A Plate of Fries

It’s amazing what you can learn from a teenage guy, when there’s a plate of fries on the table. He’s not much of a talker, but today my 18-year-old friend opened-up to me. “My mom’s so frustrating,” he said. “She never listens and all we do is fight! Most of the time I just stay in my room and play video games.”

Maybe you can relate. Sometimes the teens we interact with can seem aggressive, acting in ways that are baffling, insensitive, and irrational.

I’m sure, had his mom been sharing our fries, that she’d have rolled her eyes and said similar things about him. He’d already told me that when he’s at home he tends to be moody, uncooperative, and difficult to motivate, which explains, at least in part, why he failed all his 12th grade courses last year. Although I haven’t spoken to her, I would expect to find a mother who is completely exasperated.    

In her book The Teenage Brain, Dr. Francis Jensen explains what’s going on inside the average teen’s head. The frontal lobes of the brain are the last to mature during the teen years, as the brain develops from the back to the front. The teen brain is about 80% developed – leaving a 20% gap. You might find it interesting, that this part of the brain – the part that’s not yet fully operational – is responsible for moderating things like: mood-swings, irritability, impulsiveness, the ability to focus, judgment, and impulse control. I’ve been in a conversation with some parents recently who are at their wits-end with their teenage daughter. Her behaviour has changed radically in the last year, as she’s transitioned from a soft-spoken gentle girl, to an alien entity who now punches holes in the drywall. As we’ve talked, we’ve tossed around a few ideas that you might find helpful.

First, if you have a strained relationship with a teen, do your best to not make the conflict the center of your life. I know, easier said than done. But for your own peace of mind and for the others in your family, it’s wise to decentralize the conflict. It’s as simple as taking one night a week to be with a friend, to exercise, go on a date with your spouse (and don’t talk about the kids), walk the dog, take a hot bath – anything to remind yourself that you’re not suffocating and that there’s more to your life than a challenging relationship with a teenager. You may not be able to motivate the teen in your life to make healthy choices, but that doesn’t have to hold you back from making healthy choices for yourself.   

Second, practice praising the progress. Anyone who works with people will tell you that you’ll experience more progress and productivity with praise, than you will with criticism. During adolescence, teens are experiencing rapid change in every area of their life including body development, feelings, and their friendship groups. This constant and rapid transition can create anxiety, low self-esteem, and a sense of dislocation. To help ground the teen in a positive reality, find something in their life to praise every single day! You’ll be surprised how this practice can create a spontaneous combustion of thankfulness in your heart. Praise also provides a moment of honest connection and nurtures love in your relationship. Notice something every day to praise. “Thanks for locking the door last night.” “It means a lot to me when you turn the volume down, when I’m on the phone.” “Thanks for not putting a hole in the dry-wall.” Ok, maybe you’ll want to use that last one selectively, but you get the idea. Praise and thankfulness are often the first casualties in conflict. Make yourself practice praise and you’ll notice that your thoughts and feelings about the teenager are changing, even though the behaviour has not.

Finally, walk in prayerfulness. I know a couple who have been doing this in their home with great success. Not that they’ve been able to pray the conflict away, but the kind of success that continues to reorient their minds to what’s important. To what the teens in their family mean to them. To a God who is with them amid the family conflict. Walking in prayerfulness is submitting yourself, your words, and your actions to the Holy Spirit. Walking in prayerfulness is opening your eyes to the presence of God in your home. I love the words of Jacob in Genesis 28:16, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it.” In the broken dry wall moments – Jesus is present. In the heart-break – Jesus is present. In the tears, the laughter, the sadness, and the disappointment – Jesus is present. As you wait up worrying and wondering if your teen is coming home tonight – Jesus is present. Practice looking for the presence of Jesus and, like Jacob, you might be surprised to discover that God has been with you and the teens you love – all along.

Chris Marchand has worked with teens for over 30 years as a youth pastor, mentor, coach, father, and friend. He’s Lead Pastor of Niverville Community Fellowship in Southern Manitoba and is a parent of two amazing teenagers, who almost always like him. Feel free to contact Chris at: chris.marchand@nivcf.ca