Parents of prodigals recommend tough and tender parenting.

The worst nightmare of many parents is to have a rebel — a kid who makes their own destructive way through life, ignoring everything they’ve been taught, refusing to abide by any rules, causing chaos in the lives they touch. The fear is so great that some parents stress over everything their teens do, taking even normal behaviour as a sure sign that their kids are headed for the edge of the cliff.

Other parents do the opposite. They ignore obvious warning signs, hoping it’s a phase their kids will grow out of. I’ve talked with mums and dads who couldn’t believe the alarms they missed — a pot-smoking son coming home glassy-eyed and wanting to devour every snack in the house, an alcoholic daughter returning on weekend nights and vomiting on the front lawn.

One couple discovered their son had helped a friend break into a truck. Later they would say, “We didn’t think our son was capable of anything like that. Now we’re finding out, OK, he’s done some serious drugs, he’s been involved in a crime, he’s hanging with a kid we can’t stand. That night started us on the process of determining what we should do with him because it was apparent we had a problem here that was bigger than we were.”

No parent wants to live through something like this. But more and more are being forced to these days. They’re finding that no matter what they did to raise their children right, it’s possible that one or more will rebel.

Don’t give up

This is a tough section to write. Tough because there’s no easy answer to your situation. Each kid is different and will take his own detours.

That’s why each situation needs to be assessed individually. Consulting a pastor or counsellor is wise; sometimes more drastic measures need to be taken. When a teen is a threat to himself or others, for example, a place where well-trained professionals can monitor him 24 hours a day may be the best call. There are many good counsellors and programs available.

The temptation is to walk away, to throw up your hands and surrender. You wouldn’t be alone if you did. Many parents want to give up — and do. Unable to take the pain any longer, they protect themselves by pretending it doesn’t matter. Their child screams, “Leave me alone!” and so they just do what he says, removing themselves emotionally from his life.

What these parents don’t realise is that even though the teen’s every action and word are designed to push the parents away, deep inside he longs for his mum and dad to hang tough, to keep trying — to be there for him no matter what.

Insights from parents

It’s one thing for me to tell you what I’ve learned. What about parents who’ve watched their kids make bad choices, who’ve been dragged down the most dangerous detours, who’ve agonised and cried and prayed — yet somehow survived?

I’ve talked with mums and dads like these and want to share their insights with you. It’s surprising how many of them report learning similar things about what it takes to make it through. Here are some of their hard-won lessons. For more on this subject, see the book Sticking With Your Teen.

You can’t control your teen’s choices.
Once your child leaves the house, there’s no telling what they’re doing. They can listen or not listen in class. They can throw out the good lunch you made and eat grease-laden fries covered with nacho cheese and suck down a bottle of Coke. She can take drugs, cheat on tests, drive drunk — or study hard and land in the top 10 percent of her class. She can be class president or class clown. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Learn the art of relinquishment.
This means letting go. It may mean releasing your dream for who your child would be, giving up control over your teen, leaving the results to God.
Get help for yourself and your family. If you broke your arm, you’d rush to the emergency room for help. So why are so many mums and dads ashamed to get help when a family is broken?

Some parents prefer pastoral counselling; others opt for a counsellor. Just take that initial step and get help.

If necessary, get your troubled teen out of the house to protect the rest of the family. When a teen becomes violent or brings home illegal activities like drug dealing, it’s time to act on behalf of your family’s safety.

Forcing your teen to live elsewhere is no easy decision, and it should be made with the concurring wisdom of a professional. But if your teen is unmanageable, don’t hesitate to find a residential facility where he has a chance to turn his life around. At the very least, it’s a place for him to be relatively safe until he’s 18 and can sign himself out to live where he wishes.

For help in locating a program or residential facility that might suit your situation, go to Teen Challenge.

Don’t be afraid to let others know what you’re dealing with. One parent admitted, “We didn’t want the whole world knowing [about our rebellious teen] because my husband was an elder in the church.”

You don’t need to share details with gossipmongers, but be real. Many parents have been surprised at how their transparency proved helpful to families in similar situations. Pain shared is lessened; shared joy is increased.

Allow yourself some enjoyment.
Many couples who have rebellious teens put themselves in suspended animation, grimly hanging on “until this thing is resolved.” Some feel guilty about having fun when they should be “doing something” about the problem; others are too vigilant, tense, worried or embarrassed to enjoy anything. But you can’t keep going without recharging.
Don’t neglect the physical side of your relationship with your spouse. Take a weekend off. Set a regular date night, and don’t talk about the kids during that time. Relax in a bubble bath. Rent a funny movie, and watch it together.

Hold on to your core values.
Don’t let the continuing crisis wear you down. Did you believe before that God knew you, right down to the number of hairs on your head? He still does. Have you always felt it was important to give your child a present on her birthday? It still is. Did you think you needed to use your gift of encouragement in the children’s ministry at church? You still do.

Try writing in a journal.
Recording your thoughts, feelings and prayers can help you sort through the turmoil and discover what’s important. You can use a notebook, a blank book or a computer. You could even e-mail your entries to a trusted friend.

Be relentless.
Never give up. Move forward no matter what. Don’t stop the good stuff. Try new things when old things aren’t working. Stick with the things you know are right. Love unconditionally. Stay put as a parent when you’d rather run.

Be tough and tender.
You need a thick skin and a sensitive heart. That’s especially true when it comes to dealing with the comments of others. Even well-meaning people can be hurtful. Don’t let their barbs penetrate, but be tender enough to hear the supportive words others may offer.

© 2006 Joe White. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Excerpted from "Sticking With Your Teen" authored by Joe White, a Focus on the Family resource published by Tyndale House Publishers.

Joe White

Joe White is the president of Kanakuk Ministries, the largest organisation of Christian sports camps in America. He is also the founder of Kids Across America, a network of sports camps committed to reaching inner-city youth. Joe is a well-known public speaker in settings ranging from stadium events to NFL locker rooms. His expertise in parenting and relationships has resulted in more than 20 books including Irresistible Love, Faith Training, and Sticking With Your Teen.

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