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.
Bestselling author and counselor Gary Chapman offers wise tips to help you push through the insanity of raising teens toward relational vitality.
Gary Chapman: Things I Wish I’d Known Before Parenting Teens
Gary: I think the most sobering question I ever asked myself, when my kids were teenagers is: “What if my children turn out to be like me in every area?” “What if they drive a car the way I drive a car?” “What if they handle anger the way I handle anger?” “What if they treat their spouse, eventually, the way I treat my spouse?” “What if they treat their teenagers the way I treat them?”
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—
I’ll never forget the day that you told me, in the kitchen—this is 30-plus years ago—that I had an anger problem.
Ann: [Chuckles] I remember that.
Dave: That was a fun day. It was one of those moments, where—
Ann: —where you didn’t say, “Thanks, Hon, for sharing that. I think maybe I do!” [Laughter]
Dave: No; I remember, when you said/literally, I remember your words were: “I don’t want to bring anything up to you again, because you just blow up in anger.” In the moment, I didn’t receive it; but the good thing about it is it forced me to go, “Do I have an anger problem?” And the answer became, “Yes.”
Ann: Well, you even went to God and asked that question.
Dave: Yes; then, I went to my guys that I did life with—and long story short—I began to investigate the root of my anger problem. I discovered what it was, because I didn’t want to be that guy.
Dave: I think, as a parent, we have the same journey we need to take with our kids to help them, whether they’re five years old, or fifteen, or eighteen, know how to manage their anger.
We’ve got a guy in the studio today, Gary Chapman, back at FamilyLife Today. Gary, welcome back.
Gary: Thank you! Good to be with you!
Dave: You’re over there, smiling, at my anger problem. [Laughter]
Ann: —as a therapist.
Dave: They’re laughing at my anger problem! [Laughter]
Ann: Yes, as a therapist.
Dave: That’s making me mad right now, Gary. [Laughter]
You’ve written about that in the love languages book, which so many people know you from. Recently, you’ve written a book called Things I Wish I’d Known Before My Child Became a Teenager.
We’ve already talked a little bit about this; you shared that beautiful heart-wrenching story about a moment, where you blew up in anger with your son Derek. How do we wrestle with them to help them understand—I had to go on a journey, and I was 30-some years old to understand anger and some of the root—how do we navigate that with our teenage kids?
Gary: Mismanaged anger destroys more relationships, probably, than anything else—between husband and wife or between parent and teenager—mismanaged anger. There’s nothing wrong with anger; anger, I believe, is a gift of God. The Bible says God is angry every day with the wicked. We get angry, because we’re moral creatures. Then, when we encounter something we believe to be wrong, we feel anger; and we should.
But we also have a lot of what I also call “distorted anger.” We get angry because we don’t get our way—this is most common in the family—the teenager gets angry, because they don’t get their way.
If we talk about anger—most families don’t talk about anger—
Gary: —they’ve never had a discussion on anger. But have a discussion about anger, and say, “Let’s learn how to handle anger in a positive way.” If you do that with a teenager, you’re doing a great service for the teenager; because you’re helping them understand the whole thing and learning how to do it. They’re going to need that when they get married.
Ann: How do we discover if there are underlying issues? if that teen is continually exploding, and they’re constantly saying, “I’m so angry at you!”—but they’re exploding when they’re saying it, because they’re so emotional. How do we deal with that?—or know: “Are they angry about this surface thing, that they can’t go to the party?—or is there something deeper?”
Gary: I think it’s questions: parents ask questions of the teenagers—not when they’re angry—but after an anger episode; maybe the next day or the next afternoon. They’ll tell you eventually. In fact, I’ve said to a father, “Why don’t you ask your son: ‘Son, I’ve been thinking about how I could be a better father. I’d like to ask you to give me some ideas on how I could be a better father.’” Your teenager will tell you; [Laughter] they will tell you.
See, part of their anger is probably based on the fact that you’re not doing these things that they’re talking about. If you ask questions—and open yourself up for them to tell you how you could be a better mom or better dad—you’ll likely discover what’s lying underneath the surface.
Dave: So if you ask your teenage son or daughter how I can be a better parent—and you don’t like what they say, and you get angry—[Laughter]—what is that saying?
Gary: It’s saying you have an anger problem too! [Laughter] That’s typically the deal. If you ask yourself: “Where did my son learn this?”—chances are, if you look in the mirror, you may well see why they learned it.
Dave: I know that, when Ann said that to me—and I literally went into my office and got on my knees and said, “God, did you just speak?”—I felt like He said, “Yes.” I knew: “If I don’t get a grip on this now, it will be a legacy; it will be something I pass on.”
