The Secret to Raising Teenagers

By Sara Elsner


“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7 NIV

A decorative hourglass in our home leaks sand. This is not a figurative statement about the passing of time – it literally has a crack. But I keep it because it’s pretty and because of what it figuratively symbolizes. Because hours do go by much faster than they used to in our house. 

I know statements like this make me sound my age, for now I am “that woman” whose youngest child, two weeks ago, became a teenager!

I am “that woman” who smiles when she sees moms flanked with young children in multi-seated strollers and grocery baskets, and who wants to say, “Enjoy them while they are young – these days will be over before you know it!”

But I resist the urge to say that because the memory of “these days” is all too fresh. And because I remember how I used to sometimes think, “Really? Good! Could ‘these days’ be over before tomorrow? Because I am exhausted!” 

The precious sweetness of “these days” is also freshly remembered, but I have not gotten old enough yet for the sweetness to mask the memory of the physical and emotional demands of mothering young children. I remember all too well how strategic and intentional I had to be to get out the door with my crew to shop for food for family meals, clothes for growing children, gifts for family birthdays and Christmas! and online grocery order with pickup did not yet exist. I circled grocery parking lots till one of the two available expanded carts with child seats was available for use in order to minimize my stress level inside the store – only to find that those seats made it ironically convenient for the baby in the shopping cart to kick the seated children he or she was facing.

And while I remember feeling that exhaustion-induced irritation when a middle-aged or older woman in the store would inform me of the soon and imminent end of “these days”, I also remember feeling humbled to realize that I had not yet weathered the season she may have been speaking from. Perhaps this was the mother of a troubled teen who was longing for the good old “these days” when life had seemed simpler. 

And then I would become intimidated by the future that my exhausted self was longing for. So before reading further, please receive the disclaimer that much of what I am about to say I had to learn after many lessons, and finally coming to the end of myself.

“For God has not given us a spirit of timidity…”

 This scripture tells me that intimidation does not come from God. That is convicting, but it should not be condemning. Because God does not condemn either. (Romans 8:34) Yes, we ought to be in awe of God and of His design. But even in the biblical accounts of people encountering His presence, the words “Do not be afraid,” were spoken to them. He does not desire us to be made timid, or to be intimidated by anything, because He is bigger than, and has authority over, everything. If we respect His authority and his order, with wisdom, trust, and humility, we have nothing to fear, because He has authority over all. This is convicting when we know that there are circumstances, or even seasons, that cause anxiety, or that we dread, because we are unsure of our own ability to process difficulty…. like giving birth and parenting teenagers, and the labor pains that accompany either of those. 

The Opposites of Timidity:  “… but of power…”

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have the divine power to demolish strongholds.” 2 Corinthians 10:4

Childbirth class did not prepare me for my first encounter with labor pains. Labor pains prepared me for labor pains. I eventually learned that I did not need to fear the labor pain, but cooperate with it, trusting that God was doing a work in the pain, even using what was causing the pain, to bring about the birth of our next child.

As our kids grew into adolescence, it became apparent to this parent, that their pain hurt me as much as it hurt them. So like a white-knuckled passenger on a roller coaster who is fighting the ascents for fear of the drops, I would foresee with dread all of the possible struggles our kids might experience as teens. When I heard traumatic stories involving teens, I would think, “God, I trust you, but I could not do that… I could not go there…. I could not process that… please not that….”

But then God would allow something to happen in their lives that would build my trust in Him, and I would see that I had one less thing to dread. (God also used our son Ben’s diagnosis of Downs Syndrome to disarm much of the threat of future dread, because He showed me that He could be trusted through the life-altering, and that He also could equip me with strength when I was too weak to trust Him.) I also became more aware of the big picture with an eternal perspective, and that has become a powerful focus in processing the labor pains as our teens develop into adults.

At this point I have to say, “Where was when I was younger?” I would have so benefited from “The Ultimate Guide to Raising World Changers” by Sabrina Schlesinger 20 years ago! I love how she articulates wisdom that took me decades to learn! It is a must-read!

We are certainly called to be protection and covering for our children, and to be intentional about building foundations in them and in our homes that will help them choose wisely or have advantages and benefits. But, we are naive to think that these intentions alone will protect them, and us, from pain. While we are commanded to “train up a child in the way he should go”, we are mistaken (and will be carrying a burden too heavy to bear) if we think our children’s future depends solely on our own efforts.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” – Philippians 4:6

The parent who substitutes anxiety with trust, by praying to and petitioning her trustworthy God on her teen’s behalf, is a parent who is walking in power instead of timidity. This is why I have a 4 foot tall stack of prayer journals in a corner of our bedroom.

