How to avoid overdrafting your teenager’s emotional bank account

I have three young adult daughters, ages twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-three. 

By all appearances, they seem to be on a productive and functional path to adulthood. Perhaps this is due to a lot of hard parenting work, but even more, it is by the grace of a very good and faithful God. 

But I have to tell you, with regard to raising teenagers, I haven’t always been my best. My personality is apt to be rather feisty, and I have a temper to back it up. 

Now look, I am just telling you how God made me. I am not making excuses for when my temper gets the better of me, resulting in words and actions I can never take back. 

Too angry to be effective

One occasion stands out vividly in my memory. It was a Sunday evening, literally five minutes before company was due to arrive. Halle, fifteen-years-old at the time, appeared at the top of the stairs crying because her sister Shelby would not allow her to borrow her black tights. And thus, Halle had “nothing to wear.” 

Side note: Halle had spent the day with a friend at the zoo unchaperoned—something I wasn’t sure about initially. But in the end, I relented and allowed her to go. You would think an unchaperoned zoo day, with a friend, would have made her a grateful child the whole evening! 

Shelby wasn’t home when Halle left for the zoo, so Halle went into her room and borrowed clothes without asking. (This might have had something to do with Shelby’s refusal to loan Halle the tights.) In any case, now Halle was angry, demanding me to force Shelby to comply. 

I went up to her room, and in a rush of emotion, I told her: “Company is arriving in five minutes. Get dressed, put yourself together, and get downstairs.” Her response: “I’m not coming down. I have nothing to wear.”  

Tensions mounted. I was furious. I pushed her. (Yes, it’s true.) 

Lightly, but nevertheless, I pushed her. She backed into her picture frame on the wall. I quickly (and wisely) turned around and walked out. I knew without a doubt, at that moment, I was too angry to be effective.  

Our company did show up. And lo and behold, Halle appeared downstairs smiling, seemingly completely recovered from our skirmish, very sincere and engaging!  

Two Lessons I have learned (again and again)

First—Our teenagers recover from stuff

Second—They can do so because we are doing something right. They recover because we are making deposits into their emotional bank accounts more often than we are making withdrawals. 

When we were in the middle of our blow out, I felt like I was doing everything wrong. I felt like a total failure as a mom. I mean after all, I did do something wrong that evening. 

I lost my temper. I pushed my child. 

But as it turned out, she didn’t hold that against me. In her grace, she was stellar. Of course, I apologized later for losing my temper. I made no excuses for my part in the breakdown. And she had consequences for her part, actions that were in no way nullified by mine. 

In the end, we both learned lessons. And Halle—well, she moved on. 

Make deposits to offset the withdrawals

It was then that I realized—maybe I’m not ruining her life after all.  

Here’s the thing: with all three of my kids, parenting in the teenage years has proven difficult. I’ve had to make inevitable withdrawals from their emotional bank accounts, however justifiable those withdrawals might have been (discipline or disappointment over missing a party, etc.). But I have also made deposits at totally unrelated times

I have offered spontaneous hugs, notes in lunch bags or on their pillow at night, a small inexpensive gift without cause, a prepared favorite breakfast, or giving undivided attention when rambling on about an event at school. I’ve made certain to focus on whatever it is that makes them feel special. 

It’s absolutely paramount that we make these deposits, primarily because we already know that we are going to be making withdrawals. We can very quickly emotionally bankrupt a teenager if we are not depositing into their emotional reservoir. 

A multilayered adolescence

This idea of an emotional bank account was one I first learned from a renowned leadership and family author, the late Stephen Covey. 

Teens are multilayered. At times, they are full of self-doubt, confusion, and uncertainty. But they are also some of the most beautiful human beings on this earth. They abound in the fullness of life, curiosity, and God’s goodness.

And it is our job, as their parents, to stay steadfast on the journey to bring them all of the way home. 

It’s not always easy. 

As an incentive, perhaps you can daydream of the cruise your spouse and you will take the day the last one graduates! 

Seriously though, look into your teenager’s face when you are not in the middle of a conflict with them. Really—look at them

Then think to yourself: “What can I do right now, this minute, to make a deposit into their emotional bank account? Can I take them to ice cream or coffee? Can I bake their favorite goody? Can I tell them what a great job they have done in a specific task this week at school or at home? What in the world can I do to make that emotional deposit?” 

The possibilities are absolutely endless. 

A well-watered garden

The very next week, after having that ugly breakdown with Halle, she told me a story.

A friend from school seemed very upset. Halle observed this and inquired of her friend, “What’s wrong. You seem down?” 

The friend told Halle that her cousin is fifteen and pregnant. Halle said the weight of the world was on her friend’s shoulders, being the first and only one in whom her fifteen-year-old cousin had confided. My daughter was fully present for her friend that day. She was a great encouragement when her friend needed her most. 

And the best part—she came home and told me about it. 

Sometimes we feel like failures as parents. But remember this truth: we are going to make withdrawals. It’s not humanly possible to not do so. 

But never underestimate or undervalue the emotional installments we have made. Not only do they lock us into a love relationship with our teens, but they teach them to make deposits into the emotional bank accounts of others. 

Much like Halle’s example with her friend. 

“The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58:11 NIV)

Wow, what a powerful promise we have in Isaiah. It is my prayer that this passage of Scripture seeps down deep into your parenting soul. May you be reassured by its truth. 

Let this knowledge sink in—the Lord will guide you always. And may it help you remain steadfast to the end.