Responding to teen parenting challenges with courage and grace

Written by Dr. Jessica Peck
Published on October 18, 2022

As a pediatric nurse practitioner, I often meet families behind closed doors at a point of crisis they never saw coming. No parent walks into my clinic and says, “My teen is engaging in sexting and having some symptoms of mental health, can you please check it out for us?” They say, “My teen is sleeping a lot, having headaches, and feeling tired. I think it might be the flu.” 

In those moments where I speak with teens alone, secrets often spill over waterfalls of deep fear of talking to their parents about challenging issues. Their parents care very much, but there is no open door to invite conversation to disclose risk-taking behaviors and resulting harm. 

There is a disconnect between what we as parents want the world to look like for our teens and what it actually looks like. If we want to influence our teen’s worldview, we need to view the world through the lens of the realities teens are facing. The truth is, we need new social skills to parent effectively in a social media, social distancing, and social justice world. 

Listen with intentionality

Parents, your teens are engaging in conversations and experiencing situations in this sphere. They are navigating new situations in the context of social norms we never had to face. They’re making critical decisions in real time about how to respond. Many teens are not at all confident or comfortable with those decisions. They second-guess themselves and wonder if they did or said the right thing. 

Look for opportunities to initiate and lead a conversation to equip them to speak and act with grace and confidence. Maybe they casually mention something in passing. Maybe you have a mutual encounter that prompts discussion. Maybe they come to you with a serious concern for a friend or situation they’re experiencing. Are you intentional in listening for these conversation cues? 

Engage + initiate the conversation

When these moments of opportunity come your way, you’ll be faced with a decision as to how you respond. There are three likely scenarios: 

• Ignore the question or situation and shut the conversation down quickly.

• Respond impulsively from a place of emotion, doing most of the talking and little listening.

• Intentionally initiate a meaningful, honest conversation about an incredibly challenging topic in which you listen more than you speak, knowing you’ll be asked questions for which you don’t have the answers. 

Your teens absolutely, 100 percent, for sure are talking to someone about this topic. You have the amazing privilege to choose if that person will be you. Unless you actively direct this conversation and seek to influence through understanding and relationship building, your teen’s views will be shaped by their peers, the media, and outside cultural influences. If you tell them what to think and don’t entertain an open conversation, you miss out on your teen’s questions and concerns. 

Plan ahead for disclosures. Let go of the “not my kid” or “my kid would never” mantra. It’s a dangerous social pedestal with a long, hard fall. If you don’t think about it beforehand, you’ll be at the mercy of your emotions. Guaranteed. Most parents feel anger. They’re not angry at their teen really, they’re angry for their teen, that something has threatened to derail their future. The important initial step is offering grace with a clearly defined path to relationship restoration. 

What we say: 

I can’t believe you did this!

You’ve hurt and disappointed me.

I don’t trust you.

You’ve shamed our family with your selfish and destructive choices.

What we should say:

I’m sorry you’re experiencing this.

I see you’re struggling.

I’m here to support you with healthy boundaries and connection to the resources you need to develop effective coping skills for this season. I love you enough to do that.

Think before you speak

Let’s go to that moment. Your teen comes to you and intentionally discloses something that blindsides you. Your heart drops. You get tunnel vision. What will you say? Your decision in that instant could change the course of your teen’s life. 

How you react in this moment can permanently shape their self-image, behavior, decision-making, and future willingness to share openly with you.

First, stay calm. It’s easier said than done, but our reaction as parents often goes from zero to sixty in nanoseconds. It comes from a place of protection. Let’s direct that protective spirit, but not straight at the heart of our children. Avoid leading with statements such as “How could you do this?” or “What were you thinking?” Don’t lead with a litany of meaningless punishments: “You’re grounded for life!” “Your life as you know it is over!” Those are not helpful in this moment. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be consequences, but discipline should never be delivered from a place of anger.

Validate their feelings

Second, pause and think carefully. Why is your teen sharing this with you right now? Overwhelmingly the odds say they’re distressed and at a tipping point. They’re scared, terrified probably. It’s risky to disclose. Before that moment, practice saying these words:

I’m sorry you experienced this.

This news is upsetting. 

Let’s take some time to let our emotions settle before we talk about it more. 

No matter what happened, I love you no matter what and we will get through this together.

Does this mean there won’t be further consequences or action taken? Of course not. But in that moment, validate their feelings and offer a safe emotional haven for further discussion. If what they encountered is serious, it is essential to acknowledge the reality of their trauma. Seek professional mental health services early to promote effective coping and resilience. This experience doesn’t have to define their character forever. Offer a path to grace and restoration with dignity. Most importantly, express your unconditional love. It’s important to realize in this moment you are shaping their view of the way God loves them. Teens often hide things because they fear you’ll see risk and remove access. If you create open channels of communication and ground rules for disclosure, they will share more. After you’ve created a safe space and opened a door for grace, explore the details. They need grace and help reclaiming their dignity and self-worth if they feel it’s lost.

Lead with courage toward restoration

We have to leave a door open for grace. No one wants their teen to sext, vape, use substances, have disordered eating, experience gender confusion, or have an unexpected teen pregnancy. But our kids aren’t perfect and neither are we. Leaving a door open for restoration encourages early disclosure before great harm. When you step into your teen’s world and see what they’re facing, you can cultivate empathy and lead with courage. Parents, this is hard to hear, but your teen might have already experienced negative exposures they are terrified to share with you. Creating expectations for your response and consequences gives them the courage to share and take the first steps toward freedom.

Teens desperately need you to initiate conversation with confidence and grace while sparing their dignity. Their struggle may be what they do but remind them it isn’t who they are. Don’t let one unwise choice hold their entire future hostage. Having faith to hope in your teen’s future may give your teen courage to see it too. 

Reflect God’s kindness

We can have hope as parents today that reflecting the kindness of God can lead our teens to repentance. In Lamentations chapter 3, we are encouraged that because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, but his compassions never fail and his mercies are new every morning. God sees and knows the hurt we endure. In Romans chapter 5 we are exhorted that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance character, and character hope. Our eternal hope does not disappoint or put us to shame because the love of God has been poured out in our lives through the Holy Spirit. Remember that God will never leave you or forsake you, and through seasons of challenge, you are never alone. 

Adapted from “Behind Closed Doors” by Jessica Peck. Copyright 2022 by Jessica Peck. Used with permission from Thomas Nelson Publishing.

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Dr. Jessica Peck

Dr. Jessica Peck is a pediatric nurse practitioner with more than 20 years of experience. A native Texan, she has a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree (DNP) and is a clinical professor at the Baylor University Louise Herrington School of Nursing. She recently completed her term as president of the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners. Most importantly, she has been happily married to a rocket scientist for twenty-four years and is a mom of four teens. A passionate advocate for health promotion and anti-trafficking, Jessica equips families to promote physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual health. She especially loves encouraging parents in her clinical practice and equipping them to build healthy relationships with their children. She is the author of Behind Closed Doors: A Guide to Help Parents and Teens Navigate Through Life’s Toughest Issues, released in October of 2022 by W Publishing. You can connect with Dr. Peck through her website to find her on social media and through her Dr. Nurse Mama podcast.

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