Building a Bridge with Your Teen


As I was walking on the beach this morning with my granddaughter, we noticed children of all ages in a variety of summer camp programs. One particular teenager stood out. She was in the group, but not a part of the group. Among the twenty or thirty other teenagers that could not stop talking and laughing, she seemed alone and lonely. No one seemed to notice as she silently straggled behind the rest, head down, scuffling her feet and shoveling small amounts of sand with each step.

No camp leader or fellow camp attendee attempted to reel her in and include her in the adventures of the day. She was there, but invisible amidst the sun and surf enjoyed with obvious excitement by all others. Was this daily walk of loneliness to be the highlight of her summer break?

We walked behind her for the length of the beach and wondered why was she there, and apparently, without friends, siblings, parent or parents to share in the enjoyment of God’s creation. Was she sent off daily to camp so some well-deserved and hard-earned “adult time” on the beach could be enjoyed more privately?

What was the thought process? Was there obliviousness to her obvious lack of enthusiasm for a “summer camp experience” and a hope that this summer camp would suffice as some form of relationship therapy for social anxiety? Or was summer camp being served as a “change agent” and punitive sentence for some repetitive teen misbehavior? Were they simply too busy for a summer vacation this year and summer camp was less expensive than full time summer nanny-care? Were they just tired of dealing with the volatility of her teenage emotional mood swings and needed a break from the daily drama? Maybe the complexity of a divorce decree prevented the coordination of quality time with either spouse. Maybe they thought: this silent teenage sullenness is a part of her growing up? After all, she doesn’t seem to like us or need us that much anymore–camp will suffice instead.

As the group came to a halt, she too paused and stared out at the waves. Still standing apart from the rest, she seemed to drift into deep thought. Was she remembering beach times past, building sand castles and creatures as Daddy’s little girl or Mommies best friend? Her head arose as she took in a deep breath of ocean air, and for a moment, a smile brightened her countenance. Maybe, for a moment, she remembered what it felt like to be loved, understood, accepted and have a sense belonging or connection.

My husband and I served as High School Youth Group leaders for over four years. The teen or adolescent years are a critical transitional nexus from childhood to adulthood. This period of time is often convoluted for both parents and teens. Both struggle with the reality that the relationship and roles are changing and must change. The rod of discipline must be tempered into a fine balancing of relationship-based rules that create a bridge for discipleship and training for future adulthood.

Sadly, many parents misinterpret the God-given teen desire, driving toward eventual adulthood independence and go to one of two extremes–anger or enabling. Some see teen questions as judgmental challenges to their values, authority, disrespect or rebellion. Instead of returning what feels like wrath with gentleness (Proverbs 15:2), they respond with rules and a tightening of the reigns (in anger) that disconnects the relationship (See James 1:19-20). Anger will never turn someone from acting wrongly to acting rightly. Only kindness can do that. Other parents make the mistake thinking their teen just needs a good friend and no longer needs guidance or relational boundaries. Sure the law kills and love gives life, but love without truth/rules is a blind license to kill, be killed or destroy. The key is a fine fluid balance of truth and love and rules through relationship.

For teens, any conversations about rules must be framed in the context of value for the relationship and filled with “the whys” and reasons of any rule. “Because I said so,” is not an answer to the question, why? The best teachers earn the ability to influence: They lead by example, ask good questions, listen openly, share “the why” and know how to argue without fighting. The objective is to help our teens navigate a shift from horizontal parental dependence to vertical Godly dependence and trust. The key is to do this through a horizontal relational connection and teaching not preaching!

The Stretch for Independance

It helps to see our teens with one hand holding on to childhood and the other hand reaching for adulthood. With a world of influences, they are stressed by this stretching like a rubber band. One end is (hopefully) comforted and connected to the security found in the dependence upon a Mom and Dad at home. The other end is being pulled, drawn and driven to independence and adulthood. It is in the teen years that most young men ask themselves: What will I do to make my mark and how will I provide for those I love?

