Gary Chapman: Things I Wish I’d Known Before Parenting Teens
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Gary ChapmanHe has degrees from some of the most respected colleges and seminaries. He's written some of the best-selling books of the past decade and appeared on numerous radio and television programs across the country. But Dr. Gary Chapman knows more than just a lot of scholarly theories and practical advice—he knows people. He knows how to relate to people, how to have fun and how to make people laugh, all the while giving practical tools to help improve relationships.
No one feels prepared for raising teens. But you can do this! Author Gary Chapman reveals What I wish I’d known and ways to redefine your relationship.
Gary Chapman: Things I Wish I’d Known Before Parenting Teens
Gary: Apologizing is essential to a healthy marriage or a healthy parent/child relationship. The reason it’s essential is none of us [is] perfect; all of us fail from time to time. You don’t have to be perfect to be a good parent, but you do have to deal with your failures.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: We have our youngest, Cody; he called us/said, “Hey, I’m thinking about coming down.” Then we said, “Yes, that would be great.” He said, “I’ll be there tomorrow”; and he shows up with his two kids. [Laughter]
Ann: I was so excited—I did not fall asleep until three a.m.—that’s how excited I was.
Dave: You screamed; I was in the garage, and I thought something tragic happened.
But the reason I bring up Cody is because—when he was how old?—you crawled in bed with him to do what you normally do as a mom.
Ann: This boy, as he was younger, he had a couple of love languages that were very distinct. One was “touch,” and the other one was “words of affirmation.” Every night, he would just beg me: “Mom, get under the covers, and lay here, and talk to me,”—put my arm around him and hug him. I would do that; some nights, I’m like, “Oh, I just want to go downstairs”; but I’d get underneath, and we’d talk. I’d tell him—“Man, you are great,”—and we’d pray.
This one night, I think he was probably 12ish/13ish, and we had talked. I just automatically lifted up the covers to just lay with him for a few seconds; and he said, “What are you doing?” [Laughter] I said, “I was just going to lay down with you.”
He said, “Mom, get out of here!” [Laughter] I walked out in the hallway; and I said, “Good night; love you,”—walked down the hallway—I sat and I cried, because he was our youngest; and it made me so sad.
Dave: You’re getting teary now.
Ann: No, I’m not; I’m not; I’m not. [Laughter] But it made me sad that he was pulling away a little bit, which is normal.
Dave: Yes, in some ways, that’s a “Welcome-to-the-teen-years” moment; which we’re going to talk about today: “How do you navigate the teen years as a mom and a dad?”
We’ve got Gary Chapman in the studio, the first time ever, at FamilyLife Today in Orlando. Welcome to FamilyLife Today, Gary.
Gary: Thank you; it’s great to be here.
Dave: You’ve written/I mean, people know you from The Five Love Languages. I think it sold a few copies; you know?
Gary: It has sold a few copies. [Laughter]
Dave: But recently, you released a book that I wish we had 20 years ago when Cody was that young: Things I Wished I’d Known Before My Child Became a Teenager.
Ann: You’ve been married how many years, Gary?
Gary: Oh, married, 60 years.
Ann: Then you have how many kids?
Gary: Just two, a boy and a girl.
Ann: What prompted you to do Things I Wished I’d Known Before My Child Became a Teenager?
Gary: First of all, it’s a three-book series:
- The first one I wrote is: Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married: 12 things that I know now, had I known then, would have made my marriage much easier.
- Then, it just seemed logical to write one: Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Had Children.
- Then after that, I thought, “Well—oh man, the teenage years—so this one’s on things I wish I had known before we had teenagers.
Ann: Those are always the books I pick up, too, like, “Oh, they learned something; let’s hear what they learned.”
Dave: A lot of parents, when we talked to them, are afraid of these years/the teenage years. Should they be?
Gary: Well, yes, probably. [Laughter] I remember the mother, who said, “What has happened to my son? It’s like his brain is changed; he’s just totally different.”
I said, “You got it right; his brain has changed.” [Laughter]
Ann: For us, we loved it/it was fun. But it is also that scary feeling of: “Oh, I’m not sure who they are.” I’ve heard parents say to me: “Will they ever go back to the person that I used to know before they were teenagers?”
