Of the many nuggets I’ve gleaned from my father-in-law, perhaps one I am most grateful for is his response to my husband’s teen years.
A lot of people find merit in Mark Twain’s quip: When a boy turns 13, put him in a barrel and feed him through a knot hole. When he turns 16, plug up the hole.
But my father-in-law wasn’t one of them. Those tornadic years of my not-yet-husband’s were a signal to pull out the outdoor gear, summit as many of Colorado’s fourteeners as they could knock out, and tack on some decent kayaking, cycling, and snow caving along the way. My father-in-law saw the rippling strength of the teen years as a chance to explore manhood together.
I’m just embarking on this slice of motherhood; my oldest son crosses thirteen’s threshold this summer. (Does this cause anyone else’s nerve endings to jangle?) But I’m already amazed at our entire household surfing along from the crest of his emotional waves to their troughs. I’ve met very few people who’d return to their junior high or high school years. (Certainly not yours truly!) These years smack with drama, and even trauma.
But as much as people have forecast heartbreak for these years of parenting—and I realize my portion will come—my husband and I loved our six years of youth ministry. It was a little like working with wet cement, these textured, gravelly years of becoming. We could hold gut-level conversations about real, heartrending issues. Our faith offers unmatched answers to the question marks looming in the teen mind: unfathomable meaning and purpose for their lives, far beyond themselves.
So this is a critical, prime season to come alongside them (i.e. not as their best friend or even a sense of authority, but partnership, as you prepare them for the handoff to adulthood) in pouring out their hearts like water to God. (Ted Tripp has a few great ideas about communicating with teens, to start with.) What could this look like practically?
- Use prayer to process raw emotion. The Psalms are striking examples of this. You might consider posting on your fridge Plutchik’s wheel of emotion, which helps teens to identify and articulate where they’re at. Help them to understand the necessity of honesty before God (otherwise, we leak!), and then of speaking truth to themselves. Help them pick out a journal, and consider finding some devotional prompts like these to get them going.
- Reveal—and help them identify God as Heart-healer. Teens resonate powerfully with vulnerability. As you feel comfortable, initiate open conversations about times past and present when you’ve struggled in circumstances or even with your own doubt. Communicate—with no agenda other than connection with your child and your God!—who He’s been to you in those times. This takes a lot of time and may make you feel like you’re running naked through an ice storm. But it creates rapport and relational intimacy that are far worth the minutes, and, um, icicles.
- Pack a toolbox. Believe it or not, many millennials are drawn to liturgy and traditional churches. One writer explains, “Young people today have been marketed to all their lives, and they can see past gimmicks and tricks. They find it refreshing to enter a building which openly proclaims itself as a worship space. They’ve swapped the salesman’s pitch for simple sacraments.” I personally like the Prayer of Examen, repeating the Jesus Prayer in meditation (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner), and breath prayers, available in these printables. (click to download)
- Have them take a hike. Encourage—and possibly provide picnic lunches and transportation for!—a hike or walk alone, expressly for getting away with God. You could even, say, take a walk after dinner together and spend the time praying out loud.
- Encourage prayer as art. If your son or daughter is artistic—in visual media, music, writing—encourage them to express their prayers and deepest longings through their talents.
- Help them sense their own vibe. Encourage them to go off-roading from the “usual” quiet time with ideas that explore how they most fully worship God. Here are 31 Anything-but-Vanilla Methods to Bring Fresh Flavor to Times with God.
- Explore prayer as meditation. Richard Foster names four kinds of meditation:*
- on Scripture
- stillness in God’s presence
- on creation
- on the events of our times
Particularly with teens, at the dinner table, after a movie, or on the way to school, talk about how Scripture applies to current headlines, media, or even situations at school. My mom was particularly amazing at applying Scripture to any situation—not in a Bible-wielded-as-medieval-cudgel sort of way, but more working it in to everyday life. From her, I learned that the Bible had something to add to or enlighten everything. Ask teens about relevant verses that apply to situations, add your own—and together, pray verses over your world and those you love.
- Make real conversations about faith a regular occurrence. If you’re already sharing vibrant discussions about faith, praying will come more easily whether you’re apart or together. My friend, author Kristen Welch, raves about using the super-simple Discovery Bible Study method for lively discussions with her kids and even their dinner guests—where everyone gets a notebook, and everyone responds to the passage.
- Let them lead. Whether it’s prayer at meals (you might gently ask beforehand) or nighttime prayers with a younger sibling, allow teenagers to practice leading others in prayer and faith.
- In conversation, treat them as if they already possess the maturity you hope for. This is a leftover lesson from our youth ministry years. If we interact with our teens in ways that trust them with issues and heady concepts that grapple with the complexities of faith, they’ll often step up. (I’m not talking about denying reality or being naïve; that’s a different post for a different time!) In this vital stage of helping them to adapt ownership, treating them as young adults who already possess a growing, vibrant relationship with God may encourage its reality.
*Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988.
Copyright © Janel Breitenstein 2017