Most young women ask themselves: Will I find someone or something to pour my life and love into? These are big questions for impressionable and formative minds to answer. Even though these are worldly horizontal questions with a vertical answer, they can be consuming and worrisome for the teen brain. Quick Christianease answers like, “let go and let God” will hardly suffice. If your teen is willing to brave these questions with you, ask them a lot of questions, listen carefully and do not give out cliché answers. Teens need your honesty and transparency. “I don’t know” is actually a great adult answer.

If your teen exhibits increasing independence, this could just be a part of the stretching. It could also be a warning sign of a relational disconnect. Every relationship is like a bridge; it is wise to check the condition for strength (mutual trust and openness) and obstructions (fears, frustrations, hurts) frequently. Have you ever asked your teen how you are doing as a parent?

Other questions to ask:

  • Have I offended you?
  • Do you trust me?
  • How do you rate our relationship (1 to 10)?

Would your teen feel free to tell you the truth? Would they even engage and dialogue? Would you engage and dialogue with you if you were them?

The truth is that teens need their parents just as much as they always have, and in some cases more, but they need them differently than they did as preteens. Girls are especially in need of the closeness and yes, age appropriate, physical touch of their father as teenagers.

Even the most beautiful girl will likely struggle through an awkward ugly period, and our current social influences don’t make that any easier. It’s normal for fathers to think they should temper back the physical contact and pull away as they see their daughter changing and maturing physically into a young woman, but that is actually the worst thing they can do.

Girls still need the same abundance of hugs and kisses they received when they were younger. They still need to hear from their dads on a regular basis: “I love you and you are precious to me.” What Dads do at this age, and how Dad loves and honors Mom, will set the bar for any guy that shows interest in their daughter. Even though it is the last thing they would ever say, teen boys still desire and need a connection with their mother, too. They still need hugs and kisses just like they had when they were younger. They need to hear from their mom: “ You can do it; I believe in you; I love you.” They also need Mom to respect them and to stop telling them what to do. Instead, Moms should start asking for their help, ideas or answers to their challenges. Moms, you will set the bar for the kind of woman your son runs to and from!

The hardest part for the parent during this stretch is that one day they push us away and the next day they are “acting out” because they want time, love and affirmation from us. The key is…don’t give up! The bible tells us that we will reap a harvest at the proper time if we do not lose heart or give up. It also tells us to be forgiving and seek forgiveness often. Grace, forgiveness and love pave the walkway of every healthy relational bridge. We can tell you from our own experience, with sons in their 30’s, the reward is rich relationships as adults.

A Practical Step ( Just One of Many)

As our sons entered “the stretch,” Mom would have a one-on-one date with each one monthly. It would be something simple: shopping for new tennis shoes; or work clothes and pizza; coffee or ice cream. The main goal was to provide an environment for connecting and honest dialogue. Each son had their own one-on-one time to talk about anything and everything. Not only did it keep the relational bridge strong and clear of obstructions, it also taught our sons how to understand, relate to and practice honoring women. As our granddaughters have entered their teen years we have passed this torch to our son, who has been dating them on and off for years. When parents come to us for advice with their rebellious teen, one of the first things we suggest is for them is to take them on a date and start building or rebuilding a bridge. Don’t expect a date day to immediately fix a broken relationship, but it is a great first step of many.

All of us like sheep have gone astray, everyone to his own way. But it is the loving kindness that brings us to repentance. This also works with children of any age.

God designed us with three things in common no matter our age:

  • We want to be loved, accepted and a sense that we belong.
  • God loves us, accepts us, and is connected with us vertically.
  • He desires us to do the same horizontally with our children and others.

Lastly, please remember that our children are in a spiritual battle every day. Those of us in Christ must be in the battle for them and with them! We need to lift them up in prayer. We must fight the good fight for them. One of my favorite books I used and still use is by Stormie Ormartin, “The Power of a Praying Parent.” I encourage you, if you are in a heavy battle for your teen, to start using this book as one of your daily devotions. I use the prayer from the back of every chapter for each day of the month.

We hope you find this article enlightening, challenging and encouraging.


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