When you were a teenager, what were your primary struggles? Compare them with issues today’s teenagers wrestle with, and I bet those two lists look very different.

In my generation, like any generation, teens dealt with issues of self worth, identity, belonging, and purpose.  Certainly there were those who struggled with sexual temptation and alcohol or drugs.  But there were not a large number struggling with depression, cutting, eating disorders, sexual identity, risky sexual behaviors, serious drug abuse, verbal abuse, and/or physical violence and defiance.

Times have clearly changed. There is an all-out assault on our young people. Thirty years ago, the struggling kids usually came from difficult home environments. Now the struggling teen phenomenon has spread way beyond the boundaries of a troubled home. In fact, most of the teens at Shelterwood Academy, a boarding school for troubled teens where I serve as president, come from stable, loving, two-parent homes. More often than not, they were raised at church, active in youth groups and sports teams, and yet they still struggle with serious emotional, spiritual, and/or behavioral issues.

A monster storm

So why does this generation seem to be struggling unlike any generation that has gone before them? Perhaps you remember a movie a number of years ago, The Perfect Storm. In that film, a number of weather-related phenomena converged together at the same time to create a monster storm. I believe that there is a monster storm that has converged on this generation of teens.

The Bible talks about three enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil (1 John 2:16). And every generation has had to battle these enemies. However, the arsenal of weapons employed against this generation of teens is unmatched in human history.

The world encompasses the primary values of a culture and the particular cultural pressures experienced. Today, materialism, humanism, and striving for wealth and fame are pervasive cultural values that stand in direct opposition to most of our Judeo-Christian values. The cultural pressure on teens to conform, mixed with the fear of man and fear of rejection, make this a dangerous mix for a young person trying to discern right and wrong, truth and error.  And the pursuit of these values simply does not satisfy the deepest yearnings of the human heart, and leaves many teens unfulfilled and hopeless.

Additionally, parents used to be the loudest and most influential voices in their child’s life. But couple the internet age with the pervasive nature of electronic media, social media, music, television, and movies, and you have an avalanche of other voices challenging the voice of moms and dads on a daily basis.

Kids are entering their teen years with mixed messages and they must decide which set of values to embrace: those of their parents or those of the culture? And their need for acceptance and peer approval often causes them to lean toward culture. As a result, many high school students today approve of and/or embrace behaviors formerly unthinkable.

The flesh can be described as our physical and sensual (i.e., the five senses) desires. It’s our nature to want to feel good. Being human, our flesh is prone to weakness from within and subject to temptation from without.  The culture tells teens, “If it feels good, do it.” But it sends very few messages about the consequences for those behaviors, and even fewer messages of the value in restraint. Teens generally feel invincible, want to have fun, want to feel good, and most certainly do not want to wait … for anything.

Is it any wonder, in our media-saturated culture, that many teens succumb to these temptations? Unfortunately, the consequences to unbridled indulging can lead to all sorts of harmful behavior, addictions, depression, anger, and hopelessness.

The devil was described by Jesus as the “ruler of this world” and said he is an enemy who “comes but to steal, to kill and to destroy.” He is the primary influence behind the cultural values that are warring against our teens.  Peter tells us that “our adversary, the devil, looks for those he can devour.”  This generation has become easy prey.

Battle plan

So what do we do? Here are five strategies:

1. We go to war.

Paul tells us our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, powers, rulers of darkness, and spiritual wickedness (Ephesians 6:12). He also tells us “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4).

Battle? Weapons? Yes! The famous Chinese military general Sun Tzu said, “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Sadly many are trying to fight a well-armed enemy with pop-guns, or worse, no weapons at all! We must understand our enemy and learn how to fight him.

2. We pray.

We ask God to reveal Jesus and open hearts to truth. We declare His purposes will be established. And most importantly, we use Scripture as we pray over our children … the Word is our sword! And we hold up the shield of faith. Our teens need a revelation of Jesus and heart transformation. No behavioral modification plan or parenting skill can change a heart. Only Jesus can do that, and only in the life of a willing recipient.

3. We engage.

The fast pace of life in our society can keep us so busy with activity we often miss out on deep and meaningful relationships. A vital part of winning this war for the heart and mind of our teen is real communication and quality time with them. This is a critical and irreplaceable piece of the battle. We must regularly invest intentional time and interest in our teen, and in those things that are important to them.

4. We think strategically, asking God for His divine strategies.

I believe that teens are going to follow someone they think is cool. So, a wise parent will work to position “cool” young adults around their teen, those who will model a lifestyle that says “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the pervasive values of our culture and the passing pleasures of the flesh.

5. We get help.

We need others to join the battle and fight with us. And occasionally that means placing our child in the hands of others. At Shelterwood, for example, we pursue excellent clinical care, and we also provide teens with opportunities for spiritual growth and heart change. We teach our students how to recognize the stronghold lies they are believing, and we position them with opportunities to encounter the living God. We also surround them with young adult mentors who model a godly life in front of them.

Warning signs

Parents often ask, “What are the warning signs that should alert us to consider residential care?” Here is a list you can use to alert you of trouble:

  • Persistent defiance, rebellion, and outright lying
  • Depression, isolation, and suicidal communication
  • Refusing to participate in family activities
  • Secretive—not open about where they have been and who they have been with
  • Dramatic changes in behavior, friends, academics
  • Addictive behaviors—drugs, alcohol, cutting, eating disorders
  • Choosing poorly in relationships—known drug users, etc.

If you see any of these warning signs, discuss them with your teens in a spirit of genuine concern. If they get defensive and react strongly, it’s probably confirmation there really is a problem. The next step is to seek professional help, possibly from a therapist who shares your values, or it might mean a residential treatment program.

Parents face many challenges in raising teens today. The good news is that God is bigger and God is greater than every challenge you face. He longs to prove Himself faithful and mighty on your behalf. So strap up your spiritual armor (Ephesians 6), and fight for the heart and minds of your teens. Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world (1 John 4:4); so take heart, mom and dad, for He has overcome the world.

Copyright © 2015 by Jim Subers. Jim is president and CEO of Shelterwood Academy, a boarding school for troubled teenagers in Independence, Missouri.