DEALING WITH TEENAGE REBELLION, SALT MAGAZINE (SPRING 2008) BY JAMES MCDERMOTT
I am very sad to say that one of the most common questions we get from homeschoolers is what to do with rebellious children. And there can be little doubt that the older children are, the harder it is to deal with rebellion. Perhaps the saddest rebellion a parent experiences is seeing his adult children rejecting the Gospel. But after a child leaves home he is legitimately free from his parent’s authority, so the parent isn’t normally dealing with rebellion as directly and personally as when the child lives at home. Ask anyone who has been there and he will tell you there is little peace in the home of a rebellious teenager.
There is a saying that goes something like this, “If you want to be good looking, choose your parents carefully.” The point being that decisions made in the past are irreversible. Telling a parent with a rebellious teenager that he should have done things differently when the child was young is about as helpful as telling him to choose his parents carefully. Parents with rebellious teens want to know how to deal with the problem they now have more than they want to know how they could have raised the child differently so the rebellion could have been avoided.
I personally have 7 children between the ages of 13 and 21, but none of them as far as I know would be considered rebellious (except in the eyes of God, who considers all sin as rebellion against His authority). I say this with great humility, knowing that it may be over 20 years before all of my children leave home. I am a sinner and my children are sinners and, therefore, I praise God that He has been gracious to me in that I haven’t had to deal with teenage rebellion even though I don’t deserve such an honor. One might conclude from this, however, that I should not be dispensing advice on how to deal with rebellious teenagers since I have no experience with them.
Sadly, however, part of my credentials for writing this article is that I was a very rebellious teenager myself. I had terrible, crying and gnashing of teeth arguments over things as silly as the fact that I wanted cotton jeans and my parents said they could only afford polyester. I ran away from home for 3 days when I was a senior in high school and I dropped out of college and lived 500 miles from home because I felt oppressed by house rules – I had to be in at midnight on weekdays and 1:00 a.m. on weekends. I lived on my own for 3 years before my life came crashing down on me. When things got ugly I came to my senses and the spiritual veil was lifted from my eyes. Thus, I do have some practical and personal experience with teenage rebellion.
I know this will be hard for the parents of rebellious teens to hear, but generally (meaning this applies to most but not necessarily to all) teenage rebellion in our culture is a function of a deficiency in the parenting process. Parents of rebellious teens, therefore, must humbly evaluate their character and their dealings with their children to see if there is something that needs to be changed. Often, parents are blind to things in their character or personality that fuels rebellion in their children.
If these deficiencies are not fixed, it will be difficult for the parents to win back their children while the children are still living at home. I may be lacking in only one area of my character and that one besetting problem could not only prevent me from driving rebellion from my teen, it may even cause my efforts to make things better to make things worse instead. If I were fighting a fire and I had the latest fire fighting equipment and if I had the best trained firefighters I would do more harm than good if I used gasoline instead of water to put out the fire. Parents who don’t recognize their flaws and who are not able to make necessary changes will probably be destined to pray for their prodigals after they have left home. This doesn’t mean that the prodigal will be lost for all eternity – for the prodigal who comes to his senses and returns to his father and his father’s God is a recurring story that has happened more times than we could ever count. Nevertheless, it is better, if possible, to drive out the rebellion while the child is still living at home than it is after the child is free from parental accountability and discipline.
Here, then, is a list of the flaws in character and parenting techniques that I have seen and believe must be resolved before teenage rebellion can be fought successfully.
#1. A weak will – I am truly amazed at the number of parents who cannot say no to a persistent child. Many children are trained from early on that continued whining and begging will lead a parent to give things that were previously denied or to eliminate punishment that had been promised for the child’s transgressions. Indeed, this parent trains his child for rebellion by allowing him to benefit from standing against the parent’s authority. In a battle of wills, the parent must never lose. And the confidence for a parent to deal decisively with a strong willed child should come from the Scriptures, which clearly give parents authority over their children and clearly command children to obey their parents. When parents givein to whining, begging, or stubbornly rebellious children they despise their God-given authority and become complicit in the child’s rebellion.
Weak willed parents are like the priest Eli, of whom God asked, “Why do you honor your sons more than me?” God said to Samuel of Eli, “At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family – from beginning to end. For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons made themselves contemptible, and he failed to restrain them.”