Dave: Let’s talk about—you mentioned 12; I don’t know if we’ll get through all 12—but as you think about the first thing that came to you mind, when you think, “What I wish I would have known about raising teenagers”?
Gary: I wish I had been prepared for the change that does take place in a teenager’s brain; I knew nothing about that. But the reality is the brain is re-organizing/the brain is shifting around. One of those things is they’re learning how to think logically.
Now, notice I say “learning”—they’re not logical—[Laughter]—but they’re learning to think logically. That’s why they question things that you’ve taught them for years; it blows parents away. I wish I had known that that’s normal. They’re processing things now that they accepted when they were children—whatever you taught them, they accepted—but now, they’re thinking, “Is this really true?”
Normally, we say they’re argumentative—that’s the way we see it: argumentative—but if we understood that they are developing logical thought, we would cooperate with that, rather than trying to say: “Well, you know better than that!” “Now, don’t talk about that.” We stop the flow, and we lose the influence. We have to learn how to receive their questions and ask them: “Now, that’s an interesting perspective. What made you think that?”—engage them in conversation. Now, we’re helping them develop logical thought rather than stopping the flow.
I wish I had known that; we’d have had less arguments. [Laughter]
Dave: That’s wisdom. One of the things we wrote in our No Perfect Parents book was the teenage years are the live-in-the-question years. Like you said, not always telling them, but asking them/drawing them out.
I remember—maybe you’re familiar with Shaunti Feldhahn, wrote a book called For Parents Only—
Dave: —it was research from teenagers and parents. One of the things she said was just what you said. It’s like, when they’re small, you give them the building blocks of what you believe and what life is about. It’s like you’re building this castle with them; it’s like: “We believe in God,” “We go to church,” “We are people of character.” They have all these blocks.
She said, when they reach the teenage years, they’ll pick up each block—and they’ll look at it, like, “I don’t know if I believe in God,”—most of the time, we, as parents, just freak out, like, “Oh, my goodness!”
You’re saying that’s normal, and we should just draw that out?
Gary: Absolutely; and lead them to things outside yourself. They know what you think; they’ve been listening to you all these years. If they’re questioning spiritual things, for example, you say, “Well, that’s an interesting thought. I know there are people who actually believe that, so why don’t we study that a little bit? Why don’t we read some stuff? Why don’t we see?”
If they’re thinking: “You know what? Is Christianity the only one religion? These other people are good people.” “Okay, let’s look at their beliefs. Let’s study their beliefs.” You just walk them through, because they’ve got to make it their own/they’ve got to make Christianity their own. You can’t just give it to them.
Ann: I think Dave really welcomed that when our kids were asking questions. I tended to freak out a little bit more, like, “Oh no! What’s happening?” What you’re saying is it’s really normal, and it’s probably a good thing for them to question; because what it can do is open the door of conversation with parents.
I love what you said: “Tell me more.”
Gary: Absolutely. I think so many parents, when they don’t realize that this is normal/what’s happening is normal, they do become defensive; they say, “Now, you know we’ve taught you that all these years. You know that’s wrong; just get that out of your mind.” Then the kid stops talking to the parents; they go talk to somebody else.
Dave: That’s the last thing you want.
Dave: Because they’re going to talk to somebody else and get input from—not another parent—but probably another peer.
Ann: They’ll Google® it.
Dave: Talk about this: if you’re saying that the brain is starting to think logically—I also read that they often will make poor decisions because of that—so they’re pulling away; they’re making bad decisions. [Laughter] As a parent, how do we navigate that?—[Laughter]—because we’re watching it happen, but it’s sort of normal.
Gary: It’s really hard, especially if they make poor decisions. We know that we’re losing far too many teenagers, by the time they get to be 18, because they’ve been pulled off into drugs, alcohol, or other behaviors that are destructive. This is really, really painful for parents; there’s no question about that.
That’s why if we, on the early stages of that—if we sense that something’s going on there—we need to be on top of it, and be talking to them about that, and exposing them—like in the drug thing—exposing them to the reality. I mean, there’s tremendous material. All you have to do is go on and look at all the results of whatever drug it is. It will frighten a kid if they read it; you know?
Ann: You actually did that with your son.
