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Three Big Questions That Change Every Teenager

By Pastor Tom Anderson

I once asked my teen a series of questions about school, and he gave me a series of one-word answers:

Me: What did you learn in school today?

Him: stuff.

Me: What did you have for lunch today?

Him: food.

Me: Who did you sit with today?

Him: people.

I laugh about it now, but I learned something important: I did not know how to ask the questions he was really interested in answering! So, the conversation never began. I needed to know what really occupied his thoughts and feelings if I really wanted to connect with him.

What’s the number one question you think every modern teenager is asking? Parents need to know this! One teenager was overheard saying, “I wish the church would stop giving me answers to questions I’m not asking.” You could easily substitute “parents” for “church”.

Perhaps the best advice for parents of teens is to start with empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Instead of predetermining what we most think they need to know, we should journey with them through the dilemmas they engage every day.

Kara Powell and Brad Griffin of the Fuller Youth Institute did 2000 interviews with a diverse group of teenagers from all over the country. They write about their findings in their book Three Big Questions that Change Every Teenager: Making the most of conversations and connections.

Here are the three big questions in every teen:

  1. Who am I? --the question of identity

  2. Where do I fit? --The question of belonging.

  3. What difference can I make? --the question of purpose.

These three sit underneath all the other questions, dilemmas and behaviors that teens display. The challenge for many parents is that they don’t know their own answers to these questions. That is the place for adults to start, to hammer out their own personal answers.

You can think of Christian discipleship as a journey from your current personal answers towards more Jesus-centered answers to these questions. This is precisely where we can begin to talk with our teens–sharing our life journey in answering these questions in a more Jesus-centered way. Talking about your own journey will demonstrate empathy and build connection with your teen at the point of their greatest need.

Humility in parenting is crucial in the teen years. Parents have a strong need to be right all the time and to play the role of leader-authority in the family. But humility can actually strengthen parental authority. I know a family that regularly discusses this question: “What mistake did you make today?” This can be quite humorous when we speak of our minor gaffes and blunders. It can also be quite vulnerable when we reveal the failure to keep a promise or losing your temper with a friend. Such conversations need to be age appropriate of course but we can model honesty, vulnerability and the ability to ask forgiveness. This builds trust and connection.

Ultimately as parents we want our teens to trust us, to feel safe coming to us and talking with us. Leadership is not just the authority to tell people what to do, it is a lasting influence so that they will desire to do what is right and good on their own.

Here’s a simple action step to take tonight if you are struggling with your relationship with your teen. When they get into bed, just lay on the floor in their room for a while. Ask them what is going on in their life and just listen. Don’t try to tell them anything. Just let them talk to you openly and honestly about whatever it is that is on their heart. Don’t be afraid of long periods of silence–just wait and let them speak when they are ready. Let this scripture be your guide from James 1:19 “Know this: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak…

For most parents, the teen years are their favorite season of parenting. It’s because it’s the time where some wonderful conversations can happen. It’s my prayer this will happen in your home.


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