Parenting teens can be difficult.
Teens can be unappreciative and demanding. They can push the limits of our patience and of our wallets. They can be moody, edgy, rebellious and hurting — all in the same afternoon! Sometimes our heart goes out to them, and sometimes we are counting the days until they leave home.
But parenting teens can also be very rewarding. During the teen years, we can have profound conversations with our almost-adults about ideas, faith, and the meaning of life. We can watch as their efforts pay off, and they achieve in sports, arts or academics. If all goes well, we start to be able to trust their choices, and our respect for them increases.
As we seek to navigate this challenging stage of parenting, one key principle to keep in mind is this: Focus on internals, not externals.
Focus On Internals, Not Externals
As parents, sometimes we focus on the externals, on things like our teen’s grades, performance or appearance. We forget that what’s inside is most important. Externals can be significant. But if we focus on them to the exclusion of internals, we’re missing the point. A focus on externals will make our teens feel less like we really care about them. They might say things to us like, “You only care about my grades, you don’t really care about me!” They are more likely to feel misunderstood, pressured, and alone.
Here are some examples of externals vs. internals:
Grades vs. Learning
A parent who is constantly calculating their teen’s grade point average or fretting about his grades is focusing on externals. In contrast, if we focus on our teen’s learning, then we’ll engage with our teen about the era of history they’re currently studying, or ask what they think about the story they read for their English class.
Decisions vs. Values
A parent who focuses on externals is concerned with whether or not their teen is making good choices. A parent who also considers internals is concerned not only with choices, but also with how the choices reflect their teen’s moral values. What criteria does our teen use to make decisions? If our teen is a people-pleaser who makes decisions based on whether or not authority figures will be pleased with her, we might like most of her choices, but her moral values are still immature.
Expression of Feelings vs. Feelings
If our teen lashes out in anger or is cranky and irritable, do we immediately jump in to correct him? Or do we take a deep breath and say, “You seem upset. What’s going on?” If we’re focused on externals, then we’ll miss the chance to learn more about what’s going on inside our teen. We’ll lose the opportunity to help him learn how to process difficult emotions.
Words vs. Thoughts
Are we more concerned about what our teen says and how she says it, or about what our teen thinks? Do we show interest in hearing her opinions and beliefs? Do we ever ask, “What do you think? How did you come to that conclusion?” Do we engage with our teen’s ideas? Or are we too busy correcting them for saying things we don’t want to hear?
External Appearance vs. Heart
A focus on externals includes a focus on outward appearances. It’s normal for parents to want our teens to look good and to behave properly. But remember God’s words to Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7: “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Ask yourself how God might view your teen’s heart. Does your teen have a growing love for God? Focus on the heart, not on outward appearances.
Actions vs. Identity
Parents of teens need to focus less on what their teen does, and more on who their teen is. During the adolescent years, teens develop an awareness that sometimes people put on masks and don’t show others the “real me” inside. Teens value authenticity — the sense that a person isn’t fake, that they truly are on the inside what they appear to be on the outside. When parents show an interest in their teen that goes beyond externals, the teen develops a sense that her parents want to know her authentic self — the person she is on the inside. That gives her a sense of safety and acceptance that helps her to mature.
“Shoulds” vs. Wants
An external focus tells teens what they “should” do. An internal focus takes in interest in the teen’s desires and aptitudes. What does your teen want, and why? Let go of your agenda for your teen’s life and explore what your teen wants for his life.
Performance vs. Growth
Rather than emphasizing our teen’s performance, a focus on internals focuses on our teen’s growth. So we don’t just celebrate athletic wins or musical achievements, we also notice our teen’s growth in self-discipline. We don’t just complement our teens for their performance, we also mention their character qualities, by saying, for example, “I’m impressed with how persistent you were in practicing that difficult piece,” or “You’ve really improved your passing game this year, good job! That took a lot of dedication.”
Address the externals. Externals generally do reflect what is going on inside. But focus on internals. A focus on internals lets our teens know they matter to us. It helps our teen to internalize God’s love and care for them. And it supports our teen as they move toward adulthood.
Question: What do you think? How is focusing on internals a challenge for you as a parent? You can leave a comment by clicking here.