Teen Troubles Can Ignite Marital Troubles
Famed humorist and author Mark Twain once said, “When a child turns 13, put them in a box. Cut a hole in the box to pass in food and water. When they turn 16, plug up the hole.” Unfortunately, teen troubles aren’t that easy to solve, and they can strain all of the relationships in the family . . . especially the parent’s marriage.
I received an email not long ago from a desperate grandmother who is rearing her teenage granddaughter. She told me, “She has always been hard to handle, but lately she has been getting out of hand. She is angry, disrespectful and mean. We’ve tried counseling and different parenting techniques, without success. Now, our marriage is on the brink of divorce.”
Did you notice how she immediately shifted from talking about her granddaughter’s issues, to mentioning how it is affecting her own marriage? I hear it all the time — and I see it on the faces of parents who bring their child to us at Heartlight. The stress and strain of dealing with a difficult child bent on self-destruction is more than most marriages can bear. The teen invariably pits the parents against each other and the parents begin blaming each other, or they conflict over the how to “fix” their child. It can and does tear families apart.
The worst thing that can happen for your teenager is for your family and marriage to crumble. Mom and dad need to protect their marriage, above all else. In fact, it is more important than just about anything the parents can do to help their child.
If you are struggling with your teen, make the commitment today that you will do whatever you have to do to protect or reestablish your marital relationship — even if it means removing your teen from your home for a time to give your relationship a rest. Your marriage needs to be your highest priority at this time.
Prescription for a Healthy Marriage Amidst Teen Troubles
1) See the experience as something you must manage together. A problem with a teen is simply something you are not going to be able to handle properly if there are divisions between you. Use the strengths of both husband and wife to deal with the situation.
2) Share your feelings. Honestly express the strains you are feeling because of what is happening. Don’t take an expression of pain from your spouse as an attack on you as a person or as a parent.
3) Present a united front to your teen. Sit down and talk to your teen together. Make it clear to them that the “Napoleon Strategy” of divide and conquer will not work. Lay out clear guidelines for how you will deal with problems together.
4) Don’t expect your spouse to fill the void. When a close relationship you enjoyed with a younger child is disrupted, do not turn to your spouse and place the responsibility on them to fill your expectations and pick up the slack.
5) Don’t expect your spouse to change. My wife and I spent a year and half in counseling together. One of the things that gave us the most help was being told to quit trying to change each other. It made our life immensely better.
6) Don’t blame each other for the problem. Since none of us is perfect, something your spouse did or failed to do may have contributed to the problem with the teen. The past cannot be changed; it is detrimental to try to fix blame for it.
7) Don’t avoid the pain. As the old saying goes, “Denial is not just a river in Egypt.” Trying to pretend like there isn’t anything wrong is a recipe for disaster. Honestly face the situation and plan your response to it with your eyes wide open.
8) Build in fun times together. Even though you’re struggling you still can enjoy good things in life. Do things with your teen and with each other. It keeps the spark of hope burning and reminds you that things can and will get better. Don’t let the fire go out!
The point is this, spend extra time together and keep working not just on your child’s problems, but on your own relationship as well. Take breaks away from the the kids and from talking about your teen’s problems. Don’t forsake your friends, hobbies or fun things in life. Your teen needs to see that they aren’t “winning” the battle by causing you to mope around or become hermits so you can keep your eye on them.
If you aren’t together and your marriage strong, your teen will know it…and use it against you. I’ve had parents say to me, “We just can’t see eye to eye.” My reply is, “Then get counseling and fix it.” Don’t let pride keep you from doing what your kids—and your marriage—need. All of us need guidance and direction to not only help us get to where we want to go, but also to keep from the places we never thought we would end up. Even Jan and I had to get counseling for a period of time, and it helped a lot.
If your teen sees his parents working through their problems with each other and with a counselor, it will give him hope that his situation can be resolved as well. It will give validity to their own need for a counselor, should it come to that. Don’t be afraid to share some of those struggles with him in the context of working toward a solution. “We’re going to remain strong even when don’t agree” gives the child license to see struggle and still be loved and accepted.
Tackle your own marital struggles and disagreements first, with a bedrock commitment to respect and unity, and you’ll give your teen a powerful example to follow. My friend DeeDee Mayer says that one of the great benefits of marriage is: “To know and be known as a human being and be loved anyway.” Extend that same benefit to your teen and make sure they know it as well.
When I was a kid, people weren’t worried about skin cancer very much. You didn’t see moms at the beach slathering their kids with all different kinds of sunscreen or afraid to let them go outside to play. None of us knew what “SPF” was. Now we do. The purpose of sunscreen is to prevent something serious from happening later on. In the same way, you can…and should…apply sunscreen to your relationship well before the problems start.
We’ve had over 2500 kids come live with us at Heartlight over the past twenty years. Almost every parent has said something like this to me: “We never knew that our child was going to struggle like this,” or, “Our child seemingly changed overnight.” Those families weren’t prepared for what hit them, and for many, it led to difficulty in their marriage and even divorce.
Parents who are approaching the teen years would be wise to prepare ahead of time—ensuring that they are on the same page and the foundations of their marriage are strong. They’ll start taking steps today to guard their marriage from the problems that can come during the teen years. And for those who are in the midst of teen struggles now, they’d be wise to turn their attention toward their marriage first, and that will be the start of healing for the whole family, including their teen.