Gary: Yes; right. The other thing was, with my son, I would go once a month on Saturday night to the juvenile detention center. I would play ping pong with the kids, and I’d just talk with them individually. I started taking my son, when he was a teenager, with me. We would play ping pong, and then we’d talk to the kids. Then riding home—and they would tell us their story/how they got there—and riding home, I would say, “Derek, isn’t that sad, man? Those guys are your age, and they made poor decisions,”—that’s all—that’s more powerful than my preaching.
Ann: Oh, that’s so good! If I could only stop there! I’d have gone on and on, [Laughter] but you just dropped a little nugget.
Gary: Yes; sometimes I would clip a little thing out of the newspaper, and say, “Derek, you might want to read this, son. This guy was your age. It’s really sad.” It was when a teenager had been driving under the influence and he killed somebody. I’d just say, “You might want to read this.” He’d read it—and I didn’t say anything else—just let him read it/let him see.
Dave: How were you able to just drop it and let it go?
Ann: You’d do the same thing! Are men better at this than—
Dave: I’m asking for my wife. [Laughter]
Ann: No, really, you’re so good at that.
Dave: I don’t know about that.
As you look back on your years with your kids, as teenagers, were there any hiccups? Did you feel like: “Man, one of the things I wrote about is because I blew it in this area”?
Gary: Yes, the whole area of anger; that was huge. I remember he was probably 14, and he and I got into an argument. I was yelling at him; he was yelling at me. I was saying hateful things, and he was saying hateful things. In the middle of all of it, he walked out the door and slammed the door. When the door slammed, I woke up and I said, “Oh, God, I thought I was further along than this/yelling at the son I love.” I wept—I just sat down on the couch and wept—and just confessed to God how horrible it was.
My wife tried to console me; she came in and said, “Honey, I heard the whole thing. That’s not your fault; he started that. He’s got to learn how to respect you.” She was/finally, she gave up; because it’s kind of hard to console a sinner.
When he finally came back in, I said, “Derek, could you come in here a minute, son?” And he sat down. I just apologized to him; I said, “A father should never talk to his son the way I talked to you. I said some horrible things. That’s not the way I feel about you; I love you and I hope you can forgive me.”
He said, “Dad, that was not your fault; I started that. I shouldn’t talk to you that way. When I was walking up the road, I asked God to forgive me. I want to ask you to forgive me.” We hugged and we cried, and we hugged and we cried.
Then I said, “Derek, why don’t we try to learn how to handle anger in a better way? What if we try this: the next time you get angry with me, you just say, ‘Dad, I’m angry; can we talk?’ And I’ll sit down and listen to you. The next time I feel angry, I’ll say, ‘Derek, I’m angry; can we talk?’ Let’s learn to talk our way through anger rather than yelling at each other.”
It was a huge turning point. I’ve sometimes said, “That was one of the saddest nights of my life in raising my teenaged son and one of the happiest nights. Sad because of my own failure. Happy because he just demonstrated to me he knows how to apologize.” [Sighing]
Ann: That’s so powerful.
Ann: I’m thinking of the listener, who just thought, “I yell at my children all the time, my teenagers. This is just a constant thing, where they’re yelling and I’m yelling. How do I even get out of that cycle?”
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Gary Chapman on FamilyLife Today. We’ll hear his response in just a minute.
But first, if you’ve ever been the parent of a teen, or know someone who is, you know it can be a super stressful time for parents. You can have all the best intentions in the world; but sometimes, you just don’t know how to help your teen. You can feel desperate.
When you partner, financially, with FamilyLife, you’re helping that desperate parent. Dennis Rainey says, “God loves the prayer of the desperate parent.” Wouldn’t it be amazing if you were part of God’s answer to that prayer? Your support could provide just the right article or podcast, at just the right time, for the just the right parent. You could be a part of the solution and partner, online, with us at FamilyLifeToday.com.
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Alright; now, back to Gary Chapman and how parents of teens can get out of the cycle of yelling, back and forth.
Gary: I think, first of all, you have to recognize that it’s not productive. You’re teaching them to do what you’re doing. As a parent, we need to apologize when we recognize that we have failed our teenager.
Some parents have said to me, “Well, if I apologize, won’t they lose respect for me?” I said, “No, no; they gain respect. They already know that what you did was wrong. But when you apologize to your teenager for anything that you know you’ve done wrong, you’re teaching them a skill they’re going to need forever; because they’re going to fail too. They’re going to have to learn how to apologize. They’ll never have a good marriage if they don’t learn how to apologize.”
