Talking with Teenagers: Big Decisions & Big Questions

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As I’m writing this, I’ve talked to multiple kids in the last few weeks who have had to make one of the biggest decisions of their lives:  where they’ll go to college.  But, ultimately, there are big decisions for the adolescents we love to make often. Will she take AP or regular classes?  Will he apply for Governor’s School?  What clubs will she join?  Which friends will he choose?  And then, of course, there are the big decisions we hope that will involve a lot of “No’s” to the culture around them, and a lot of “Yes’s” to God.

How can we help?  The first thing, maybe the most important thing to remember is that you are preparing them to launch.  And our help in these years is doing just that:  preparing.  It’s not choosing for them.  It’s teaching them to choose.  CS Lewis said, “The proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift.”  The same holds true for parenting.  How can you set them up to make decisions with thoughtfulness, with responsibility, with heart, and with the discernment that can only be found through Christ?

Have them practice now.

In my counseling practice, my two favorite words with parents of teenagers are “questions” and “empathy.”  I’ve said them before in this column…maybe, actually, every month.  But, I can’t say them enough.  Questions and empathy.  We want them to learn to make good decisions in the big things, and so we’ve got to give them practice making decisions in the little and big things along the way.

“That sounds like a tough situation.  What do you think would help?”

“I can’t tell you’re really struggling.  What do you think is the best thing to do?”

“That’s hard.  I’m so proud of you for wrestling through it.  What do you think God would want you to do in this situation?”

“I’m so sorry you’re hurting.  You’re making great decisions.  I know you can get through this.  I’m here, if you need me.  What do you want to do?”

The questions communicate our belief in them.  Even when your teenager hasn’t been making such great decisions, ask anyway.  Give them a chance to connect the dots.  Your connected dots don’t hold in college.  

If it feels like they’re not hearing your voice, (which many teenagers don’t—it’s normal), pull in other trusted adults.  Call their youth director or small group leader and ask them to initiate some time with your child.  Help them find other voices that they and you trust for wise counsel.  

We also recommend giving choices, if they’re in their younger teen years.  “Every teenager in our house chooses one club at school.  You get to pick.”  Or, if they’re older and bucking being a part of youth group or a Christian activity, “As long as you live in our house, you’ll go to one Christian activity a week.  You get to pick what that is.”  

Teenagers want to know that you trust them.  Part of how we communicate that trust is giving them the power to make choices…with bigger stakes as they get older and prove themselves responsible.  And, in the meantime, and even the aftertime, ask questions.  They need to stand on their own feet to make the transition to adulthood.  And sometimes, that means getting our feet, and lectures, out of the way.  They can do it.  You and they need to believe that they can.

-originally published in Parenting Teens magazine