Long story short is I realized—when I used to preach on this, I would, literally, take an extension cord and wrap it around my waist, and say, “You’ve got to go find what that’s plugged into,”—you think it’s your spouse: “If I wasn’t married to you, I wouldn’t be…” It may be somewhat that, but it isn’t. There’s something you’ve got to dig around and go find.
Obviously, as I searched through my life, it’s like, “Oh, I’m still mad at my dad for walking out when I was seven with his girlfriend. Here I am in my thirties; I need to go on a journey to forgive him.” Again, it’s a long story; and we’ve talked about it many times here. I go on that journey—again, thinking it would take a week—because I’m a pastor, and I know Ephesians 4:32: “Forgive as you’ve been forgiven.”
It took four or five years before I actually got to the place, where I gave up the right to punish him. I went on this journey of forgiveness. How important is that in teaching our teenagers: “to forgive,” “to let go”? I went on that journey; but now, you’ve got a son or daughter, who’s 15/16—and they’ve got forgiveness issues—maybe with you/maybe with other friends. How important is it to help them walk through a journey of forgiveness?
Gary: If they don’t learn to forgive, they will separate themselves from everybody they encounter; because if you get close to anybody, they will, sooner or later, say something/do something that’s going to hurt you. It puts an emotional barrier between the two of you, and it will not go away with the passing of time.
If they apologize to you, then the biblical response is you forgive them; you remove the penalty; you remove the emotional barrier. Now, our relationship can go forward. If you don’t forgive them, the barrier stays there, and it will build into a wall after a period of time.
If the person doesn’t apologize to you—I like to use the word, “release”—you release them to God; you say, “Lord, You know what they did to me, and You know how they treated me. I’ve gone to them, and I’ve explained it to them, and they don’t agree; they don’t apologize. I’m going to put them in Your hands.” You’re releasing them to God. You’re putting them into good hands, because God loves them: if they ever confess to God, God will forgive them; if they don’t, then God judges them, the Bible says.
I think learning the practice of forgiveness is a skill that’s absolutely necessary in adult life, or in teenage life, to have good relationships. You will not have good relationships if you don’t forgive.
Ann: So that’s a skill we need to teach our kids before they get out of our house so, even if they get into marriage, they know how to do this.
Gary: Right; and that means we forgive our children/our teenagers. When our teenager does something that’s horrible, and we confront them, and they apologize; we forgive them, and we move on.
Ann: And we don’t hold it against them the next day—or pout or act—yes, that’s good.
Dave: So much of what we’re talking about really comes down to a spiritual foundation that we have, and we’re hoping that we can impart or guide our kids to. You write about that in your book. This is a really big question for parents of teenagers: “How do we guide them spiritually?” “How do we navigate, alongside them, their spiritual walk?” Help parents with that.
Gary: I think one of the most important things in communicating our relationship with God to our children is modeling what we say we believe. I think the most sobering question I ever asked myself, when my kids were teenagers, is: “What if my children turn out to be like me in every area?” “What if they drive a car the way I drive a car?”
Dave: Oh, boy; you didn’t have to go there, Gary. [Laughter] My wife, right now, is saying, “Oooo-kay.”
Gary: “What if they handle anger the way I handle anger?” “What if they treat their spouse, eventually, the way I treat my spouse?” “What if they treat their teenagers the way I treat them?”—and just on down the line. It’s a sobering question; but if you honestly ask that question, you’ll get an answer; and you’ll know where you need to change.
Dave: I read that toward the back of your book: “What a great gut check!”
Dave: “If you don’t like your answer, guess what?—change it”; right?
Gary: Yes, absolutely; because they’re going to be far more impressed and far more impacted by what they see in our lives than by what we tell them. We can teach them, whatever—all the biblical things—we can teach them, but if they don’t see it in our lives, they’re not likely to respond to it.
Ann: I feel like I did a pretty good job of laying the foundation, spiritually, for our kids when they were little—
Dave: You did a phenomenal job.
Ann: —like reading the Bible, like bringing Jesus and God into the everyday part of life. Yet, I remember asking our young adult children: “What do you guys remember of me teaching?” I was so depressed, Gary, because there wasn’t a lot that they remembered of actual Bible teaching. But they did say, “Mom, the thing that we remember is that you prayed all the time and you read your Bible.” I thought, “Well, that’s a good thing; because they see my dependence/my need for Jesus.”
Also, like we talked about earlier, apologizing/asking forgiveness. They knew I did that a lot. As parents, I think that’s a really good thing to remember: “What are we modeling?” I remember sitting at the dinner table, thinking, “Do I have anything to share with my kids of what God has taught me today?” When there was a long gap, I thought, “I need to be in the Word. I need to be connecting with God more so that I have something to pour out to them.”
Dave: I know that my perspective might be wrong on why so many young people are walking away from church these days. Gary, I’d love to hear your thoughts. My thought is that it isn’t so much about doctrine or theology—it can be, a little bit—I think it’s more about modeling. They’re seeing the way we live, and they’re like, “I don’t buy it.”