Weak willed parents often believe they love the strong willed child deeply, because they try so hard to give the strong willed child what he wants. But giving the child what he wants right now destroys his character and, indeed, his very soul. The Scriptures say, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.” Love is doing what is best for the child, which sometimes involves making the child unhappy (perhaps even with you) and sometimes it involves making the child feel real pain. Love is not gaining the child’s favor by allowing him things that are bad for him and it is not taking the pain out of discipline.
In the end, the favor the weak willed parent so deeply craves and which serves as the basis for so much compromise is inevitably lost. In the end, favor will give way to disrespect.
#2. A tyrannical spirit – If a parent is mean spirited, unfair, or difficult, he is much more likely to have rebellious children. Basically, this kind of parent is a tyrant and tyrants are obeyed only out of fear. If the tyrannical parent is strong enough, the child will either rebel in secret or wait to manifest his rebellion until he moves out of the house, but it is normal for all of us to rebel against tyranny.
A tyrannical spirit can take many forms – some more malignant than others. Some are violent and abusive. Some discipline their children too harshly so that the severity of the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.
Some parents are overly critical so that children feel they can never please their parents or live up to their impossible standards. Some parents are overly sensitive and take any form of disagreement or even questions as rebellion – which they are not.
Some enforce their discipline arbitrarily. The same behavior may yield no punishment one day, but get a severe spanking another. A child may get confused and frustrated over what the standards are and how they are enforced. Or, a parent may make rules that defy explanation or make so many rules that obeying them becomes overly stressful and limiting. Some parents play favorites – treating some children better than they treat others. Look at Jacob and see what hostility was wrought by his favoritism towards Rachel and Joseph. And finally, a parent may punish or accuse children for actions and motives he cannot prove. This parent inevitably disciplines his children for crimes they haven’t committed, which is exasperating for the children, to say the least.
The bottom line here is that if parents make themselves difficult to love, difficult to respect, and difficult to obey, they foment rebellion.
#3. Spiritual neglect – Although I have heard that they exist, I have never met a parent who didn’t feed his children. I have, however, met Christians who starved their children spiritually. They do not develop in their children the habit of daily Bible reading. They do not have regular family devotions where the Scriptures are read, explained, and applied to everyday life. The Word of God is not a normal part of their everyday conversation. Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4) Bringing a child to church once or twice a week is fine, but parents are not absolved of their responsibility to raise their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord because they take them to church a couple times a week. How weak would we be if we ate once or twice a week? Trust me, we will be spiritually weak – practically starving – if we are in God’s Word only once or twice a week. For some reason, some parents don’t believe we should compel our children to read the Scriptures. Yet, the vast majority of those parents do compel their children to brush their teeth. Parents compel their children to brush their teeth because they don’t want their children to lose their teeth. Why, then, can’t we compel our children to read the Scriptures so our children don’t lose their souls? Which is more important – our child’s teeth or his soul?
“Faith comes by hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:17) If we neglect to see that our children regularly feed on the Word of God, we should not be surprised if they lack faith in Christ. And if they lack faith in Christ, their minds will be hostile to God and they will be living according to the flesh. A child who lives according to the flesh will want to do bad things – he will want what is contrary to the Spirit. On the other hand, a believing child will live according to the Spirit and will want to do good things. It is much easier to raise a believing teen than an unbelieving teen, for it is against the nature of the believing teen to be rebellious. The believer may struggle with rebellion at times, but he will repent.
Why so many of us concern ourselves so little with the spiritual nurturing of our children is something I have a hard time comprehending. Why should we be surprised if our spiritually emaciated children rebel against God and against us?
#4. Lack of spiritual protection – When a tree is first planted it needs special protection. My hand pushed lawnmower is a lethal threat to a new tree. I could cut it down with a small weed whacker. I might even be able to cut a new tree down with a scissors. However, when the tree is full grown, none of these things are any threat to the tree at all. It is the same with children. When children are small they are spiritually vulnerable to all kinds of threats. But as they mature and grow spiritually they become able to withstand more and more until things that were once dangerous are dangerous no more.
When parents put their children in public school, expose them to morally corrupting media, or allow them to have unbelievers as best friends, they are subjecting their spiritual saplings to spiritual lawnmowers. The results can be tragic. Parents have a responsibility to protect their children from harm – especially from spiritual harm.
FACING THE REBELLION:
When a Christian parent faces his own flaws, he can then face the flaws of his rebellious child. Naturally, the older a child is and the more severe his rebellion, the harder it will be for the parent to purge his child of the rebellion. But the principles necessary to purge rebellion from a teenager are no different from the principles necessary to purge rebellion from a toddler – it’s just not as easy to apply them.
