Key Idea – One of the more difficult callings for a Christian parent is to help a teenager who is living in rebellion. The severity of situations will vary, but there is a common temptation to misunderstand what needs to be accomplished to help the child.
Case Study: teen rebellion
Ralph was going through a difficult season in his life. His wife of 18 years decided she no longer wanted to be married. Despite her Christian roots, she was looking to the culture to find happiness. Caught in the middle of the divorce was their teenage daughter, Suzi.
For the past few years, Ralph was a distant husband and father. He now sees how his behavior negatively impacted his relationship with his wife and daughter and through a renewed commitment to Christ, he has owned his past failures.
Suzi is now a senior in high school. She has aligned with her mom’s decision to leave the family. Like her mom, she believes her purpose in life is to have fun and be happy.
Ralph is heartbroken about this and longs for a restored relationship with his daughter. Though he wants to guide and protect her, she will not listen. She is struggling in school, moving away from her youth group friends, and taking an unhealthy interest in boys.
Mind mapping rebellion
For Ralph to respond biblically, he needs the right starting point. The world will offer many answers for Suzi’s problems such as low self-esteem, hurt from her parent’s separation, hormones, uncertainty about her future, and a normal teenage phase of life. While these may describe her behaviors, they will fall short in addressing the problem because they do not address the cause.
The root of her rebellion is her separation from God. She was born in Adam and, thus, separated from God due to indwelling sin. Her own sin has added to her Adamic separation and as a result, she struggles with guilt, fear, and shame. Her response to these things has been rebellion, which is compounded by the reminders of her conscience–her “inner voice” that tells her when she has sinned.
This leads to an uncomfortable feeling inside of her. In middle school, she responded by playing the role of a good girl, which is a common self-reliant attempt to overcome fear. She was a straight A student who longed for approval and praise.
These attempts failed to address the root problem, which left her guilt, shame, and fear even more entrenched in her soul. Her conscience would temporarily excuse her (Romans 2:14-15) when she brought acceptable report cards home, but the bar of acceptance always seemed to increase.
With the brokenness of her parents’ marriage and her self-doubts about her ability to be accepted, she lost hope of ever changing. Her active heart-sin pushed her to take a self-reliant path to rebellion. She began looking to the world to address the uncomfortableness inside of her. She adopted the motto, “Girls just want to have fun.”
For her daddy to help her, he will need to understand the main problem is her relationship with God, not what is strained and broken between them. She is in a spiritual battle (Ephesians 6:12) and the demonic spiritual world is enticing her flesh (James 1:14) to sin with the things of the culture. Her heart is bent from God (Romans 3:23).
- Are you able to perceive and address the true problems of the rebellious person?
- Why is it wrong to only address the behaviors of a rebellious person?
Ralph must perceive what has happened to her. He will be tempted to focus more on her behaviors. Additionally, his personal hurt could motivate him to crave control of her and respect from her. If so, he will be disappointed by her lack of reciprocation and can complicate the relationship by becoming angry with her.
The greatest need for his daughter is a heart change (Ezekiel 36:26-27; Luke 6:45) that will address her separation from God and accompanying enslavement to sin. This news will only be discouraging to Ralph in proportion to his desire to fix her. He can’t fix her. This is a job for the LORD.
Ralph’s relationship with his daughter is an illustration of how God can use suffering to change his heart (Romans 8:28-29). Rather than focusing primarily on his daughter, he must address what the LORD desires to do in his heart. There are at least two things he can do: (1) discern his heart’s desire for control and respect and (2) increase his dependence on God.
- When your child is struggling do you address your heart first?
- What are some ways you are tempted to sin when those close to you are rebelling?
A practical plan for change
We know our enemy is seeking to destroy us (1 Peter 5:8) through various schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11). Two of their strategies are to leverage footholds (Ephesians 4:27) and stumbling blocks (Matthew 16:23) to throw us off course (Hebrews 12:2). These temptations can bring distress, while pressuring us to sin.
Since the root of our greatest problem is spiritual, the introduction of sin will disrupt our greatest need—to follow Christ. This is where Ralph needs to give careful consideration. He does not need to cooperate with the enemy, but align himself with the Spirit so he does not create additional stumbling blocks for his daughter (Leviticus 19:14, Romans 14:13, 1 Corinthians 8:9, 2 Corinthians 6:3). Here are four practical steps to help Ralph help his daughter.
Remove the conflict – Unresolved conflict is at the root of all relational discord. Conflict is the result of anger, which has many faces. Yelling is the most recognizable face, but there are others like the silent treatment, annoyance, and frustration. Can you name your most common manifestation of anger?
