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Those Adolescent Preacher's Kids

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 317

Adolescents: Run Amuck?
Parenting isn't getting any easier. Youth continue to be exposed to increasingly more things at increasingly earlier ages with increasingly worrisome results. Increased frequency and severity of violent incidents also appear to be proliferating at an unprecedented rate. No matter how much one tries to shield them from it, adolescence will still happen. It can be a very, very fearful experience for adolescents and their parents.
Preacher's Kids ("PK"'s) will also experience adolescence. No matter how great the parenting, how intense the parenting time, no matter how great the interest PK's, no less than others, do not have a remote control. How is it that parents seem to forget this. Weren't they in the delivery room the moment the umbilical cord was cut?
That first experience of independence is what every child needs. It's also what ever parent watches--sometimes almost helplessly--as their children experience subsequent stages of growth. This will continue to grow until the children learn normal, healthy independence.

"Normal"(???) Adolescence

"Normal adolescence" like "sweet sorrow" is an oxymoron. Virtually nothing adolescents do seems "normal"...especially when the adolescent is a PK. Who knows what a "normal" PK is? What is a "normal" PK supposed to behave like, talk like and walk like? The best and healthiest answer may be "like any other 'normal' adolescent."
Judith Viorst in Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1986), provides an interesting description of "normal" adolescence.
"The trip from early to middle to late adolescence normally is defined as a state of disharmony. This disharmony need not be constant, and it need not even be visible; sometimes, indeed, it is quiet and covert. But the conflicts and mood wings and excesses are often flamboyant enough to provoke the following list from some teenager's parents:
* A normal adolescent is so restless and twitchy and awkward that he can manage to inure his knee--not playing soccer, not playing football--by by falling of his chair in the middle of French class.
* A normal adolescent has sex on the brain--and very frequently in hand.
* A normal adolescent describes as two major goals in life (1) putting an end to the threat of nuclear holocaust [or other global issues] and (2) owning five knit shirts with a... [fashion designer] label.
* A normal adolescent plungers from agony to ecstasy--and back again--in under thirty seconds.
* A normal adolescent (who now is capable of abstract logical thinking) can use this new cognitive skill to contemplate deep philosophical issues but never to remember to take out the garbage.
* A normal adolescent shifts from viewing her parents as merely fallible to regarding them as wrong about virtually everything.
* A normal adolescent isn't a normal adolescent if he acts normal.

With that last poignant point Anna Freud fully agrees. She writes,

"it is normal for an adolescent to behave for a considerable length of time in an inconsistent and unpredictable manner; to fight his impulses and to accept then; to ward them off successfully and to be overrun by them; to love his parents and to hate them; 
to revolt against them and to be dependent on them; to be deeply ashamed to acknowledge his mother before others and, unexpectedly, to desire heart-to-heart talks with them; to thrive on imitation of and identification with others while searching unceasingly for his own identity; to be more idealistic, artistic, generous and unselfish than he will ever be again, but also the opposite: self-centered, egoistic, calculating. 
Such fluctuations between extreme opposites would be deemed highly abnormal at any other time of life. At this time they may signify no more than that an adult structure of personality takes a long time to emerge" (Viorst, pp. 150-151).
PK's Too???
Yes, PK's, though often "distinct" among their peers and community, also need to grow and develop their own sense of healthy independence. Unfortunately, it is not often a smooth process. 
Rev. Billy Graham and his wife Ruth had extreme difficulties raising their son. It wasn't until he was far into his mature adult years that he finally found his "niche" in life. Currently, he is active in a very public ministry of the Gospel.
But it didn't happen without having experimented with sex, drugs, rebellion and spiritual wandering. As much as pastors would like to think their adolescent youth are "special" and "immune" from such pressures, they are not. Pastors also experience the joys--and heartbreaks--of parenting adolescence.
Adolescence: A Developmental Perspective
Developmental researchers add insight to just how much development happens during adolescence. Piaget describes how they move from concrete to abstract modes of cognition. Erickson describes how they move from the Fourth Stage of development ("Industry vs. Inferiority," ages 5-12) to Stage Five: "Identity vs. Role Confusion" (ages 12-20).
During the Fifth Stage Erickson suggest that adolescents must deal with four "Identity Statuses."
1) Identity Achievement: It is in this phase in which adolescents must give lots of thought to their future. They spend considerable effort trying to discern where they are going in life, what they will do, etc.
2) Identity Moratorium: This phase is characterized by a period of delay and uncertainty about their future. This phase generally breeds considerable fear in the adolescent.
3) Identity Foreclosure: Adolescents who act like they know where their going--but really have no clue--are in this phase. Generally, it too will pass. The arrogant, foolish pride displayed, however, can be rather annoying to say the least.
4) Identity Confusion: In this phase adolescents seem to have no goals and don’t care about future. They can't see the consequences or need to have goals. After all, they're immortal, aren't they?
Virtually every parent--clergy and non-clergy--have seen and experienced these phases in their adolescent youth. No matter how much they read the Bible, attend Christian youth ministry opportunities, go to church, etc., they will experience these stages.
After all, they are developmental. They are part of the normal maturation process. Certainly one ought not deny that a healthy Christian spirituality can help guide them through these phases. But again, there are no guarantees.
If youth are not allowed to go through the stages in a "normal" way, their development will suffer. Psychologists and counselors know this: the unpaid bills of youth development must be paid. It's just  matter of whether they will be during their youth or in their mature years.

