Parenting Teens Within Broken Systems: Interview with Dr. Chap Clark, Pt. 2

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Speaker and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and founder of ParenTeen and Hurt seminars, Dr. Chap Clark has over 30 years in youth ministry, including 15 with Young Life. He is the author of many books, including Disconnected: Parenting Teens in a MySpace World and Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers and serves as senior editor of Youthworker Journal. Dr. Clark has a B.A. in communication from the University of California, San Diego, a master of divinity from Fuller and a Ph.D. from the University of Denver. In other words, he’s a pastor. He’s a teacher. He’s a scholar. He’s also a parent.

To explore the dynamics between parents and teens, we presented Dr. Clark with three fictional families based on real-world scenarios. Each includes a failing system along with specific struggles today’s families face.

Last week, we met the Duncans, who are struggling with school systems. This week, we meet the Martins and Barnards.

Martin Family: Church System Abandonment

The Martin family has three teenage daughters. They joined a homeschooling co-op partly so the girls can devote more time to dance. The family’s church seemed solid with a strong youth program, but the church is splitting. Meanwhile, the 17-year-old is more interested in her boyfriend than family. The 13-year-old recently blocked her parents on Facebook. And the middle daughter is staying alone in her room as much as possible.

“It sounds like they’re homeschooling so that their kids have a more balanced life,” Dr. Clark observed. But he noted potential problems if they aren’t “trusting other systems.”

“It seems like most homeschoolers, they have the best motives, but if they have a defensive attitude toward society and they only hang out with people who agree with them completely,” he said, “they have a destructive outcome on average, especially in terms of social development.”

Dr. Clark expressed concern with how the church split will affect the Martin girls. “This could cause those girls to say that everything they taught me about church isn’t really true.”

A Safe Place for Teens to Be Themselves

To invest in kids, Dr. Clark recommended churches do more than provide a cool youth group and meaningful mission trips. Adults throughout the church should get to know teens by name and give them a safe place to be themselves. “The best thing about a church is that we get to parent each other’s kids in the best sense of the word,” he said.

As someone who has spent his career with high school, college, and seminary students, Dr. Clark said young adults need freedom to doubt.

“The tighter a Christian family tries to control their kids, the more they’re gonna push against them,” he said. “Engage kids in their complexity. They’ll have a much better shot at their faith being livable in the long haul.”

In this particular family, Dr. Clark noticed all three teenagers withdrawing in some way. The parents may have created “an external Christian kind of frame, but all three of these kids are acting like they don’t trust [or like] their parents very much. You’ve got a lot of indicators that the parents are disconnected from the kids. This happens a lot with Christian parents when they’re about authority instead of nurture.”

He said when kids won’t bring home a boyfriend or girlfriend, this may suggest that the teens don't trust their parents. Parents should try to build “safe, fun, warm relationships that kids cannot wait to bring [friends] home to meet the parents.”

What about social media?

Technology: A “Constant Conversation”

“Parents have control,” Clark said. “No family should have Wi-Fi at home. If you do, it should be with a password that parents change regularly and kids can’t get in.”

He said managing technology requires a “constant conversation” between parents and kids. “Kids do need a little privacy, but they need to earn that. Parents have to come up with a system of safety and trust and boundaries where kids have to share their technology with their parents. You’ve gotta communicate trust and relationship.”

Barnard Family: Family System Abandonment

Student-athletes involved in a Christian youth organization at their high school, the Barnard’s two sons, 16 and 18, are surrounded by a group of friends who are all like them—smart, talented, popular. All the boys recently got caught partying together. This was a shock to everyone. Just two nights before the party, Mr. Barnard and his boys went to a football game and everything seemed fine.

To understand how these boys could fool their parents and youth leader, it’s helpful to discuss a term called “clusters,” which—Dr. Clark pointed out—are not cliques.

Clark described a cluster as a pragmatic arrangement. “The defining characteristic of clusters: They’re not true friendships. Kids will kick and scream and deny that,” he said. “They’re networks of mutual self-protection. They’re a very powerful skin kids weave around themselves and go to the world beneath.”

That world beneath is the cluster. Clark explained that mid-adolescents “still see friends in a utilitarian way, as a way to get something from them. Friendship demands sacrifice and boundaries. A 14-to-20-year-old doesn’t have the capacity for seeing life that way.”

The Barnard parents missed the signs because the boys used their cluster for protection. More importantly, Dr. Clark observed that trust seems lacking in the family.

Build Trust

Taking the kids to football is good, he said, as are activities like skiing or football. But the activities themselves do not build relationships or trust. “They are tools to create the environment where trust can be built,” he said. “In a vacuum, kids will give more loyalty to their friends than to their families or their youth group leader. They party in the sense of ‘I need these peer relationships.’ It’s not peer pressure. Those days are pretty much gone. What’s really happening is the pressure comes from within the kid.”

Dr. Clark said the Barnard parents need to not overreact, even though they may want to. “I’m a parent of three kids, so I get the fear and the sadness and ‘What were you thinking?’” he said. “If a parent has an opinion that by going to a party that this is the end of the world, that I’ve lost complete trust in you, without a real healthy dose of reflective, honest, self-appraisal that all of us fall short of the glory of God—what if a parent could get to that point and start there?”

Dr. Clark thought the Barnard parents and teens need to talk.

“Probably what the dad needs to go and say is, ‘I really want to understand.’ Parents’ first job is to understand how difficult it is to grow up in this culture. Their second job is to demonstrate compassion. Thirdly, we provide boundaries. Boundaries should never be punitive or punishment. They should always be moving in a direction that is positive,” he said.

Read Part One: Parenting Teens Within Broken Systems: Interview with Dr. Chap Clark, Pt. 1

Megan Willome is the managing editor for the WACOAN magazine. She blogs at about poetry and other things, always with a cup of tea.

Image by Tim Miller. Used with permission.