Over many years of working as a mentor for teenagers in our Y-ministry, I got to know a lot of great families. These families have taught me very valuable lessons about parenting that I really hope I remember in about 15 years – when I’ll likely be tearing my hair out over my own teenagers.
One of the biggest things I learned from working with teens and their families is that almost every parent needs help overcoming guilt and shame. Most parents I’ve met have a list of things they feel they should have done differently. They should have helped more with this, and shouldn’t have yelled so much about that. They should have held their ground here, and should have listened more there.
Some parents will admit their guilt, and others won’t. I’ve found that guilt manifests itself in many different forms; it makes some parents insecure and isolated, afraid to invite input and advice about their parenting. It makes other parents distant, easily angry, defensive, and sensitive to any perceived criticism.
I think that parenting (and parenting teenagers especially) is a great humbling ground. Even the strongest and best of parents can stumble over the unpredictable emotions and undeveloped-frontal-lobe decisions their teenagers make. But, in my experience, the parents who navigate these tumultuous years most successfully are those who have healthy ways of dealing with their feelings of guilt.
The good news is that no matter the mistakes you feel you’ve made, God actually wants to free us from guilt and shame. The following Scriptures are a guide to help any parent overcome their guilt and move forward to help their kids become who they’re meant to be.
1. Learn to recognize your symptoms
The wicked are edgy with guilt, ready to run off even when no one’s after them; Honest people are relaxed and confident, bold as lions.Proverbs 28:1 (MSG)
According to this Scripture, guilt has a few noticeable effects. First of all, it makes you edgy. Edgy means “nervous and tense or showing a harsh or unkind quality.”
As a parent, do you ever feel nervous and tense? Do you ever show “harsh and unkind” qualities to your kids or your spouse? If you’re being honest with yourself, the answer to both of those questions is probably “yes!” I see this a lot in my marriage – when I’m more irritable and impatient, there is usually something I feel guilty about.
This Scripture also says that guilty people are ready to run off even when no one is after them. That means you are hard to reach, you isolate, and you run from people who could help you with your family. Do you tend to prefer spending time at work because you feel more successful there than at home? Or ar you quick to blame your spouse or other circumstances for what’s going on with your kids? These are symptoms you may be feeling guilt and avoiding it.
The thing is, avoiding guilt doesn’t make it go away. Too often I find myself spending a lot of energy denying that I feel guilty and finding reasons why I shouldn’t feel guilty instead of experiencing the freedom that honesty brings.
What are some of the things you feel guilty about in your relationship with your teen? Start being honest with yourself so you can start feeling more relaxed and confident as a parent.
2. Learn that guilt isn’t necessarily a bad thing
Are they ashamed of their disgusting actions? Not at all—they don’t even know how to blush!Jeremiah 6:15
Now, I’m not accusing anyone’s parenting of being disgusting, but what I get from this Scripture is sometimes shame isn’t a bad thing. Feeling shame means you still have a conscience. Guilt and shame can actually be barometers, like indicator lights on your car, that push you to take action. Guilt usually means you want to be close, and you feel bad about what you’ve done.
Maybe the guilt and shame gnawing at your heart will push you to apologize and mend a broken relationship. Maybe your guilt means you really want a close relationship with your kid but you feel like your sins are too great to overcome. You fear you’ve done too much damage.
Even though I’m not a parent, I’ve certainly felt guilt in my relationships with teens. I remember needing to apologize to one of the girls I was mentoring because I got caught up in my own life and wasn’t there when she was going through a hard time. It was very humbling as a grown woman to apologize to a teenager. I had a lot of justifications in my head for why I didn’t need to humble myself:
- “I’ve done so much for her before! This one time shouldn’t be a big deal.”
- “There was a lot going on with me, I didn’t intend to hurt her.”
- “She could have initiated with me more…”
… And so on. But the truth was, I just felt guilty. That guilt was actually a good thing because it wouldn’t let me go until I made the relationship right. Those guilty feelings eventually led me to be honest, humble, and to repair the relationship. And luckily, I’ve found that most teens are pretty moved by genuine apologies.
