Excerpts from Chapter 7

Clarify Narrow to Expose the Realities of Your Teen’s Experience

With your listening pylons secure and a passable bridge in place, you can begin using that bridge for the reason it was built—to help the teen see what is really going on, and what can be done about it. In this chapter you will learn how to shake an angry teen out of his habit of excusing his actions, minimizing his responsibility, or blaming others for his angry choices.

Angry teens often live in a kind of dream world built on deeply unrealistic thinking about the way life should work in order to conform to their assumptions and preferences. The fact that they misperceive reality is as obvious to most caring adults as zits are to a teen, yet to teens their skewed view is completely reasonable. Your job is to help them narrow down their big, abstract generalizations to realistic proportions, or in some cases abandon them altogether. This is rarely accomplished by asserting that, “You are just being unrealistic!” or “Well, life isn’t fair!” What works is to help them use their ability to think and reason to see the hard facts of life that follow from their angry responses.

Angry teens are angry because they are getting something they didn’t bargain for, or are not getting what they were expecting. Consider my encounter with Judy.

Judy stormed into the Guidance Center.

“She’s so unfair! She takes points off for my geometry homework even when I get the right answers.”

Judy was angry because her teacher wouldn’t accept her method for solving math problems. “I don’t understand why she’s so picky. I do the problems the way I was taught in my last school and I get the right answer. But that’s not good enough for Mrs. Smith. She only wants things done her way. That’s not right!”

Judy had just transferred to our school from another school on the other side of the country. I had gotten to know her a little when I helped her schedule her classes.

“She is so unreasonable! My last geometry teacher taught us to do the problems in a different way and I understand it. It makes more sense than the way Mrs. Smith wants us to solve them. But she won’t let me do them my way, even though I get the right answers.”

“You don’t have to do it her way, Judy.”

Her eyes widened. “I don’t?” she asked.

“No, you can do the problems your way.”

Judy paused a few seconds. Then, as though she recognized that there would be a price to pay for doing it her own way, Judy said, “Yeah, but she’ll take points off and I want to get a good grade in there.”

“Yes,” I said, “she probably will take points off.”

“But that’s not fair. She shouldn’t be able to do that.”

“Maybe she shouldn’t,” I hypothesized. “But can you control that?”

“No,” Judy admitted.

“So you have a choice. You can do the work the way Mrs. Smith wants it to be done and earn the points, or you can refuse to do it Mrs. Smith’s way, get the right answers your way, and still have points taken off.”

“But that’s not fair!” Judy again asserted.

“So how are you going to change her, Judy?”

“Can’t you change her?”

“Me? Change the teacher? Who am I? Teachers are in charge of their own classroom procedures. I have no authority over her teaching. The principal won’t make a teacher change his or her teaching methods as long as nothing is really wrong with what she is doing. But, Judy, keep in mind, you don’t have to change if you don’t want to.”

“Yeah, but my grade will go down.”

“That’s probably true. So, what do you want?”

“I want to do well in the class. To get a good grade.”

“That sounds like a pretty mature and wise thing to want. What are your options for getting the grade you want?”

More meekly, she replied, “It sounds like I can get points by doing it her way and earn a stronger grade, or lose points and earn a weaker grade by doing it my own way. But that’s not fair!”

“What do you think you want to do? You can do whatever you want.”

Judy thought about her options.

Judy lived with the fantasy that others, especially authorities in her life, should treat her according to her standard of what is “fair.” After all, she’ll reason, who doesn’t want to be treated fairly?

Reasoning with Judy in ways that make sense to her can administer her a dose of reality that will get her to reconsider her anger and her decisions. In the next chapter we’ll help Judy see the reasonableness of the solution she chose so that she will be motivated to follow through, thus getting what she wisely wants. In this chapter, though, we simply want to examine ways to help an angry, fantasy-thinking teen see her situation, and especially her own reactions, more objectively. This will put her in the uncomfortable position of having to confront herself with the options as they really exist. In this way, she can begin adjusting her view of reality in the direction of how life actually works.

Keep in mind that your objective at this point is still to clarify what your teen wants, fantasies and all. This is not about what parents, counselors, teachers, police, or youth pastors want. The young person will usually be motivated to make changes, even radical ones, if she sees that it will get her what she wants.

There are five realities that potentially need to be clarified in the life of your teen. Not every point from this material will need to be clarified in every case. Some of it will probably already make sense to the teen. But the first one, “wise wants,” nearly always needs to be clarified narrowly and affirmed specifically. The remainder of this chapter will address how you can go about clarifying the following five realities for your teen.

Wise Wants. As we discussed in Chapter 3, beneath the surface of actions and thinking are good desires that God has hardwired into teens. Teens will respond to adults who can identify these. A clear view of them will give the young person the energy to make changes, sometimes radical and rapid changes.

The Power of Choosing. Teens have the ability to make real choices which have real outcomes. This is because cause-and-effect is real. Surprisingly, teens do not always make this connection between actions and outcomes.

The Pain of Choosing Poorly. Horrible, nasty, hurtful consequences come with foolish choices. Teens often want to minimize these effects. You’re not going to let them do that.

The Question of Control. In a fallen world, there are things the teen can and cannot control. Some of these things are really bad and are likely to stay that way. Where God grants us a degree of control, that control is real. But even those things that are outside of our control are not outside of God’s. Often these truths need to be re-emphasized.

Relationship with Christ. The teen’s relationship with Christ should ever be in your crosshairs. The strength of your communication bridge will have much to do with the timing of this conversation.


