Three Helpful Things to Do When Your Teenager Gets Defensive (Paul Tripp)

Most teenagers don’t walk into the family room and say, “You know, Dad, I was just thinking how wise you are and what a good thing it is that God put you in my life so that I could gain wisdom too. I thought I’d come and talk with you for a while and soak up some of the wisdom that you and I both know I desperately need.” No, it doesn’t happen that way. Teens don’t tend to beg for our wisdom. Yet we cannot give in and let them set the agenda for our relationship with them.

Ask yourself if you respond to your teenager in ways that make wisdom appealing. Do you make the taste of correction sweet? I watch parents make correction bitter as they beat their children with demeaning words. Make wisdom attractive. Make correction something to be desired. Don’t let your fear of the great what-ifs cause you to try to produce with human control what only God can produce by his grace. Win your children for wisdom. Be a salesperson for it. You don’t do this with nasty, inflammatory confrontations and ugly verbal power struggles. If you hit your kids with a barrage of verbal bullets, they will either run for the bunker or come out firing themselves. No wisdom is imparted that way.

A Good Rule

Here is a good rule: deal with yourself before you deal with your teenager (Matt. 7:3–5). Sometimes when I would begin a conversation with one of my teenage children, I would notice my wife waving her hands back and forth at me. No, she was not flagging in ships. She was telling me that I was not ready to have the talk. I needed to prepare myself by considering the issues at hand biblically, discussing them with my wife, and praying for my child and for myself. By the time I did all that, I would be in a completely different frame of mind and more prepared to function as God’s instrument of change.

After preparing yourself, talk with your teen in the right place at the right time. Get away to a quiet room in the house, preferably the teen’s room where he or she is comfortable. Don’t squeeze important wisdom or correction into busy moments or attempt it on the fly. Don’t conduct these moments in front of other people or introduce them as you are running out to the car on the way to school or church. Take time, and in so doing say, “You are important and what God says is important, so I am willing to invest the time necessary to be his instrument of correction.”

Be humble enough to admit that your teenagers do push your buttons. Get to know where your buttons are. Before you have the talk, pray that you would model the love of Christ before your teenager. If you begin to lose it, excuse yourself from the scene, pray, and get yourself together, then go back and complete the talk. Remember, giving wisdom is not hitting your teenager over the head with words. It is putting a lovely garland around his neck. It’s putting gold from God’s pocket into his hands. This is radically different from the way teenagers tend to think about wisdom and correction. Don’t confirm their view and allow these times to be robbed of their value and beauty by your sin.

Teens tend to be defensive. They often take our loving concern and parental help as an accusation of failure. In response, they defend their thoughts and actions and engage us in debate. We need to be very careful of the words we use. We need to be sure that we come to our children with honest questions, not accusations that come out of foregone conclusions.

We need to exercise God-given self-control. We need to stay out of loud arguments that have little to do with a wise perspective on the issues at hand and everything to do with who is going to win or lose the debate. Proverbs says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). We must studiously avoid getting drawn into emotionally laden power struggles.

Three Helpful Responses

Here are three very helpful things you can do when your teenager becomes defensive.

Clarify your actions. For example, you might say, “Don’t misunderstand—I’m not accusing you of anything. I love you very much, and, because I love you, I want to do everything I can to help you as you begin to move into the adult world. Don’t ever think I am against you. I am for you. If you ever think that I have misjudged you, if you ever think that I don’t understand, or if you ever think that I have expressed sinful anger toward you, please respectfully point it out to me. I want to be used by God to help and encourage you. I don’t ever want to tear you down.”

Help your teenager to examine his or her own defensiveness. Teenagers, like all sinners, suffer from spiritual blindness. They do not see themselves as they actually are, so they need our help. “You know, there is a lot of tension in this room. I haven’t yelled at you, I haven’t called you names, I haven’t accused you of anything, but it seems like you are angry at me. Could you explain why you are so angry? I don’t want this time to be uncomfortable for us. I didn’t ask to talk to you because I felt like a good fight. I love you and want to help you in any way I can.”

Be faithful in confessing your sins against your teenager. Expressing irritation or impatience, judging motives, name-calling, condemning, raising your voice, allowing yourself to become emotionally out of control, or hitting, grabbing, or pushing your teenager all fit under the category of “provok[ing] your children to anger” (Eph. 6:4) and must be confessed to God and to your teen. Your humility and softness of heart stand as wonderful models for your teenager. Declare, with humble assurance, your confidence in the forgiveness of Christ. By so doing, you let your children know that they are not alone in their struggle with sin, and you demonstrate that confession produces beneficial results.  Pursue your teenagers. Daily express your love for them. Don’t ask questions that can be answered with a yes or a no—ask questions that require description, explanation, and self-disclosure. Don’t relate to them only during times of correction. Don’t catch them only when they are doing something wrong; catch them doing something right and encourage them. Pray daily with them, even if it makes them uncomfortable.

Always find them in the house and say a warm good night to them before they go to bed. (Because this was our habit for years, our teens sought us out to say good night to us.) Enter the world of your teenagers and stay there. Don’t ever let them view you as being outside their functional world. Teenagers reject grenades of wisdom and correction lobbed from afar by someone who has not been on-site for quite a while. When you ask questions about their choices and actions, teenagers tend to respond by shifting blame. They will tell you that they didn’t hear your instructions or that you did not give them enough time. They might blame a sibling. These responses can get very frustrating. Anticipate the fact that you will need the self-control that only the Holy Spirit can give.

*This post is an excerpt from Paul Tripp’s excellent book, The Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens (newly revised and expanded edition).

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