents up for the win is to keep pointing their kids to them. The number one complaint parents with teens have is, “They won’t talk to me.” These years are a tug-of-war for independence. Youth leaders feel great when students tell them, “I could never talk to my parents about this.” Yet we have to ask if they should really be sharing these things at home first. You still have a crucial role: Teach your students how to talk to their parents about life. Help them learn to open up and communicate. They have no idea that, nine times out of 10, if they actually talked to their parents, many of their issues would be solved.
4) Get to know them.
Too often our definition of partnering only includes sharing information that is important to us. But it’s so much more than that. Dynamic relationships with parents are more valuable than we could ever know. I might be too proud to tell you that my child can’t attend a trip because we can’t afford it. Instead I make up some excuse. On the other hand, if you actually know me, you can let me know there is help available for something like this. Recently, a friend discovered one of his students was involved in self-injury. Thankfully, he had a good relationship with the mom and felt comfortable calling to tell her what he had discovered. He could offer his help and support. Before he called, he did some research on places the parents could seek professional help. It turns out, the parents were aware, and the student was already in professional counseling. It meant a lot to this parent that the youth pastor had noticed, been concerned enough to call home, and was now an extra rung on the student’s ladder of support.
5) Let them be the parent.
Don’t know how your parents need help? Just ask them! Create groups where they can come together and find solidarity with others struggling to raise teens. Provide resources like training, books or even a weekly article about parenting. Take the time to write the parents in your group a handwritten thank you note. (If your group is large, enlist small group leaders to help.) Thank parents for allowing you to get to know their child and for raising and encouraging their kids. Let them know you are privileged to be an additional voice in the life of their child, but you are thankful that they are the parent.
*A note about “unchurched” parents: Inevitably when I write a post like this, someone asks, “But what about parents who are not believers, who are disengaged, or distracted, or neglectful?” I cannot say this strongly enough: If a child is in real danger, call Child and Family Services. If not, then they are still the parent. Remember, the Lord loves each member of the family. If parents are not stepping up spiritually, point students to the truth of the Word of God, not to your opinion. Other than that, I wouldn’t do anything differently. Treat them with respect, try to build a relationship with them and expect God to show up.