Gary: I think you’re right. For example, from my perspective, the central lifestyle theme of a Christian is serving others. Jesus said about Himself: “I did not come to be served; I came to serve and give My life a ransom for others.” If a parent is modeling a servant’s attitude in all of life, the teenager sees that; they don’t forget that. That’s why I would take our children with me on some of the service things: going to the food pantry: “Y’all like to go with me? We’re going over to pack food.” “Yes”; they’d go, and they’d remember that.
They remember when I would take them, in the fall of the year in North Carolina—leaves are all over everywhere—I’d get them in the car and say, “We’re going to go find somebody that’s older that hasn’t got their leaves raked.” I’d knock on the door and say, “Hi, I’m Gary Chapman. I live down the street here, and I’m trying to teach my children how to serve. We would like to rake your leaves if it would be alright.” They’d say, “Say what?” [Laughter] And I’d repeat my little story. We never had anybody who wouldn’t let us rake their leaves; okay?
Ann: I bet you didn’t!
Gary: The kids would rake the leaves, and then they’d jump in the leaves. The teenagers—yes, they were young teenagers when we were doing this—jumping in the leaves and all that. Then we’d drive home; and I’d say, “How do you guys feel about having helped some people?” “Oh, Dad, that was so fun!” They see you serving others in whatever ways you’re equipped to serve others, and that makes a tremendous impact on them. After all, if they know God—if they’ve come to the place, where they’ve put their faith in Christ—there’s no greater satisfaction than serving other people.
I was walking across the campus of the University of Virginia; I was going to be speaking in Campbell Auditorium. A side door into that auditorium—etched in stone, above the door, were these words—“You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.” I thought, “Man! What if every university had that as a theme?” But that’s what Jesus demonstrated, Himself!
Dave: I was going to say: “Those are the words of Christ!”
Gary: Absolutely! That’s why I say our model is so important in teaching them the central motif of the Christian life: “We’re here to serve other people.” And both of them now, as adults, that’s what they do! She’s a medical doctor—she delivers high-risk babies—she identifies with these mothers, who are struggling. And my son works with kids on the street—he has for years—people that nobody else would have time for.
Ann: —which would make sense because your whole life has been dedicated to serving people. You started out serving troubled teens, and you said you even took your son with you to do that.
Gary: Yes, yes.
Ann: What’s your love language?
Gary: Words of affirmation.
Dave: You’re amazing, Gary. [Laughter] Awesome having you on here; nobody better.
Gary: My wife’s [love language] is actually service; I have to get home and take the trash out. [Laughter]
Ann: But I think, by you modeling—every time we’ve been with you, you’ve shared stories about people that you’ve reached: troubled kids that needed help/that needed a parent, and you were there—you’ve modeled that, all along the way for your kids, and now their lives have been dedicated to serving others.
Ann: That’s really well done.
Dave: I remember—again, it was our youngest, spring break, his senior year in high school—and instead of going on some crazy party deal with all these kids, we say, “Let’s do a trip, and you can take a buddy.” Cody took Matt, and we went—I don’t know—where did we go?
Ann: We went on a cruise.
Dave: Yes, we went on a cruise. Anyway, we ended up in Florida, probably before the cruise or after. All I remember is, in this rental car, we’re driving to the airport or something. Somehow, I made a wrong turn; and we ended up in this little cul-de-sac. There was a woman in a car, stuck in sand; she couldn’t get her car out of sand.
Now, I’m from Michigan; I’ve never seen this. [Laughter] Snow—I can rock your car out of snow—but sand?—right? We drove right by her, and I stopped; I said, “Hey, I think she’s stuck. Let’s go back and help.” They were like, “What? What do you mean ‘help’?” I’m like, “I don’t know what their situation is; but it looks like she’s in a snowdrift, and she can’t get out.”
We pile out of the car, and both of them are like, “We’re going to go help some strange lady...” I’m like, “We’re going to try!” We go back there—and of course, they’re both high school football players; they ended up pushing this lady out—it was just like getting out of a snowdrift; we get her out of the snowdrift.
Ann: And these two guys are big football players.
Gary: Oh, yes. [Laughter]
Dave: They’re muscle bound; they’re going to play college football. We get back in the car, and I’m not kidding—I don’t know what you think, Ann—of the entire spring break trip, including this incredible cruise, that’s the memory that I have and they had. When we all got back in the car, we were like cheering. It was just this—endorphins—we were excited, like, “Wow! We actually helped some stranger lady out of just a simple sand thing.” But like you said, it’s that act of serving others brought something to our soul.
You’re saying, as a parent, when we model that, and get our kids involved in that, it’s going to do the same thing for them?
