Counseling parents of lost teens: Giving hope and perspective

As the Faith Christian School Biblical Counselor, I get to partner with parents by coming alongside them with God’s Word to encourage, teach, and guide them in parenting their children. I would be unable to meet with all 720 students myself. Instead, I meet with parents and students to offer biblical counsel to help guide them towards the next best steps in many situations, including when their teen makes poor choices or struggles with life and sometimes life-dominating issues. For this blog, I will discuss the first, maybe second, session with a family whose teen is “lost.”

Who are these “lost” teens? I would include those who are unsaved and also teens who are saved but immature and disobeying God’s design for authority in their lives. A teen who is not taking responsibility and has a pattern of disregarding parental discipline, counsel, or adult involvement in their life choices at school, home, and in relationships. The bible would call this young person “a fool,” as in Proverbs 7 or, like in Proverbs 1:7, “they despise wisdom and instruction.”

When their child’s emotional outbursts strange or even dangerous behavior come out, parents often feel hopeless and don’t know where to go. In this first meeting, I want to listen well, with a sustaining and empathetic heart, as well as with my ears. I want to understand what it feels like to be in their shoes. Any number of biblical principles and truths may become evident to counsel parents regarding their lost teen. But long before addressing any parenting problems or solutions, they must know there is hope. To help get this topic started, I will introduce a vignette, a story to help us connect with the topic.

Jed and Sally came to get counseling regarding their wayward son. They hoped maybe another adult could speak to him and help him come around. Their son, Christian, had become belligerent, threatened to run away, and even had suicidal ideation. Jed and Sally were at the end of their rope, without hope or understanding of connecting with their son. They needed help! When requesting biblical counseling, they were told the policy that we don’t counsel teens by themselves but partner with the parents, so they asked their son to join them to get help. Christian refused. He would not go to counseling; he wanted to be left alone or figure it out himself. Christian’s bad decisions had brought about wave after wave of consequences and disappointments; now, he was threatening suicide, not wanting to go to school. Discouraged about how to get help for their son, Jed and Sally decided to come to the school’s biblical counselor for some counsel and guidance.

From triage to hope

In an emergency room, when a patient comes in with an injury, the doctor must assess the first steps and determine if there are life-and-death actions to help his patient. This is called triage. Everyone at FCS takes the threat of suicide seriously, and when meeting with any parent or student, we listen for those triage statements to help determine where to start. When parents hear red-flag suicidal statements of “why I am here, I want to die, or even I wish I could go to sleep and never wake up”, they want to get help quickly, and they need to know that there are some actions they can take to help their teen be safe. Our next questions are:

  • How often did he say he thinks about suicide or hurting himself?
  • Does he seem to have a plan? (Take these pills; do they have access? Would they use a knife, a gun, or another way?).

Parents need to ask questions like these without alarm but in seriousness. If unsure, a trip to the Emergency Room to be assessed by a medical professional would always be an appropriate step. Then consider this tool to help parents build a safety plan with their child/teen. Even if their teen does not go to counseling or get assessed at the ER, they can put together a simple safety plan. This may give their child hope and awareness of the seriousness of their statements while keeping the situation in the light.

 Comfort in the sovereignty of God for their teen and themselves

Parents who feel like they are losing their son or daughter need perspective on their teen’s choices. Do they have regrets or blame themselves regarding their teen’s choices? They may develop a hypothesis on their teen’s motive, what is lacking in the school, poor home-life relationships, or they may blame the circumstances or their culture. Are they trying to make sense of what feels like a hopeless situation? Although parents and fathers specifically are called into account for the parenting, discipleship, and training of their children, this is not where I first start. I want to listen to their story and what they fear most about their worrisome teen. I want to hear their suffering heart; maybe because they have been hurt or betrayed by their teen’s words and actions, or maybe they are weary because their home has been an emotional rollercoaster. Life feels out of control.  One or both parents may be questioning what God is doing.

One of the ways in which God’s Word gives hope when life feels out of control and fear paralyzes is through the knowledge and understanding of God’s sovereignty, infinite wisdom, and perfect love. Parents may be struggling with their desire to grab their teen and cry out “why won’t you change or listen to us!” It is a scary place to be, yet God’s sovereignty can bring comfort in knowing someone greater than us is in charge, knows everything that is happening, and has the power to use it for His glory and our good. To give hope in God’s sovereignty, here are some scriptures and an attribute to help parents bring God into their suffering.

  • Lamentation 3:32-33 speaks to God’s heart of compassion toward the dear parents and their wayward son/daughter. God is not cruel; he does not inflict pain for fun. He knows their heart and sees their pain.
  • Psalm 147:4-5 speaks to God’s knowledge, power, and strength. Who else can they turn to? Who else has the power?
  • Romans 11:33 speaks to how we cannot know his plan, but God is in control.