Clarify the Power of Choosing

A teen becomes angry when he wants but believes he is not getting: respect, honor, justice, success, friends, trust, freedom, fairness, peace, a good reputation, healthy relationships, a happy family, approving parents, the privileges to rule, lead, manage, or get things, and much more. These angry teens often do not get what they want because they do not recognize the reality of cause-and-effect.

A Teen’s Choices Dictate Cause and Effect

Certain kinds of choices we make tend to bring about predictable responses from others. Adults are often amazed to learn that some teens just don’t make these cause-and-effect connections between their behaviors and specific outcomes. In the magical universe of the angry teen, mysterious forces are at work, producing in their lives results that are completely detached from their behavior. The angry teen rarely sees that his attitudes and behaviors (of disrespect, disobedience, filthy language, dishonor, rebellion, defiance, disinterest, laziness, being mouthy, acting out, refusing to cooperate, neglecting homework, etc.) are seriously adding to his losses and blocking what he wants. Instead, he sees others, usually authorities in his life, as the source of his frustrations.

Such teens do not see how their reactions or choices often earn them the opposite of what they truly desire. The LCLP approach, however, can help them “get it.” As you help them express their wants in positive terms, and explain how they are forfeiting these wants by their choices, teens will become more open to the possibility of making different choices having the promise of a better outcome.

Conversations that draw clear connections between these two things—your teen’s wise wants and the painful things he’s experiencing which he doesn’t want—will bring him face-to-face with a set of choices he won’t like. You are not creating these unpleasant choices for him. Life does that, simply by functioning as God has designed it to work. The unpleasant choices emerge from the fact that your teen has gotten himself between a rock and a hard place. He can continue to behave as he has done and continue receiving consequences he does not like. Or he can decide to make different choices that have the promise of different outcomes. This is basic cause-and-effect, and it’s really all up to him. If you have been patient and built a sturdy bridge of communication, it will bear the weight of this harsh new realism.

Perhaps the most difficult part for your teen will be that this is a completely new kind of confrontation. When confrontation has been part of your conversations with your teen in the past, it has been you, the pastor, the police, the principal, or another authority figure doing the confronting. Things are dramatically different now. You are not confronting your teen. He is confronting himself. Is he going to continue to do what he has been doing, producing some pretty nasty results? Or is he going to do what will really give him what he wisely wants? If he wants something different than what he’s getting, he’s going to have to do something different than what he’s been doing.

Teens raised within the context of a church or Christian school may have a heightened sense of this connection because of their upbringing. But keep in mind that they may also have soured on having it pointed out to them. Angry teens may deeply resent a counselor “preaching” to them by making this connection explicitly. They have heard, “You reap what you sow” applied to their own behavior too many times in an unwise way for that to be a helpful approach now.

Parents can clarify the cause-and-effect relationship of choices and outcomes, however, by drawing their teen’s attention to his wise wants and the consequences which he is getting and doesn’t want. This usually shows a teen that it’s what he is doing, not what others are doing to him, that is giving him the pain, restriction, loss, rejection, etc. which he doesn’t want. In this way, he will begin to make the cause-and-effect connection without you declaring it to be a fact of life.

  • “If you keep doing what you are doing, Bill, is that likely to change your grounding at home? You don’t have to change anything. No one can make you change. Other people can make things uncomfortable for you if they think you are out of line, perhaps. But no one can make you change. You are your own person. God has given you the capacity to make choices, wise or foolish. So I’m not trying to change you. I don’t have that power. But if you don’t change, is the situation likely to change? What do you want to happen?”
  • “So if you keep on doing (or not doing) your homework in English the way you have, are you likely to get out of 9th grade? You don’t have to change anything. But what do you want? Is the way you are handling English homework now going to do it for you?”

Only Your Teen Can Make Different, Better Choices

Affirm the truth that you are not the one bringing the negative consequences into your teen’s life. The rules, the dynamics of life, others in authority, or the law may come into play, but his choices are bringing them into play. Be similarly emphatic that he does not have to change.

To a parent who has been on the receiving end of defiance, vulgarity, and belligerence, it can seem risky to say, “Anthony, you really don’t have to change if you don’t want to. I can’t make you change. That’s not what God has equipped me to do. That will have to be your choice.” A statement like this can feel like you are giving him a blank check to keep on with his disrespectful and ungodly behavior.

But all you are doing is confirming for your teen the way things are. We cannot change our kids at this stage of their lives. They are their own persons. This does not mean that we are helpless in the face of their horrible, angry behavior or language. We must hold them accountable for their choices, and God gives us a variety of options for allowing our teen’s sinful choices to bring painful consequences their way. But that is different from assuming that we can change our young adult. He knows, “You can’t make me do anything,” and you can take a lot of wind out of his sails of resistance by acknowledging this as a limitation.

The reality is that the young adult does not have to change if he does not want to. God has created him with the capacity to make choices. He may have to change to get some different outcomes that he really wants. But he is free to not change. Stressing these things at this point in the conversation forces the teen into a position he’s not encountered very often: he has no one to argue with except himself. “Am I going to change my behavior or keep doing the same things? I can do what I want to do.”

Recall Judy, who didn’t approve of her teacher’s approach to geometry. Judy wanted something different from that class, and had to change to get it. If she continued to follow the problem-solving techniques she had learned in her previous school, she would continue to lose points. She had a choice to make. The school counselor insisted she did not have to change anything if she did not want to. He could not, and wasn’t trying, to make her change. That was completely up to her, depending upon what she wanted.

Read excerpts from Chapter 8

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