I think that’s the first step is just recognizing: “I’m teaching them something I don’t want to teach them. What I’m doing is wrong,” and just apologize—to God first—and then to this teenager.
Dave: It’s pretty amazing—as we hear that story about Derek, that he’s 14—I think we underestimate. He acted/responded like a man, like a full-fledged adult. We often think, “Oh, they’re 12/13/14; they’re just a kid.” In some ways, maybe they are; other ways, they are fully a man or woman; right?
Gary: Yes, they’re thinking more/they’re moving toward adulthood. So they’re not thinking as a child now—they’re thinking more/moving towards; I say “moving toward”—they’re not there yet; they’re in process.
But this is where the time we have been with them, before that, in the childhood years is so important; because he had been in a Christian home. We would read the Scriptures in the morning and night, and pray with him, and all of that. So he’s fully aware of this apologizing thing and confessing our sins to God.
If you didn’t start when they were children, you have to start when they’re teenagers—that’s okay—you are where you are. Let’s just start there and start learning what we need to be doing.
Dave: Some of our listeners have little kids, and you just blew by what you did. I’d love for you to talk a little bit of about—if you’ve got a five-year-old/six-year-old—what are the things they can be doing to prep for these teen years coming ahead?
Gary: What we did—my wife is not a morning person—but she fixed—
Dave: Hey, I can relate to that! [Laughter]
Ann: I’m not either.
Gary: —she fixed a hot breakfast every morning.
Ann: I did that too.
Gary: That’s like Mother Theresa; I mean, it’s on that level. [Laughter]
Ann: I don’t know about that, but when you’ve got hungry boys too.
Dave: Hers were amazing; yes. She did that because she wanted to be—
Gary: She committed herself to do it. She thought that was a motherly thing to do, and she did it all those years. Now, as soon as the kids went off to college, that was over.
Ann: Me too. [Laughter]
Dave: She doesn’t get up and cook you a hot meal every day?
Ann: I’m right with her.
Gary: But what we would do at breakfast: I would read just a brief passage of Scripture. We would just discuss it a little bit, while we were eating breakfast, the kids and I—nothing heavy duty—but just awareness that our lives can be based on the Bible.
Ann: How old were they when you started these things?
Gary: They were old enough to sit at the table and talk/probably, I don’t know, five or six years old.
Then, every night, we would have a little devotional time. When they were younger, we would read a Bible story to them out of a Bible story book. We didn’t pray as a group. They would go to bed—and my wife or I—one would go to the bed beside of them, get on our knees, and we would pray. As they got older, they would start praying. My daughter says, “That’s where I learned to pray”; we’d pray every night.
Those were the two things that we did consistently during those childhood years. Of course, we took them to church; because I think we recognized: “If they could be exposed to other Christians out there in their classes at church, that’s just adding to the impact on their lives.”
Ann: I was thinking—if Derek had come home, and you had apologized, I was impressed that you didn’t say anything like: “How about you? Is it your turn?” and “What you did was wrong,”—but what if he hadn’t apologized? What would your move have been then?
Gary: I think I would have probably just dropped it there, I think, after I said, “I’m hoping you can forgive me,” and hoped that he would forgive me without preaching a sermon to him; because our model is powerful. When he heard me apologizing to him, he would walk away and think about it—if he didn’t confess it there, he’d walk away and think about it—and he may come back later and apologize. But if he didn’t, he’d still have that model of apologizing.
Ann: That’s good.
Dave: I think/you wrote about it: “There’s power in an apology,”—just that move by anyone.
Ann and I did a little thing about how to rekindle love in your marriage. As we’re sitting down—“How do you stoke the fire of romance back in your marriage?”—the first thing we thought of was that, which you would probably think: “Wait; when you go to your spouse, or your child, and say, ‘I’m wrong,’ ‘I’m sorry. Here’s what I’m wrong and sorry about…’ something happens in the soul of that person.” It doesn’t always come out the way that we hoped—because maybe it doesn’t—but something softens in them.
Ann: It’s even the Proverb: “A gentle answer turns away wrath [Proverbs 15:1].”