Take time to journal or pray about what you feel guilty about in your relationship with your teenager. Do you have any justifications in your mind for your actions? Try being really humble and apologizing for something you feel guilty about with your teen. Learn to see guilt as something that can push you to be closer to your teen instead of a feeling to be avoided.
3. Learn to tell God about your guilt
When I refused to confess my sin,Psalm 32:3-5
my body wasted away,
and I groaned all day long.
4 Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me.
My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.
5 Finally, I confessed all my sins to you
and stopped trying to hide my guilt.
I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.”
And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.
In the Bible, God is the only one who can really take our guilt away. If you want to be free from guilt, you have to do more than apologize to a person. You have to start talking to God.
One mom told me she never realized what an angry person she was until her kids became teenagers. I think there are certain stages of our lives that help us see who we really are and how much we need a personal relationship with God. I experienced this when I got married – I did not have the ability on my own to resolve hurt feelings, apologize, forgive or be unselfish yet I was in a position where I needed to do those things or I would tear my home apart. I needed God in ways I never realized before. God worked through this time to help me get closer to him and stop relying on my own strength and abilities.
I think parents experience this too. Suddenly, your own strength and energy wear out. Your patience grows thin. Your teen is probably ungrateful, dishonest, and disrespectful. They don’t appreciate what you’ve done for them, they don’t put themselves in your shoes, and they don’t seem to think through the consequences of what they’re doing. How are you going to handle these stresses?
This is where I think it’s so important that parents have their own personal faith and relationship with God. Even your spouse is only human; (s)he can’t take on all your emotions and feelings – you need to be able to talk to God and have faith that he can forgive any mistakes you may have made.
If you need help building this kind of relationship with God, get involved in a community of other parents who are working on this kind of faith too. Visit one of our services and I guarantee you’ll find other parents fighting this same battle.
4. Learn that you need friends
16 Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.James 5:16 (NLT)
I don’t think you can overcome guilt by yourself. We all need friends to help us and pray for us, especially when we lack the faith ourselves that our prayers will work.
One teen girl told me that what inspired her about her parents was when they messed up, they would hang out with their friends, get spiritual help, and come home different. It helped her to see that her parents weren’t perfect, but that they could be honest, relieved of guilt, and they could always change.
That example has always inspired me as well. I’m someone who likes to be perfect and likes to do everything right. It’s hard for me to admit my mistakes to other people. But like the Scripture says, when we confess our sins to each other we can find the power we need to overcome them.
If you’re looking for this kind of friendship, get involved in our Y-ministry in your local area. The Y-ministry is full of families with teenagers all over the Bay Area working together to help each other become who God intends them to be. No one’s perfect, but you’ll find a lot of help and spiritual support along the way.
5. Learn that it’s not always about you
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame,and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.Hebrews 12:1-3(NIV)
Guilt can make us very self-focused. I think that may be one reason God tells us in this verse to throw it off. Guilt hinders our ability to help others and entangles us emotionally.
I think it’s easy for a lot of parents to get so caught up in what they have done wrong that they don’t see their teen is making choices too. Sure, you may have made mistakes along the way, but deal with those in steps 1-4 above so that you can be freed up to help your teen.
Your teenager’s decisions are helping them see their need for God. If you are so caught up in how bad you feel about your parenting, you’ll miss that your teen really needs your help and guidance. Stop thinking about yourself and what kind of example you have been; take responsibility where you need to, admit your mistakes, pray and talk to your friends … and then move on! Stop thinking about how your teen’s behavior reflects on you. Not everything is your fault.
When you throw off your sin and guilt in Biblical ways (through prayer, and conversations with spiritual friends) you can be freed up to run the race God has marked out for you. Part of this as a parent means helping your teen become the man or woman God intends them to be. It means taking action, like taking your teen out for prayer walks together or doing family Bible studies. It means helping your teen get involved in spiritual activities that will help them build their faith and confidence. It means hosting Y-ministry events and parties in your home to help foster the relationships your teen needs for their faith.
I think parents can do a lot to lead their teens toward faith and spiritual relationships, but first, they have to throw off the sin, guilt, and shame that entangle them.
Hopefully, these Scriptures have been helpful to you as you learn to overcome guilt and shame in a spiritual and healthy way! Throw off your guilt so you can help your teenager become who they are meant to be.