Letter to a Counselor, Counseling a Rebellious Teenager

Building trust in any discipleship context can be a challenge. Some people’s hurt is so deep that they fortify their guardedness. Understanding the interpersonal dynamics between an untrusting counselee and the discipler is critical.

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Member Mailbag – Hey Rick, I met with a teenager and his mom, and it did not go as well as I had hoped. Apart from his pre-programmed grunts, I could not get much out of him. There were a couple of times where we seemed to connect when I said that I liked his shirt, and on another occasion when I referenced my past pagan experiences. Other than that, there were only grunts and crickets in the room. Do you have any advice on how to counsel a grunting, rebellious teen?

Dear Friend!

I’m so glad the Lord brought him to you. What an opportunity. I’m also excited to be able to serve you here. Thank you for asking.

Where to Begin

A vital key in counseling is to find your starting point before you begin counseling (discipling) anyone. With the cross always as the goal, you must discern the distance the person is from the cross (the spot in his unique journey where he is), and that will be your starting point.

The starting point does not matter, as far as the location of his unique spot, but it does matter that you know where it is—where he is. Meaning, it does not matter if he is lost or saved as long as you know where to begin. Jesus always talked to people differently—according to where they were, not according to where He was or where He preferred them to be.

When Nicodemus approached Jesus, the Lord met him where Nick was, not where Jesus was. Jesus talked to him according to how Nick could understand Him (John 3:1-8). Even though Nicodemus was confused at times, ultimately he was intrigued enough to where it does appear he became a believer (John 19:39).

When Jesus approached the woman at the well, it was a different kind of conversation (John 4:7-26). Why? Because she was a different person, at a different spot in her journey to the cross. He connected to her according to her narrative, not according to His. And as He related to her, He began to introduce new ideas, which eventually had the same impact on her that it had on Nicodemus (John 4:28-29).

I’m gonna place my money on his starting point being miles before the salvation line, somewhere in the “community of pagan-ville.” And if that is true, he is a long way from the cross of Christ; he has not even made it to the “border of salvation.” With this thought in your mind, here are two things for you to consider:

  • I would not recommend talking to him with either of his parents in the room.
  • I would not recommend talking about Jesus or other “God things” at this point.

A Proud Boy

Remove distractions. Your teen is a proud boy, who must be true to his “self-promoted image.” Being consistent in front of those who know him a certain way is important to him. If his mother is in the room, he cannot be anything other than what he has always been with her. (Read: Mono-syllabic grunter).

To let down his guard by being humble, responsive, using multiple syllabic words, stringing sentences together, giving a little, or even smiling would do damage to his “well-guarded reputation” while harming his fragile ego. If he is going to talk, which is your good goal for him, your proud teen needs a place where he can be weak (2 Corinthians 4:7) without others knowing about it, especially those people that he wants to maintain his tough guy persona.

I have said before that if I could get a macho man in a room with me, and if all the stars were lined up and the sky was perfect, and all other distractive things in the universe were in order, then he would cry like a baby. He would make a puddle on the floor.

The macho man can only do that under the right conditions because men can be so stinking proud with their John Wayne, tough guy, nonsense, machismo, crapola, that for their reasons, they must present toughness at all times.

And your “little man” is the same way. He must maintain his “Fonz image” at all times. He has to stay in character, but that is only masking what is going on deep in his soul. Therefore, he needs a safe place to cry. He wants to find that place because he is hurting, suffering, angry, and lost.

He does not know how to unravel what is binding his soul in knots (Galatians 6:1). He will not reveal his hurt as long as his mommy is in the room. Ain’t happening. No way, no how. He’ll grunt and occasionally scratch under his armpits.

But that is not who he is, or at least not who he wants to be. To paraphrase the late great Elvis, “I’m in a trap, and I can’t get out.” Ask the Lord to give you the favor to remove as many distractions as possible. Give him a better opportunity to come out–to remove his cool mask (Genesis 3:7).

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An Angry Boy

Remove expectations. The second thing to consider is to remove his preconceived ideas. He has at least two of them that could drive a communication wedge between you:

  • He knows you’re a Christian, which means you’re “gonna drop the God card” on him at any moment.
  • He knows it’s three against one, which means he’s pitted against you, mom, and his dad.

Because he is miles and miles from the cross, somewhere in “pagan-ville,” it’s on you to go and “meet up with him” where he is, which is something he will not expect. The idea that I’m laying out here is at the heart of the gospel.

  • Jesus, our first missionary, came to our dark place to rescue us (Philippians 2:5-11).
  • God always gives us more than we think (Ephesians 3:20).
  • God’s thoughts transcend our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Disarm him by creating an unexpected category that catches him off guard. Meaning, drop the religious stuff while talking to him in a way he does not expect, but in a way that is more comfortable for him (John 7:46).

It’s like visiting with someone in their home as opposed to having them visit with you in your home. People will always be more comfortable in their own house. Since he’s in your office, which is negative, you can minimize the “therapeutic barrier” by entering into his world (John 1:14).

Talking about his shirt was a good move on your part. And mentioning your pagan background? That’s gold (Philippians 3:4-7). I suspect having his mommy in the room stirred up the grunt machine, but if she were not there, you could probably walk down ‘memory-pagan-lane” with him (appropriately), and he may do more than grunt at you.

Without bragging about your past, use “all your relationship with God” to reach him, even your poor stinking relationship with Him when you were more like the boy than Jesus. You’re not boasting in your past sin, but removing this odd notion that too many people get stuck in their heads that Christians are different from the rest of humanity. Apart from God’s unmerited aroma on our lives, we all smell the same (Ezekiel 16:6; John 11:39; Romans 3:10-12; 1 Timothy 1:15).

Remember, you’re going to his place—to his spot in the road (Luke 10:25-37), and treating him according to who he is right now, to move him a bit closer to the cross.

You probably won’t be able to do anything more than the crushing some of his categories at this point, while dropping a few seeds in his heart (1 Corinthians 3:6), with the prayerful expectation that the Lord will give a fuller increase on another day (Luke 15:17).

For now, just water and plant a bit differently than the traditional counseling way of doing things. Be his friend. Be real. Use all of your life, appropriately, with him.

Lean Into Your Assumptions

One final point: Use what you already know about what is going on in his heart to your advantage. The following article lays out 12 Universal Assumptions You Can Make about Anyone. These twelve things listed in this graphic are true for all people, even your grunting friend.

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Twelve Universal Assumptions You Can Make About Anyone

In the original article where you will find this graphic, I recommend you focus specifically on the universal truth that all people suffer. He is suffering, and he does not want to be in pain any longer. Every person is suffering in some way, and every person hopes to end their suffering.

Ask the Spirit of God to create a thirst in the boy’s soul that will motivate him to want to escape his suffering. Somebody coined the expression that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink. That is not true. Put some salt in his oats, and he will drink.

If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. – John 7:37-38

Ask the Spirit to give you the discernment to tap into the inner workings of this boy’s heart to stir up his suffering, which hopefully will provide him with a thirst for a different kind of water (Jeremiah 2:13). The water that Jesus offers is your hope, and if he comes to Jesus, he may drink, and if your friend does drink, he will be satisfied.

Again, drinking the water that Jesus provides may or may not happen during your times of meeting with him, but at least you can drop a drop into his soul, and pray for the Spirit to turn it into a river that floods his soul.

I trust these things will help. I also realize that I’m not hitting everything you need to know. What I’d like for you to do is read this, listen to the accompanying podcast, and then ask more questions on our forums so we can take it down to a granular level. Thank you for asking.

You’re a joy to serve,
Rick

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