Gary: Yes, absolutely. I think when we apologize to someone, they’re hearing us deal with our failures. In fact, I sometimes say, “Apologizing is essential to a healthy marriage or a healthy parent/child relationship.” The reason it’s essential is none of us [is] perfect; all of us fail from time to time. You don’t have to be perfect to be a good parent, but you do have to deal with your failures.
When we apologize to our children, and request forgiveness—we don’t demand forgiveness, because forgiveness is a choice—but [when] we request forgiveness of them, we’re teaching them how to apologize. They will eventually forgive us, likely, if we’re apologizing; and we’re teaching them how to forgive.
It’s a huge thing that every individual needs to learn is: how to deal effectively with our failures; because we’re all going to fail, and apologizing is a huge part of it.
Ann: I think what we do with teenagers is we feel like we’re failing. I know, as my friends and I have gotten together before, we had committed to one another, like, “We’re nagging our teenagers constantly,”—and realizing then—I think it was pushing our kids away, like, who wants to be around someone who’s constantly criticizing? When we do that, it’s harming the relationship.
Gary: Absolutely; and what happens to those children—who get constant criticism—they go into adulthood, and they don’t have the ability to give affirming words, because they’ve never heard them.
Gary: We’re doing them a tremendous disservice. All they’ve ever heard is criticism, so what will they do?—they will criticize their kids.
Dave: Gary, what do we do when we see our kids—14/15 years old—and they’re just making bad decisions; they’re not listening to mom and dad? We don’t want to criticize them; what do we do?
Gary: I think what we do—every time we have a rule or a guideline that we have for teenagers, which we should: there should be boundaries with teenagers, because they need to have boundaries—but whenever we decide that this is going to be a rule or something we’re going to do or not do, let there be consequences and tell them what the consequences are going to be before [they] do it.
For example, you say—let’s say they’re 16, and they’re going to be driving now—“There have to be some guidelines here and responsibilities. One of the things, if you’re going to drive the car,”—either our car or we help them get a car; whatever—"but you’re going to wash the car every week on Saturday; before noon, you wash the car,”—if you’re in a setting where you can do that. “If you ever break the law/if you get caught for speeding, you will lose the car for a week,”—or you set [a timeframe].
Now, the kid knows and you know what the consequences will be if they break the rule. All you have to do—you don’t have to get mad—you just have to say, “Son, you know what happens; you have to lose the car for a week.”
“Oh, Dad, but this week: dah, dah, dah, dah.” “I know, son, but when we break the rule, there are consequences.” You stick with it; you don’t break down when they cry. They say, “But all my friends are going to be there.” You say, “Well, I’ll drive you over there.” [Laughter]
Ann: I like how you remain cool during the whole thing.
Gary: That’s a big thing. If you’ve already told them what the consequences are, you’re more likely to stay cool. Because, otherwise, we operate on our emotions at the time. If we feel strongly, we come down hard on them—or we just kind of let it go this time—the kid doesn’t know whether they’re going to get consequences or no consequences. If we all know what’s going to happen, before they break the rule, then all we have to do is just enforce the rule.
Ann: I remember being a young parent, hearing that and putting that into action. I remember thinking, “This is amazing,”—because they already knew the rule; they broke the rule—and then I could empathize with them: “Oh, I’m so sorry. That probably makes you so mad or frustrated, but you knew the rule.” It’s almost like: “We’ve already set this in place.”
Dave: It might have been a little more intense than that in the kitchen, but—[Laughter]
Ann: Maybe; but the times that I applied it, it was like, “Oh, this works!”
Gary: It’s easier for the parent and for the teenager.
Ann: But you have to be intentional to put those in place before.
Gary: Absolutely, and the mom and dad need to agree on them also.
Gary: Otherwise, dad’s going to let it slide and mom’s going to come down on them. But we both agree on it; and now, it doesn’t matter who’s at home or who’s administering it—mom or dad—because everybody knows what’s going to happen.
Shelby: You’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Gary Chapman on FamilyLife Today. His book is called Things I Wish I’d Known Before My Child Became a Teenager. You can get a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com.
While you’re there, you can also save on FamilyLife small group studies when you use the code, “25OFF”; again, that code is 2-5-O-F-F to save 25 percent on all small group studies at FamilyLifeToday.com through Wednesday.
Now, tomorrow, Dave and Ann are back in the studio with Gary Chapman, talking about adjusting our language and how we treat our teens as they evolve into adulthood. That’s tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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