By Lindsey Carlson
*This article was originally published on DesiringGod.Org (“Raising Teens Requires Listening Well”) and was republished with permission by the author.
If you are the parent of a teenager, you likely are living through an encore season of teaching your child to use his or her words. This development stage can be more exhausting than it was in the toddler years. Instruction in the basics was so much easier: Say “Mama.” Can you say “please”? Say this. Don’t say that. Say it kindly.
Now, your teenager has a robust vocabulary and can competently communicate, but when he uses his words idly, fights with his siblings, speaks harsh words in response to discipline, or bottles up his emotions and uses no words at all, it reminds you that your teenager is still growing. As articulate as he may be, he must continue to actively learn to use his words to glorify God.
Teaching this skill is significantly more challenging than labeling objects and correcting sentence structure. It requires more than language acquisition or communication skills; it requires discipleship. Are you prepared? If you’re in the middle of shepherding a teenager, or you’re preparing to, consider a few encouragements as you teach your teenager to use words wisely.
Jesus says in Matthew 12:34–35, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” Your teenager’s words offer a glimpse inside his heart. Strive to pay attention, even when you’re tired, hurt, or frustrated. Let your teenager know you take his heart seriously by taking his words seriously.
Before you speak, humbly seek to listen and understand. Rather than offering your own opinions, point to the living and active word of God as guidance. Ask God for wisdom to address your teenager’s heart with courage and compassion. If your teenager’s words demonstrate evidence of indwelling sin, gently admonish him in love before quickly pointing him back to the good news of the gospel. When you hear spiritual maturity reflected in your teen’s words, encourage your teen and praise God for his growth in godliness.
Using words wisely requires wisdom and discernment. God’s word is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Your teenager needs the word of God (Ephesians 6:17), to make sense of the world he lives in, his own heart, emotions, actions, the gospel, and the Spirit’s ongoing work in his life.
Scripture says the “ear tests words as the palate tastes food” (Job 34:3). In order to train your teenager to “choose what is right” and know “what is good” (Job 34:4), stock your home with plenty of scriptural snacking opportunities for your teen to feast his ears on God’s truth.
Study Scripture together. Discuss a verse at the dinner table. Pray together. Challenge your teen to memorize specific verses he finds encouraging. If he isn’t familiar with any, help him locate a few. Make intentional deposits into your teen’s mind and heart proactive, not just corrective when he’s in trouble. If God’s words are sweeter than honey to your mouth (Psalm 119:103), freely share the sweetness!
Words can easily have a negative impact on your teenager. Proverbs 4:23 wisely instructs, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Not only does your teenager need to pro-actively fill his mind and heart with Scripture; he also must defensively flee temptation by avoiding ungodly words.
Help your teenager understand “curse words” aren’t the only tempting teenage offender; he also must flee slander, gossip, lies, and words of divisiveness and hate. A worker approved by God rightly handles the word of truth and avoids such kinds of “irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene” (2 Timothy 2:15–16). Help your teen to identify ungodly words, so he’s prepared to avoid them.
Challenge your teenager to take personal responsibility for guarding the words he watches, listens to, and reads. Ask him how he is most tempted to use ungodly words and then help him brainstorm effective ways of escape.
As your teenager learns to use words wisely, he’ll likely also use them poorly. At some point, he’s likely to disappoint, shock, anger, or worry you with his words. When he does, don’t panic. Don’t despair. Don’t grow weary. Don’t give up.
Remember that Paul tells us that love is not arrogant or rude, irritable or resentful, and does not rejoice at wrongdoing (1 Corinthians 13:4–7). Love is patient and kind, rejoices at truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Do your words to your teen demonstrate this kind of love? Bear up under the growth pains. As your teenager works toward Christlike maturity, he needs your patience and gentleness. Guard your own tongue and strive to return his immature or harsh words with love.
Train your teenage child to use his or her words like a follower of Christ.
Start small. Build slowly. Practice, practice, practice. Celebrate every victory.
Convey godly ways with words, correct ungodly speech, and model Christ-centered communication. And though you can expect it will take intentionality, emotional sensitivity, discernment, and a gratuitous amount of God’s grace, hearing your teenager speak with growing Christian maturity will certainly be worth the effort.
Lindsey Carlson (@worshiprejoices) is a writer, pastor’s wife, and the mother of five children in Baltimore, Maryland. She enjoys teaching and discipling women at Imprint Community Church and is author of Growing in Godliness: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Maturing in Christ.