Necessary Principle #1
Rebellion must not be tolerated. Our children are spanked if they are caught knowingly disobeying. Almost all of the spanking in our house is done when the children are 2 or 3 years old and it is fairly uncommon for a child to be spanked who is older than 5. Although it is possible that some forms of rebellion in our house get by me – in other words, I am not a perfect parent and don’t implement my principles perfectly well – I do believe that the children know that blatant rebellion will not be allowed to continue. Period.
The fact that a child is a teenager is no reason to start tolerating rebellion. It is unlikely that rebellion will cease while a teenager is still at home until it is no longer tolerated. Many parents prefer to take a more “loving” approach, but trying to be liked by the rebellious child is not nearly as loving as risking your relationship with him to try to rid him of something that could destroy him.
Necessary Principle #2
Discipline must be painful enough to change behavior. It shouldn’t maim. It shouldn’t disfigure. It shouldn’t cause permanent injury. There shouldn’t be broken bones. It shouldn’t be cruel. But discipline should be painful. God’s Word says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.” (Heb. 12:11a)
The whole point of discipline is to train a child to choose good over evil by rewarding good and making evil painful. If the love tap on the backside or the taking away of meaningless privileges is a painless joke to the rebel, the discipline serves no purpose. The Scriptures say, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.” (Prov. 23:13-14) Again, Hebrews 12:11 says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” So then, the purpose of discipline is not rooted in anger, retribution, or cruelty, but in love – which should keep discipline from being overly severe.
Many of us take the sin of rebellion too lightly. The Bible says, “For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.” Teenage rebellion is not to be expected and it is not to be tolerated. It must be driven out of the child if it is at all possible and the way to drive it out is through the pain of discipline.
Necessary Principle #3
The child must be loved. Disciplining a rebellious teen is risky business and there is no guarantee that a proper handling of the problem will yield successful results. Every person – teens are people too – has a mind of his own. In times of conflict it is difficult to love the rebel, but we fight with different weapons than our rebel fights with.
The Bible says we should love and bless our enemies. Sadly, rebellious children are the worst enemies some parents will ever have. When we are not administering discipline, we should be as loving to the rebel as we are to our other children – no more and no less. There should be no favoritism. Our conflict with the rebellious child should be only at the point of discipline. When the discipline is over, the conflict should end.
We must try as hard as we can – easier said than done – to not let their rebellion sour our relationship with them when they are not doing anything wrong. We must not harbor bitterness. We must not carry a grudge. Indeed, we should love them deeply at all times. Whether they understand that we love them or not is immaterial. I could deny that God loves me because He doesn’t give me what I want sometimes and He disciplines me for my sin. But the Scriptures say that God shows me His love by disciplining me. (Heb. 12) Our job is to love our children the way God loves us, though our rebellious teens might not understand that we love them.
I still grieve over the pain I caused my parents. I told them I hated them. I disrespected them. I disobeyed them. And then I left them. If rebellion can be driven away in the home it is better by far, but sometimes the rebel chooses to leave. Sometimes the rebel must be forced by the parents to leave. If rebellion won’t be tolerated a child who is old enough must know that he cannot live at home and continue in his rebellion. Rebellious older children in a home are like gross sinners in the church. Paul wrote, “Hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. … Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.’ ” (1 Cor. 5: 5, 12b-13)
Yes, there may be terrible consequences when the rebel is free from parental authority. He may make decisions he will regret the rest of his life. He may even destroy himself. But he may, like the Prodigal Son, come to his senses and come home to his parents and to his God. One thing I can say about my own parents is that when I came back home they treated me as if I had never treated them badly. I don’t remember them ever bringing the subject up. What remarkable love is the love a parent has for his child.
We live in an age where discipline is frowned upon and we are reaping a great harvest of rebellious children. If we have a rebellious teen in the house we must be at least as strong in our discipline and in our love as he is in his rebellion. The answer to parents is simple, but the application is painful – for the parents as well as the children. Rebellion must not be tolerated. Discipline must be painful. Love must persevere.
Finally, we must remember that God has a long history of dealing with rebellious children. He understands more than you do about what you are going through. God knows what it is like to have hateful children – some who will repent and return and others who will never repent and never return. But God is waiting for us and for our rebellious children – always ready to take us back no matter what we have done.