5 principles for parenting a teenager


I see a lot of teenagers for sports physicals. When I do, the actual physical exam only takes about 5 minutes. Most of the visit is conversation about the things that are most likely to threaten the health of an adolescent- sex, drugs, alcohol, smoking and depression.

At a recent appointment, I asked a young girl whether she had become sexually active. When she said, “no,” I asked a follow up question.

“What are you beliefs about sex? Is it something that should wait until marriage or until you have been in a relationship a while?'

I could tell she had not intentionally thought about it before. She replied she wasn't sure, but she knew she wanted to wait a while. I shared my common counsel- if you don't want to have sex, don't be in a place where sex can happen! If you are alone in the living room with a boy and no one is at home, sex can happen. If you parents are there in the living room watching TV, not so much!

We then talked about alcohol and drugs. She did not drink or use, but some of her friends did. She seemed surprised when I suggested she consider finding new friends. I explained that while she may think that she would never do those things, if she had a really bad day someday where she failed a test, broke up with a boyfriend and her dog died, that she might not be as strong in her convictions when a “friend” said, “Try this, it will make you feel better!” I shared with a smile that if she didn't have friends who used, this couldn't happen. Her response told me my words stimulated some new thoughts about how to arrange her life.

Reflecting on conversations such as this one reminded me of the principles my wife and I used as our kids were growing up, rules that worked well as we tried to raise children with values and who loved God.

1- Teach values before rules

In our home we spent a lot of time talking about what we believed and who we wanted to be. We first talked about where we wanted to go in life, then we talked about how to get there. Instead of simply telling kids not to have sex before marriage, we taught our children that being moral was a core value. If children want to be moral, rules become tools and guides helping them be who they want to be instead of arbitrary limits on their behavior.

2- Spent a lot of time with your kids talking about life

When my daughter was 8 we started going out to breakfast together every Saturday morning. She loved the cinnamon roll french toast, I loved the conversation. We talked about her week, her friends, her favorite TV shows, whatever she wanted to talk about. As we did, opportunities arose for me to apply biblical truth to her life and encourage her and praise her. These times laid a foundation for future conversations.

3- Have a plan

When our kids were going to birthday parties and sleepovers, we had discussions about what to do if things went south. We had a plan of how to respond if there was alcohol, or if the parents left. These plans became the standard.

4- Set the example.

This truth seems obvious, but many parents fail to embrace it. As much as possible, we follow the standards that we set for our children. We check the content of movies before we see them. If there is nudity, we don't go. We turn the channel when a TV show gets inappropriate. We talk about making a stand in our workplace and in our personal relationships, and share stories about it when we do. Our children have seen us live out what we believe and have seen it work in our lives. It adds immeasurable credibility to our words.

5- Start young!

It is really hard to start parenting when your child is 16. Begin instilling values at a young age. When our daughter was 11 she became best friends with a girl in the neighborhood whose family did not share our values. We talked often about how, when they reached high school those differences could impact their friendship, preparing her to make a stand for what she believed in. Sadly, this did occur, but our discussions had prepared her, and difficult as it was she was able to stand firm in her convictions.