How to Keep Your Kids from Self-Destructing

Faith-based parents need to discipline and instruct their children well before it's too late

As a heartbroken mother departed our church conference room with red, puffy eyes and cheeks stained black with runny mascara, I couldn’t help but think: “This awful day probably could have been avoided.”

In my heart, I knew I was right.

Being a pastor is an incredible privilege, and by nature it is a vocation filled with fantastic highs. But some days the hurt runs just as deep. I can remember many instances where a particularly difficult counseling session left me in tears. One such heart-wrenching session was the hour I spent with Connie Smith (not her real name).

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I had just recently come on staff at our church when this mother came to see me. She was a middle-aged Christian mom who was having trouble with her 16-year-old daughter Sydney (also not her real name). Over the previous 18 months, Sydney had fallen in with the wrong crowd and was regularly experimenting with alcohol and recreational drugs.

A new boyfriend was also in the mix, and Connie suspected that Sydney was sexually active. In addition, Sydney was skipping school, staying out past curfew, and getting into trouble with local law enforcement. Sydney claimed to be a Christian, but her life told a different story. Here was the dictionary definition of a rebellious teenager — and Connie wanted to know how to rein in her beloved daughter.

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Was it too late?

Since I was new to the church, I asked Connie to explain some of the backstory and her past parenting practices. As I listened carefully, Connie explained she had been faithful in bringing Sydney to church, exposing her to God’s word and the gospel of Christ. From the time Sydney was little, she had been enrolled in our weekly discipleship program for children.

But the deeper I dug into the past, the clearer the picture became. Church wasn’t the problem — it was a severe lack of parental oversight. Connie admitted she hated confrontation, and from the time Sydney was little, Connie let her daughter have her way.

From the expensive baby doll at the mall to the sugary cereal at the grocery store, Sydney always got what she wanted. Always. From the time Sydney was six years old, she was almost never made to listen, submit, or obey. Parental discipline and direction were virtually absent. Now it was a decade later, and the six-year-old terror had matured into a 16-year-old rebel.

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With brutal honesty, I told Connie that apart from God’s gracious intervention into Sydney’s heart, there wasn’t much she could do at this point to “change” her daughter. Connie had been sowing corrupt seeds for more than a decade in regard to parenting, and now the full harvest had arrived in all its ugliness.

If Sydney had never been taught to obey authority at age six, why would she possibly submit now at age 16? I encouraged Connie to do whatever she could to control and counteract Sydney’s ungodly and lawbreaking behavior. But in the final analysis, only desperate prayer and the unleashing of God’s power could recapture and reshape her daughter’s heart and life.

Related: How Can a Parent Trust a 15-Year-Old Daughter?

As our hour concluded and Connie prepared to depart, I tried my best to set her eyes on God, who can do the impossible. But I also underscored the reality that a teenage heart is a lot like concrete: Once it hardens, it is extremely difficult to make soft again.

“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”

Everyone knows the famous tragedy of the Titanic. On April 14, 1912, the Titanic struck a floating iceberg in the north Atlantic and sank within hours. But few remember that the officers and crew actually saw the iceberg coming. When the bridge was notified of the danger, the first officer gave the order to steer around the obstacle, but by then it was too late. The size, speed, and small rudder of the giant ship made it impossible to turn in time. Once the iceberg struck, the devastation was inevitable.

Most Christian parents can see the icebergs coming on the horizon. Drugs, alcohol, pornography, and premarital sex — we know these temptations will find their way into the paths of our children. But to help them avoid the crash, we need to influence them now with godly training, discipline, and instruction.

If we spring into action only when the danger appears, it’s already too late! This is why Scripture advises us to start directing and disciplining our children when they are young. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”

Trouble-free teenagers are not guaranteed to anyone, and that includes the most pro-active Christian parents. But by teaching our children to obey their parents, submit to authorities, and follow God’s word, we set our kids on a wise course that will generally (but not always) steer them around most painful predicaments of later life. Proverbs 22:6 is not an iron-clad promise, but it definitely increases the probability of success. When our kids get early training in godliness, it helps them develop lifelong habits of holiness.

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Listen closely, dads and moms: The icebergs are coming. Start turning the ship now, before it’s too late. Your child’s future is very much at stake. With red, puffy eyes and mascara-stained cheeks, these are the hard truths Connie confirmed with her tears. She realized her pastor was right. This awful day probably could have been avoided.

Pastor Ryan Day is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where he has served for 18 years. He is a regular contributor to LifeZette.

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