Congregational Pressures

Adolescence can be a critical time in the life of the parsonage. In addition to dealing with the adolescent struggle with one or more children, congregational pressures add to the mixture. "Where is your adolescent, Pastor?" can be a threatening question.
Dealing with these congregational pressures is probably best handled by a simple, honest response. "Just having a few developmental things with my son/daughter" can be a simple, terse way to handle things. As in other family issues, detail is not needed. Nor do others have a right to it. Simply acknowledging that the family needs ministry can be a great way to diffuse the pressure without hiding, becoming reactive, etc.

Parental Pressures

Adolescence is of the most critical threats to the well-being of the PK household. Certainly this is not unique to the parsonage. Marriage resources of all kinds commonly note that the "Parenting Adolescent Season" of marriage is among the most stressful and divisive times in marriage. Often it is the "bottom-most" experience of anger, hostility and divisiveness.
Disagreements often result from the diverse backgrounds of parents. "I was raised this (right) way" becomes a statement which often draws out various control issues. Clergy parents may fight, flight, disagree, or agree to disagree on various discipline and privilege issues.
All too often parental clashes over adolescent parenting issues are less of a "win-win" than an "I win--you just go away for four years and let me do it" proposition. The result can be a deep sense of isolation, embitterment, and lost of respect and communication. For those parents virtually totally "shut out" from parental decisions, the grief can be like that of death.
All these can become the seeds the decline of marital intimacy. Unchecked, it can lead to "married singles" or divorce. Often the loss of respect and influence at home affects respect and influence in the church. Pastors can compensate by increasing their time at the church, increasing the sphere of their influence, or demanding of greater respect.
Conversely, pastors who have been "shut out" may be overcome by a pervasive sense of rejection, grief, loneliness and powerlessness. Sensing a loss of respect and influence at home, they may become more passive in their ministries as well. Parental--and clergy--self-esteem can be extraordinarily difficult to maintain when parenting adolescents. Given the unpredictable nature of adolescent behavior, sometimes it can seem as if there is nothing solid or permanent to hang on to.
You Gotta Let Go
The hardest lesson of parenting is that parents must confront the fact that they can't hang on to their children forever. It's not just nature's way. It's God's way.

Not Really Mine To Keep
Susan Browning 

Well, this is it, the day has arrived,
The world is waiting for you;
Excitement, happiness—a spark in your eyes,
…Could you wait just a minute or two?
Is this really o.k.?—the way things should be?
If this is the road that’s right;
What is that little ache near my heart?
And why is my throat so tight?
You see, a few thoughts of doubt exist,
Is he (am I?) prepared for this?
Can’t he stay in our own little world?
What would he possibly miss?
I know these thoughts will surely change,
Although these feelings run deep;
Suddenly I realize what I’ve known all along,
You’re not really mine to keep.
You were a generous gift from God,
And, in His most loving way,
He gave us the job of helping you grow,
So you could serve others someday.
The problem I have (as most parents do),
Is that you weren’t a child for long;
]But you have much to offer this world,
I can’t hold you back---that would be so wrong.
So, this is it, the day has arrived,
your heart says "go" while mine takes a leap;
You’re eager and ready for adventures unknown,
…You’re not really mine to keep.

Written for Scott Browning by Mom
August, 1992 (Used by permission)

Your Adolescent Parenting Experience
If you had, have or will have adolescents, the one thing that you will have in common with other parents--clergy or not--is that you, too, will have to deal with the unpredictable nature of adolescence. Your experience can be joyful or heartbreaking.
As King David experienced, each child is totally different. Solomon, his favorite and successor, sought wisdom from God. Absalom, however, would kill his father if necessary to wrest his father's power and wealth.
Two Principles
What will your adolescent parenting experience be? It will certainly be "normal." It will need prayer, patience, and the cultivation of one's own character. Since there are no guarantees, no remote controls, no sure-fire parenting techniques, perhaps the two most important perspectives are these:
1) Train up a child in the way he should go. Notice that the promise is that when they get old they will not depart from it. Some individuals "come back" in late adolescence as they enter adulthood. Others never leave; other comes back later in life; still others never come back. No matter how well-trained the PK is, they can't live off your faith. They, too, must confront, listen and heed to the Spirit's working in the Word.
2) Always be ready to receive the repentant adolescent with joy. The Parable of the Lost Son is most illustrative in this regard. The father appeared to understand the nature of adolescent rebellion. Though gravely hurt and severely despised, he loved his wayward son. He knew he must let the son go whatever the consequences. But he also knew that his son knew his father still loved him. He could always come back...and be received with joyful, overflowing love.
The Greatest Challenge
Perhaps the greatest challenge of parenting adolescents is that it challenges our character. It tests the reality of God's grace in our lives to a most intense degree. It tests whether we really do understand grace. Most importantly, it makes us have to experience with our own children what God has to experience with us. Who else could God provide to better provide that test than those who live with us and from whom we cannot hide? God really is good, isn't He!
Adolescent parenting can be a harrowing experience. It can also be rewarding, too. In addition to seeing the joy of children become independent adults, adolescent parenting helps parents confront their spirituality and character. Perhaps that is the greatest and most painful thing about parenting: it exposes our weaknesses in a direct, painful and virtually unavoidable manner. Are you up to it?
Train Up A Child...
Proverbs 22:6 says, "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it" (NIV). This admonition is the Christian parent's marching orders. Initiate them on the Christian journey of faith. Later, when they mature, they won't turn away from it.
Perhaps the same admonition is good for the parents of adolescents, too. When your "normal" adolescent PK starts overwhelming you and the whole household, remember the way you should go. Remember the way of evangelical firmness. Remember your patience. Remember forgiveness.
Above all, remember the joy of your Father's love for you. After all, that's the "way" you've been "trained!" Now that you're older and more mature, don't depart from it...even when dealing with "normal" adolescents!
Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:54 PM