Suzi is angry with her daddy and this serves as a foothold (Ephesians 4:26-27). Ralph must humbly search his heart. If there are past behaviors that have not been confessed to her, his first course of action is to seek to reconcile his role in the past conflict.
Given the current state of the relationship, this may be best done with a letter. The Peacemaker Ministry website is a great resource to provide guidance in writing a reconciliation letter. Both Ralph and Suzi have sinned against each other and their flesh will want to dissect the conflict and assign corresponding blame.
There will always be disagreements on where the lines were drawn. Their perceptions of events will be different. If one chooses to defend boundaries it will only serve to stir-up fleshly responses. This kind of interpersonal relating is contrary to the Gospel.
The Bible teaches us how no one is righteous (Romans 3:10-12) and the severity of every one’s sin is made known at Calvary (2 Corinthians 5:21). The sins committed against each other fall short of our great sin against our Creator.
Out of love, Christ bore our sins on the cross. He removed our sinful behavior that caused relational discord between God and us. Because love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), Ralph is in a position to display Christ to his daughter by seeking to understand her perception of his actions (Matthew 5:11-12).
In doing so, Ralph will display humility, which will soften her anger. His actions will communicate he is owning his sinfulness, while resting in Christ’s finish work to fully neutralize his sin. By removing this stumbling block, he can create a more fertile ground for God to give growth.
Demonstrate kindness and patience – Ralph needs to model God’s method of leading us to repentance, which is kindness (Romans 2:4). Despite our sin against God, He responded to us with patient kindness, compelling us to come to salvation (2 Peter 3:9). The LORD always showers the world with common grace that reveals His goodness (Matthew 5:44-45). He does this even when we don’t discern or appreciate His benevolence.
Ralph will need to prepare his heart for Suzi’s lack of response to his actions. His good efforts may go unrecognized or be misinterpreted. Biblical love is selfless, sacrificial, and unconditional. It is not self-seeking.
I am not suggesting Ralph ignores Suzi’s sin. When she is making unwise choices, he must continue to love her by warning her, but the key word here is love. His words should have the fragrance of care and concern rather than judgment and condemnation.
This approach to his daughter will require a patience that endures (1 Corinthians 13:7). She is on God’s timetable, not Ralph’s. He will not know when or if God will choose to open her eyes (Psalm 119:18).
Be a friend – Because of our moral sense of right and wrong, we tend to approach relationships based on the law. While this can bring order and function in the home (common grace), it will have no power for change. This is probably how Suzi is responding to her dad.
Her conscience (inner voice) is already telling her she is not living up to his expectations. Thus far, she has chosen to ignore its voice. Friendship will be the best way to minister to her heart. This was the Savior’s approach.
He came to hang out with sinners (Mark 2:15) in order to be their friend (John 15:15). Christ didn’t let the disciple’s sinful behaviors affect their friendship (Matthew 8:26; Mark 9:34) and He was not surprised or discouraged by their fleshly responses.
He has a perfect understanding of man’s sinful nature. His teachings (Matthew 5:28) and interactions (John 8:11) always moved past the behavior to the heart. Ralph’s best chance at addressing his daughter’s heart will be in the context of friendship.
This will be the only place where Suzi will be free to express herself without the need to spin, minimize, or deflect her responses. She is only free to share her thoughts, fears, and dreams to her friends. Her dad will need to seek to be her friend. His modeling of Christ to her could open the door to where the seeds of God’s love can be planted.
Find community – There is nothing in Suzi’s ability to enable her to change her heart. The same is true for her daddy. Though he can humbly lead and teach, only the LORD can cause change (1 Corinthians 3:6). Ralph must learn to trust God to bring the necessary change in the relationship with his daughter.
The length of this season will be unknown and he will be tempted to become discouraged when he doesn’t see change. His peace must not be based on his daughter’s behavior, but on the unchangeable God.
He should surround himself with good friends who can minister to him by offering encouragement and counsel. He will need to resist the temptation of being the Lone Ranger in the restoration of his daughter by appealing to the church community to help.
Trust the Author
All of us are part of God’s story and He is the Author. Though we may want to write our own stories, it would be an impossible feat. We are finite beings with a limited understanding of our complexities and our remedies.
It should be a relief to release this responsibility to an all-knowing, all-powerful, and loving God who operates outside of time and space. When we are faced with things we cannot change, it should be a call to fully trust the LORD to bring His desires to fruition in our lives.
- Are you trusting the Author of your story?
- What one thing you need to change in order to trust Him more effectively?
- Will you talk to someone about that today?