The Opposites of Timidity:  “… love…”

“There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” – 1 John 4:18 NIV

“My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent His rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those He loves, as a father the son he delights in.” – Proverbs 3:11-12  

In the book, How to be a Hero to Your Kids, Josh McDowell writes, “Rules without relationships lead to rebellion.” Charlie and I read this book early in our parenting days, and this statement was the takeaway for what helped me fight the temptation to be authoritarian instead of authoritative.

In parenting teens, we have learned that the execution of discipline includes discipleship, and that much of that training is done in the building of a deeper relationship with our teens. This does not mean we have become their friends – in the teenage years they still need us to be their parents. They need us to say “no” when the Holy Spirit gives us a check about the event they want to attend. They also need us to communicate our love to them and that we are “for them”, even if we should not do everything “for them” that they think they need.  

I have also learned that we do not need to fear their being unhappy with us for enforcing a boundary that exists for their good. When we first started working with teens at Grace Houston 11 years ago, I was very intimidated about walking up to a teen to say hi, much less to enforce boundary. But it was the “perfect love” that “casts out fear” that buoyed me forward to speak the truth in love to teens that needed to hear it. I have also learned that some of the most “intimidating” teens can also be some of the most “intimidated” teens, and they are desperate for direction and a life-giving word.

As children become teens, and teens become adults, the communication of discipline and love involved requires T-I-M-E. Things of the heart usually do. It is no longer mostly about behavior and consequences (though consequences still exist) – it is mostly about their hearts.      

 The Opposites of Timidity:  “… and self-discipline.”

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” – Psalm 90:12

 “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” – Proverbs 4:23

With ever-growing humble awareness of our dependence on God through every season of parenting, we have attempted to be intentional about raising men and women of God who will be husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and influencers of their own and the next generations.

We have also realized that this is not something we can force–we can only tend their hearts. They have to embrace the truth we have trained them with for themselves–that is self-discipline.

We have also realized that tending their hearts means we must tend our own. We must not “conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds.” (Romans 12:2) That is also self-discipline. (Read “Mom Envy: The Struggle is Real” by Sabrina).

Don’t Tolerate – Celebrate!

When our oldest Isaac was about to turn 13, Charlie read a book called Raising a Modern Day Knight, by Robert Lewis. He decided to implement the ideas of “knighting” our three sons with a type of celebration when they turned 13, as this book suggested, much in the vein of the Jewish Bar Mitzvah. (For Ben we did this at 16.) Charlie mentored our sons according to the 4 Principles of Manhood prescribed in Lewis’ book. He had the principles engraved on swords that he presented to each of them at a “Manhood Dinner”, attended by Charlie’s friends, and fathers of our sons’ friends, who prepared words of godly wisdom to speak into our sons’ lives. 

When our oldest daughter Grace was about to turn 13, I decided to follow my husband’s lead and do something to commemorate the 13th birthdays of all 5 of our daughters. Using the kingdom roles of women of the Bible for guiding our daughters to be “princess warriors” of influence (Deborah, Esther, Mary vs. Martha), I decided to celebrate each of our daughters’ 13th birthdays by hosting “Womanhood Teas”, attended by friends of mine who also played influential roles in that daughter’s life. Instead of a sword, I presented each daughter with a china tea service to symbolize her equipping as a hospitable and influential ambassador of Christ, also implementing the teaching of her needing to be filled and refilled by the Holy Spirit in order to serve, and to trust God and be content with the portion and cup He had assigned to them as His Daughter.

At each of the subsequent “manhood dinners” and “womanhood teas” the older siblings of the honored son or daughter would also attend with their own prepared words of truth to present to their younger-sibling-turned-13. At our youngest daughter Emma’s tea a week ago, all 4 of her sisters were there with other women imparting life-giving truth to her, and all 5 of our daughters served with their tea service sets. It was indeed a bittersweet and surreal milestone for this mom!

I share our tradition for the teen years here only as example of how the teen years can be celebrated instead of tolerated. We have other friends who have implemented similar traditions for 13th or 15th or 16th or 18th birthdays. Others decide to do a father-son or mother-daughter getaway.

There are many ways to be intentional about opposing the intimidation of the teen years with power, love, and self-discipline. They don’t all involve a formal celebration, but they do all involve daily humbling ourselves before God, and spending real, honest, and approachable time with our teens.

Above all, parenting teens involves cooperating with trust in a God who is approachable, and who does a work in the labor pains that do come as we give birth to adults!