How to Help Teens Make Good Decisions
HELPING TEENS MAKE HEALTHY DECISIONS
by Walt Mueller
*This article originally appeared in Living With Teenagers magazine
It was when my own children were toddling around our house that a father of a teenage boy asked me a question I'll never forget: "How can I expect my son to hear the still small voice of God with all those other voices screaming in his ears?" I never fully understood the seriousness of his question until my children entered their teenage years. Like their peers in the generation labeled "Millennial Kids", my children are facing an unprecedented array of attitude and behavioral choices while growing up in a postmodern culture that says the final court of appeal is how "I feel" at any given moment in time.
The "voices" are getting louder. While there are lots of kids making good choices, teenage behavior indicates far too many are traveling through adolescence and into adulthood without making good decisions.
There are the "will I or won't I" decisions all kids face. Usually related to moral and ethical dilemmas, the negative fruit of their decisions can be seen in some of the current statistics on teen behavior. By the time they reach their senior year in high school, over 65% will have had sexual intercourse. Almost 55% will have used some illicit drug. Over 70% of high school students and 54% of middle school students admit to cheating during the prior 12 months.
In addition, they all face the "what should I do?" decisions. While not always related to issues of right and wrong, these choices are nonetheless extremely important. The adolescent years are filled with questions about what music to listen to and what media to watch. Teens make choices on how to spend their time and money. What about choices related to vocation and how I will spend my life? They make daily decisions on friends and issues related to peer pressure. They make important choices on how to handle and resolve interpersonal conflict. Will I marry? Who will I marry? What role will faith play in my life? The list goes on and on.
What role do you as a parent play in helping your teen wade through these choices and onto the point of healthy decision making? Wether you know it or not, you do play a powerful role. In fact, even though it may seem like all those other influences may drown you out, you still play the most significant role of anyone in their young lives.
Deuteronomy 6 and the rest of the Scriptures clearly teach us that God has established parents as the primary spiritual guides and nurturers in their childrens' lives. One of the most important tasks we face as parents of teens is our God-given responsibility to help them make good decisions in this confusing world. What are some of the steps we can take to guide our teens into making healthy decisions? Here a few timely and helpful suggestions:
First, understand that they are extremely vulnerable to making wrong choices. When I find myself expecting my kids to respond to a situation by making the same choice I would make, I'm not being fair. I forget that my decision-making ability has grown out of years of accumulated wisdom and experience that I've gained over 45 years of making mistakes! My kids don't have that same experience. Add to that the fact that they are going through the most change and question-filled period of life, and it's easier to see that it's tough for them to go it alone. I often describe teens as "walking question marks trying to find their way through the earthquake of adolescence." But even though they are vulnerable to making bad choices, teenagers are just as able to make good choices. The key? They need us to walk alongside as guides while we take the time to answer their questions and guide them through the earthquake of adolescence. God has given them the gift of parents.
Second, we must realize that the best way for us to train them to make good decisions is through example. "Because I said so!" isn't a reason we can give them as we make their decisions for them. Instead, we've got to go beyond words to tap into the incredible power of example. Before we tell them how and what to decide, we've got to show them how and what to decide through consistent example. Invite them into your decision-making process by allowing them to watch you struggle with, process, and come to some resolution on the difficult decisions you need to make. Be sure that your life is shaped and guided by God's Word and that you aggressively seek to integrate your faith into all areas of your life. This generation of millennial kids is prone to learn relationally rather than propositionally. "Show and tell" is the way they learn best. For better or for worse, parents are still the most powerful role models in a young person's life.
Third, teaching teens to make good decisions can't happen without giving them the gift of our time. The power of example and positive guidance increases as we act on the resolve to spend time with our kids. Lack of time is interpreted by them as rejection. Rejection can quickly grow into resentment. Resentment is the seed bed of rebellion. Teenage rebellion is often a deliberate effort to do the exact opposite of a parent's desire and can be at the root of many unhealthy decisions.
Fourth, be proactive, looking for any and every opportunity to guide them into good decision making. One of the keys to parenting teens is knowing how to seize and make the most of those "teachable moments" that come several times a day. When they face a point of decision, create an atmosphere for openness so that they will seek your advice. That atmosphere of openness is best created by being a good listener. Once they know they've been respectfully heard, your job is to gracefully shoot straight, letting them know where you stand on the issue and why.
Fifth, teach them to use Scripture as a decision-making guide. We live in a day and age where personal feelings and preference have become the guides for living and deciding. Perhaps the loudest lesson spoken by our words and example must be that there is an unchanging standard of right and wrong that lies outside ourselves and that true freedom can only be found by living according to that standard. The light of God's Word illumines all of life and each choice we make. The Scriptures are clear that blessing comes from following the guidance of God's Word (Psalm 1; II Timothy 3:16). We must train them to search the Scriptures for guidance and direction. God has something to say about matters of honesty, integrity, character, work ethic, sexual behavior, substance abuse, vocation, athletics, time, dating, etc. Making a decision based solely on how something "feels" is a dangerous way to live.
And sixth, we must use stories to teach them that all decisions have consequences. Stories connect with kids by putting meat on the bones of abstract concepts and ideas. One of the best ways to help our kids consider the consequences and implications of their decisions is by pointing them to others who have reaped the benefits of good choices and the painful agony of bad choices. The Bible is full of stories that can be read and retold. Whenever I talk to kids about sexual choices I tell them about David's adulterous relationship with Bathsheeba. While the story itself is powerful, it's David's gut-wrenching cries of remorse in Psalm 51 that shed light on the result of sexual sin. The newspaper is full of stories about the consequences of both good and bad decisions. Finally, don't be afraid to tap into your own experience, giving your kids firsthand accounts of the good and bad choices you've made over the course of your life. Your honesty and vulnerability about your own life goes a long way in cementing these lessons into your child's head and heart.
Every parent must remember that teens who grow up in today's youth culture face lots of confusing decisions. It's a tough world out there and the "voices" are loud. They need your voice and life to reflect the voice of the Creator. Are your speaking to them?
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