Gary: Absolutely; absolutely. Certainly, reading the Scriptures to them as they’re growing up, and having them in a youth group at church—all that’s very, very positive; they’re hearing all those things at church and other things—but our model in serving and other things—our model of the way we live our lives is going to have the biggest impact on our teenagers. Those are the things they’re going to look back, and they’re going to remember.
Ann: What that does, too, is it takes their eyes off of themselves, which as teenagers, it’s easy to be looking at themselves a lot. That takes us into that mental health or emotional health area. Parents are talking about this so much, because their kids are depressed; they’re dealing with anxiety. They’re [parents] not sure how to help. You talk about this in your book, too, of even how the love languages can impact that.
Gary: If a teenager feels loved—first of all, I think that’s one of the most fundamental emotional needs that a child has: is to feel loved—if we understand their love language, and [we] give heavy doses of that love language—and we sprinkle in the other four because we want the child to learn there’s more than one way to love—and that child feels loved; then, they have the demonstration in front of them, every day, of how to live the Christian life/what this looks like: “It’s a life of serving other people.” We bring them into those service things so they get to experience what you were just talking about earlier: helping other people.
Part of the thing with teenagers is—they’re trying to find meaning to life—"Why am I here?” “What’s this all about?” Well, it’s all about serving other people, from the Christian perspective. If we can help them do that, they feel good about themselves after they’ve done it. They pushed the lady out of the sand; they’re feeling good about themselves: “Oh, man. This is wonderful!” So they start looking for places where they can serve.
Yes, we’re teaching them by our model to follow Jesus. We’re acknowledging that the reason we are doing these things is because we’re followers of Jesus. We’ve given our lives to Him, and we’re His representatives in the world. We’re here to make the world a better place. If they get that image and that picture, they’re far more likely to follow through with what they’ve been taught.
Dave: Did you ever have to go into your son or daughter’s bedroom at night, after you blew it as a bad model, and say, “I’m sorry”?
Gary: I don’t remember going into their bedroom and doing that; but I do remember telling them, “I’m sorry,” on several occasions. I tried to do it pretty quickly after I’d done it.
Dave: Don’t want until bedtime.
Gary: Don’t wait until bedtime. If you realize you’ve done wrong, maybe walk around the block if you need to, to cool off; but then come back and say, “I want to apologize to you.”
Ann: I think Dave brought that up, because I would apologize to my kids right away.
Dave: I wasn’t thinking of you; I was thinking of me! [Laughter]
Ann: But then, what happens, as a parent, I think—I don’t know if men do this, but I do this as a mom—I blew it; I apologize; I ask for their forgiveness. But then, I go to bed; and I just can’t get over it. I hear that self-condemnation: “What kind of mom would do that?” Then, I would go back into their room, apologize again.
One of our sons wrote about it in the book; because I just couldn’t get out of that rut of feeling like, “I’m a terrible mom. What kind of parent would do this?” That son said, “I don’t know why my mom kept coming back in. She apologized; I forgave her right away.” But I couldn’t get over the guilt. How would you encourage parents with that?
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Gary Chapman on FamilyLife Today. We’ll hear his response in just a minute, as well as probably the most encouraging part of his entire three-day interview. If you’re a parent, don’t miss it; that’s coming up in just a minute.
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Alright; now, back to Dave and Ann with Gary Chapman and how to get out of the rut of feeling like a terrible parent.
Gary: I was speaking in a prison one night—local prison—and they invited the wives to come in with the men, and I’d do this marriage thing. In the Q&A, this father said—he was the prisoner—he said, “Dr. Chapman, I’ve asked God to forgive me. I know He has, and my wife here has forgiven me. My sons have forgiven me. What I want to know is: ‘How do I forgive myself for all the pain that I have caused other people?’”
I’d never heard that question before. I think God gave me this/here’s my answer; I said, “Okay; stand in front of a mirror and talk to yourself—just say—‘Self, you blew it. You blew it big time, and you hurt a lot of people, Self. But a holy God has forgiven you because of Jesus and what He did on the cross for you.’”
Parents sometimes say to me, when their child has done something really, really bad—and they’re in prison, or they’ve got somebody pregnant, or whatever—they say/here’s what they say in my office, “Dr. Chapman, what did we do wrong?” I say to them, “God Himself had two children, named Adam and Eve; and they blew it. And they had a perfect Father.”
So don’t take all the blame for the decisions adult children make, because they can make decisions/poor decisions with good parents. If you know some things, where you’ve failed them, fine—you go apologize to them—but don’t just automatically take all the blame on yourself for the poor decisions your adult children make.
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 of that book at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Tomorrow, Dave and Ann and Ron Deal will join Cheryl Shumake as she talks through the hardship of not being accepted as a new stepmom and the importance of waiting on God through her journey.
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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