Comfort in God’s purpose for life and suffering in their teen

For us as parents, our responses matter too. Sometimes, parents become frustrated with their teen’s behavior, buttons get pushed, and they retaliate when hurt by their teen’s unkind words or carelessness and it just makes things worse. We need to remember that the parents’ goal is to please God.

God’s purpose for all believers is to glorify Him in all we think, say, and do. God in His word gives us our purpose, “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive compensation for his deeds done through the body, in accordance with what he has done, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:9-10)  God’s word also says that in His word and in the Holy Spirit we have everything we need for life and godliness. Parents can have hope that with God’s help, we do have answers and the help to choose to be pleasing to Him.

More than just our actions, we also need to consider what God’s Word says about our goals and expectations for our teens. Helping parents assess what they want for their teen and seeing God’s purpose for this trial can bring hope. Our teens choose their behavior to include their response to their circumstances. Our teens have free will to decide how they will respond. Our identity is in Christ, His righteousness, His holiness, and not how our teen chooses to respond. This is so hard and scary. Even when a teen may be considering suicide…and nobody wants that…the parent’s goal in parenting should be God’s goal to glorify God, not to keep their teen from suicidal thoughts or worse. We must trust God’s power and steadfast love.

We are called to live for God and not for the success of our son or daughter. We are to love God and love others, trusting God through our teen’s struggles. Often, when parents make their goal to change their teens, keep them safe, or to never have a conflict, they are no longer living to please God but to please themselves. Is it wrong to want to remove the hard things, the suffering from our kid’s lives? No. but that cannot be the goal as we may be working around God’s purpose in suffering to point us to our need for God and His mercy.  Parenting is deep discipleship, pointing our kids to their need for a Savior and helping them see that He is trustworthy.  Helping parents see that their motivation matters to God, they can repent, trust God, and walk in faith.

Comfort in God’s promises to parents of lost teens

Knowing that the goal of parenting and all of life is to please the LORD, God also gives believers more hope in His many promises. In the Book of Romans, Paul offers to those who are in Christ;

Therefore there is now no condemnation at all for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. Romans 8:1-2

There is comfort in knowing that in the chapter before this verse, Romans 7, Paul talked about his wrestling with sin, wanting to do what is right but not doing it and then doing what is wrong. Here is what Rick Horne, in his book Get Offa My Case: Godly Parenting of an Angry Teen;

“It is important to remember that this promise follows on the heels of one of the most vivid passages of scripture in which a believer battles with his own sin. The apostle Paul confesses that he does what he doesn’t want to do and doesn’t do the things he wants to do (Romans 7:15-19). He concludes that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. To transport Paul’s experience into a home with an angry (lost) teen is like saying, “when you talk or act like this, my parental words of anger, impatience, overreaction, and frustration are never far from the door of my mouth. They are ready to burst out of my heart; sometimes they do, and I hate when that happens…Paul knew that believers would battle and fail and be tempted to despair and to give up altogether, so he asserts here, as he does in so many other places, that our acceptance is not because of our performance. God saves sinners who are going to continue to be sinners till they see him.”

This is good news to parents as we seek to love our kids, but in the heat of the situation, we fail; parents can know that God is in control, He forgives, and He renews. Our sin does not stop God’s glory, in fact, another promise that Paul gives in Romans 8:28-29 is:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters;

God in His Sovereignty, promises to bend even this horrible situation to bring glory and good. God gives us His definition of good in verse 29, which is to be conformed to the image of His son. God promises to use even the hardest, scariest family situations for their good and His glory. Only God can do this. We can have hope with a confident expectation of a guaranteed outcome that will change how we live our lives. (Paul Tripp, New Morning Mercies, Sept 3. ) God keeps his promises, He gives us our only confident hope and promises never to leave us.

But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:37-39

Parents seeking counsel regarding their lost son or daughter must know they are not alone. God’s power, love, and wisdom are theirs in Christ Jesus. Their hope cannot be in changing their teen but in getting God’s perspective, trusting in His sovereignty and ways, specifically in parenting God’s Way. As we continue together, there will be many resources and discussions about family life, including marriage and church life, but giving them biblical hope can bring peace and perspective to weary, fearful parents. Helping them trust God with their lost teen and take it one step at a time. Holding fast to the one who can change the heart of their teen, their own hearts, and who knows their pain. Point them to Jesus as he says:

Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is comfortable, and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

Photo by Aedrian on Unsplash

Kathy Hutton
Kathy Hutton serves with Faith Biblical Counseling Ministry and as a part of Faith Community Ministries. Kathy was certified as a Biblical Counselor in 2019 and received her Masters in Biblical Counseling through Faith Bible Seminary in 2022. She and her husband, Rod, live in Lafayette and have 5 children.