I’m grateful for the opportunity to help the parents of teenagers, whether through our residential program, through books, our blogs, seminars or our two national radio programs.

As you can imagine, I also receive numerous calls and emailed pleas for help from parents of struggling teens every day. I’d like to share a few excerpts from the messages I received in my email inbox today:

Well . . . on Christmas Eve, I kicked my daughter out of my house (she is my eldest) because for the umpteenth time she didn’t have any desire to follow rules, not lie or respect her family . . .

and . . .

My 13-year-old son does not mind me at all. Every word that comes out of his mouth is a lie, and he has also been stealing things and getting into trouble at school. His attitude is, "I don't care about anything," and I am afraid that his bad language and bad habits will start affecting my three-year-old . . .

also . . .

We have currently been experiencing some problems with our 14-year-old daughter. She has tried to run away once and has gotten into fights at school. She is very defiant towards us and is really hateful toward her younger brother – age 10.

and . . .

We are dealing with our 15-year-old daughter who is convinced she's a lesbian, is cutting and possibly has an eating disorder.

Like these concerned parents, you might be hitting a bump in the road. You hope there will be better days ahead. Perhaps you would like your child to stop lying, be more respectful, get better grades, or act as if they appreciate all you’ve done for them. Or, maybe it’s more than that, and you don’t know exactly what needs to change, but you know something must change or your family won’t hold up under all the strain and stress of living with an out-of-control teen.

We don’t often think of change in terms of giving something up in order to gain something better – especially as it applies to parenting. Usually, we believe that things will get better if we just clamp down harder and get things under our control. But that’s not always the case. So, let’s talk a minute about Power Parenting.

Empower your teenager

Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do as a parent is to give up some of your power over your teen. A line from the 1994 publication Flight of the Buffalo says it best: "Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have – and underestimate the value of what they gain by giving it up." I tell parents all the time, if you want your child to grow up, you have to let go of some of the power and control over their life.

It boils down to one very simple concept: the best way to empower your teenager is to gradually share the power you have, allowing them more and more control and responsibility for their own decisions.

To empower your child, hand them the responsibility for their own decisions.

For the helicopter parent, the habit of picking up the slack, covering all the bases, answering all the questions, solving all the problems, and making everything easy for their teen is not doing the teenager any real favours. Instead, it keeps them immature, dependent and powerless.

Responsibility becomes an internal life force when parents empower a child to make decisions, line out their options, define the consequences and then let them choose.

If your teenager is fully capable of doing well, communicate that belief to him by handing over more and more control and responsibility. Fortunately, most teens want to take control of things in their life, so let them. Let them make choices, but also let them bear the responsibility for those choices. Line out their options, define the consequences and then let them choose. Then, don’t rescue them or hold back one bit in relation to enforcing consequences for their poor choices. And don’t forget to congratulate and reward them for making good choices!

When empowered, your teen’s expectations will shift away from leaning on mom and dad to fix everything, to understanding that they are the ones responsible for how things turn out. They may make many mistakes before they begin to understand what good decision-making looks like. And they may even try every trick in the book to get you to rescue them out of their poor choices. But don’t do it! Hold them responsible, just as they will someday be held accountable as an adult.

When to exercise full parental power

Now, let me address the family dealing with a teen who is spinning out of control or has issues with drugs or alcohol. This issue is entirely different. In this day and age, a child choosing to self-destruct or to live a dangerous lifestyle could end up in serious trouble or could even die. In situations like this, empowerment shifts back to the parent, who must intervene and retake decisive control.

In this case, I recommend taking whatever measures are necessary to ensure the safety of your teen. It’s up to you to create a solution, such as counselling or rehab, or he may need to live somewhere else while going through this. And you, too, will need to surround yourself with good counsel and a group of godly friends who are willing to pray with you and encourage you.

Before you determine the needed changes, get the right kind of counsel to map out a plan of action. Then, with plan in hand, and with all the power you can muster, communicate this message: "Honey, we love you. Nothing you do or say will make us love you any less, and nothing you do or say will make us love you more. But we are not going to live like this anymore. Since you are not making the right choices on your own, here is what will change in your life, as of today . . ."

In closing . . .

I want to share a heartbreaking email message I just this minute received as I was finishing writing this article, this time from a teenager . . .

I have been in a program before but was kicked out because I didn't want to obey the rules. When I got out I realized I needed help and wish I could go back. I suffer from depression and cut myself. I attempted suicide and almost died, then went to a program and didn't want help so didn't take it. I can be very verbally abusive to my parents and do hit them. I was adopted and have had lots of issues with that. I need help and am willing to do whatever it takes to receive it. – Marie (age 15)

Some may believe that teenage problems are generally trivial and "child’s play," or that parents are just overreacting. I hope that such a plea for help from a dear 15-year-old teenager sheds a different light on the struggles of teenagers today and what we deal with every day here at Heartlight.


If you would like to talk to one of our professional counsellors about struggles between you and your teen, we invite you to contact us for a free, one-time phone consultation. Please call our care associate at 1.800.661.9800 Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host and the founder of the Heartlight Residential Counseling Center for Struggling Teens. This article originally appeared in Mark Gregston's blog post “Power Parenting" at Heartlightministries.org.

© 2009 Heartlight Ministries Foundation. Used by permission.

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