What do you do when your teen rebels?
The walls vibrated from my daughter Janet’s rock music. I asked her to turn it down. She didn’t, so I did. My 15-year-old turned the knob back and stood in front of her stereo, challenging me to try again. The thought of fighting her repulsed me. How had my baby girl become this angry, defiant teenager?
Janet’s rebellion caught me off guard. My three older children made it through adolescence relatively smoothly. Janet’s drinking, profanity, sex, smoking and drug use turned our Christian, single-parent family home upside down.
Some said her rebellion happened because of poor discipline. Others thought that having her dad die when Janet was only 9 caused it. Whatever the reason, I had to figure out how to handle the present and help my daughter.
Family and church friends gave conflicting advice. Confused and hurting, I went to the only place I knew to go for answers—the spot next to my bed where I prayed. I begged God for help and soaked the bedspread with tears.
No perfect fix
I searched desperately for something to “fix” Janet—the right words, the right book, the right counsellor. I told myself that when I found the right fix, my daughter would again love her family, attend church and do well in school.
God showed me the futility of my quest and forced me to ask some hard questions. Did I really believe He loved Janet more than I did? Did I trust Him to care for her? Was I willing to allow Him to work in her life? I struggled and argued, but finally whispered, “Yes.” My yes helped me see that no perfect fix to sin existed apart from the Cross. Until Janet returned to it, I could only do my best and leave the rest to Him.
Even as God provided spiritual insight, He knew I needed practical help. I worked with the school, our church and a therapist. But when Janet ran away, I made the agonizing decision to put her in a lockdown facility.
After her previous outbursts or bad behaviour, I’d grounded Janet and withheld privileges, but my discipline intensified Janet’s anger. This time when I tracked her down and insisted she come home, she threatened to call children’s services if I touched her. I didn’t know what else to do. The trained staff at the lockdown facility provided tough answers.
One counsellor explained why groundings and withholding privileges sometimes fail. “For many angry teens, long-term discipline feeds their temper. During the time enforced, the teen dwells on the restrictions, seething inside.” The counsellor encouraged immediate discipline, such as cleaning a bathroom or washing a car.
“Say it once and then make it clear there will be no friends, phone, food or fun until it’s done. When the task is finished, let the offense drop.”
Another counsellor helped by saying, “Your daughter is too big to control, but you can control what is yours.” This kept me from telling Janet what she could or could not do, which was like tossing a match into gasoline.
Instead, if she wanted to do something unacceptable, I was to explain why I disapproved and refuse to drive, give money or help. Whether going to the mall on a school night or heading to the home of a questionable friend, Janet was on her own. My new options provided me ways to enforce limits.
God’s practical and spiritual help allowed me to see how my turbulent emotions affected my parenting. I’d go from wishing Janet would run away to fearing she would. I’d feel as though I hated her, then be crushed by guilt. These emotions made being consistent impossible. I needed strength to get beyond them.
“I’m either afraid or angry all the time,” I told God. “I need to not feel, but if I stop, will I stop loving Janet, too? Please God, take my emotions and keep them safe.”
After praying, with new, quiet strength I regained control. Janet noticed and tried to break it by her poor behaviour. Her actions hurt, but somehow I did what I had to and stopped arguing. “Your daughter enjoys a fight,” a counsellor said. “She gets an adrenaline rush from it. You need to refuse to feed it.”
When I would realize we’d begun yelling, I’d say, “I’ve made my decision; I’m done discussing it.” She’d demand that I keep talking. She’d slam doors and knock pictures off walls. Knots tightened in my stomach, but I would not fight.
One night when I’d taken away the use of my car from Janet, she lost control. I confronted her behaviour, but she refused to stop. I responded in a quiet voice. “Janet, I’ll take this for a while, but I can’t keep it up. One day, I’ll have to put your stuff on the porch and change the locks.”
She yelled back, “You do that, and I’ll make your life hell.”
Pain squeezed at my heart as I answered, “Yes, I know you can. And I can call the police, but is that really the relationship you want with me?”
My honest question took Janet aback. The angry flush drained from her face. “No,” she said.
Because God’s answers weren’t quick or easy, I questioned Him. He promised in His Word to be a Father to the fatherless. How could He abandon my youngest? Did I believe wrongly? But then I remembered the Lord’s tenderness when my husband was dying, how He’d taken care of us financially and how my other children loved Him. I had to hold on to God.
At 17, Janet said, “I want to move out, but can I visit, come for dinner sometimes and do the holidays?”
Janet is 29 now, and each year her choices improve, even though she has not yet returned to Jesus Christ. We respect each other and she often says to me, “I’m sorry for how I treated you, Mom.”
In my decision to trust God, He transformed the tears and pain. He helped me love Janet unconditionally and wait for the gradual restoration of my daughter.
Annette Cole lives in Springfield, Ore.