As a parent, you spend years tiring yourself to raise a child, only to watch them become a hostile teenager who thinks of you as something of an enemy who wants to control their lives. No matter how much you tell them that you have their best interests at heart and that you want them to be successful, they take your efforts at supporting them to grow as an annoying burden.
Yet we also see parents who seem to have great relationships with their teenagers. Their children seem eager to please them and live up to their expectations. How does one turn their own child into that kind of child?
The root of the conflict between parents and their teenagers is dishonesty. We tell them we love them and have their best interests at heart, but in reality we want them to be obedient and successful because in our minds that’s how we like to think of them. As our children, they have a function to perform, and they must perform it. We worry about what our relatives and friends will think of us if our children do not live up to our society’s expectations.
Your teenager knows that when you are worried that they don’t study hard enough, or don’t practice religion well enough, that others will down on you as that child’s parent. You are not so much worried about the teenager as you are worried about yourself and how people will think of you. The child knows they are just a nice piece of the puzzle of your life. They should perform their function and be happy with it, otherwise they won’t fit in within the imaginary future you have in your head.
Our expectations of our children often turn into crushing burdens on them. They know that our love for them is not unconditional. They are not worthy enough, they are not good enough, unless they study hard, or unless they practice religion properly. Our love for them is not based on anything intrinsic within the child, it is based on the face they show to the world. They know we will be happy with them and treat them well if they live up to our expectations. They start to feel like an employee who is treated nicely and lovingly by the boss when they are good at their work. They know that the boss’s good treatment and love for them has nothing to do with their own worth. It’s entirely based on their performance. They know that kind of love is worthless, because it is not for who they are, it is for how they perform.
Many parents are so caught up in the imaginary future they want to build for their children that they cannot bear to think for one second about their child not performing as expected. The child must be successful at school, must avoid drugs and alcohol, must practice Islam or Christianity perfectly, and the alternative is unthinkable. Some children who naturally have submissive and dutiful personalities go along with this and perform as expected, while others feel insulted at being just a piece of the puzzle of their parents’ lives and take pleasure in doing their own thing and ignoring their parents’ wishes, because to them this is how they assert their own independence, their own personhood and humanity.
Are children human?
One of the biggest parenting mistakes I’ve seen is when the parent expect the child to act with the self-motivation and sense of responsibility of an adult without giving them the freedom, independence and sense of control that an adult enjoys. This never works. The child will quickly learn to become two-faced. Around the parents they try to put on an adult face and pretend to be responsible and dutiful to please them, and as soon as they get away from their parents they immediately start to do whatever they like. Being away from their parents feels to them like getting a breath of fresh air. They can put down the adult mask they are forced to wear and can start to enjoy being themselves.
You cannot force a child to be responsible and dutiful like an adult without giving them the respect that you give to any adult. This is such an obvious fact that it is a wonder so many parents are unable to conceive of it. If you want your children to act like your equals, feeling invested in the plans you have for your family and for them, then you have to treat them with the respect that you give to your equals.
Islam has a very important teaching in regard to this topic. All souls are equal, whether male or female, young or old. Your child is your complete equal when it comes to their soul. So the moral way to treat them is to treat them the way you want to be treated yourself. You must give them the exact same respect that you like to get yourself. You must give them the freedom to choose their own destiny just as you like to have the freedom to choose yours. The only difference is that they do not have a fully developed brain yet and do not have your experiences. But it is entirely wrong and immoral to use this as an excuse for treating them as if they should be your slaves. If you are 35 and your child is 15, think of it as similar to your being 65 and your child 45. You may have more wisdom and development, but they are just as human as you are, with exact same rights.
You cannot maintain an unequal relationship with someone and expect them to believe that you truly love them and respect them.
Parents with angry and disobedient teenagers tend to only think of the injustice of their children treating them like that when they have done so much for them. What right does the child have to be like that when we give them food, shelter and have their best interests at heart?
And that’s the problem. We tend to think of our children as indentured servants who must do what we say to pay us back for everything we have done for them. We have done a lot of work on them and we want to see good results.
This is where a deep spiritual grounding is very helpful. As I often say, saints are not attached to results. They do good wherever they are without expecting anything in return. They do their deeds for God’s sake. They know that God will record their intentions and they leave it to Him to take care of what happens next.
The best parents have a saint’s attitude toward their children. They do their best for them without expecting results, and without expecting gratitude.
Parents who are successful with their teenagers and who continue to maintain a friendly and loving relationship with them follow what I call the principle of zero-expectation parenting.
This means that you make it perfectly clear to your children, through both word and deed, that you love them and respect them for who they are regardless of what they do or how they behave.
If you are religious, you must make it perfectly clear to your child that you will love them even if they end up leaving your religion. This is extremely difficult to accept for a parent who is completely attached to results. But a person who has achieved a saint’s attitude will act like that without even thinking about it. You love your children for who they are, for their souls, you do not care what they choose to do or how they perform in life.
So if you are a Muslim and your son comes out as gay, rather than beating them or disowning them, you must make it perfectly clear that you will always love them with the same tenderness as you always have for them. This is not just my opinion, this is the Islamic way of treating relatives who are sinners. Islamically a parent’s duty to love and support their child never goes away even if the child commits major sins, as I discuss in this answer. Always remember that Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him) argued with God’s angels to save the homosexual rapists in Prophet Lot’s town. God, rather than rebuking him for arguing with God’s command, actually praises him for his love and kindness for humanity, including horrible sinners.
When Abraham's fear subsided, and the good news had reached him, he started arguing with Us concerning the people of Lot.
Abraham was gentle, kind, penitent.(The Quran, verses 11:74-75)
That was Prophet Ibrahim’s attitude toward people who were unrelated to him. What better example can there be to follow regarding our own children?
Unfortunately Muslim parents, those who have not had a good training in the Quran and Islamic spirituality, are taken completely by surprise when their child acts un-Islamically and immediately jump to thinking about punishing the child and forcing them to be better. That’s completely the wrong way to help them become better persons. The right way is to always reassure them of your love for them and of your readiness to support them always. Once the child knows you will always have their backs, they will love you back and they will be much more likely to follow your example. Forcing a child to be a good Muslim doesn’t work. Loving your child while you act as a very good Muslim yourself will work better than anything to make them want to be good Muslims themselves. (Note that the hadith that recommends beating children who don’t pray comes through an unreliable transmitter and is therefore not strong enough to put into practice, as discussed here: Can a brother and sister sleep in the same bed?)
Almost every Muslim teenager you meet who is a very good Muslim has a good Muslim in his or her life whom he or she loves very much. It is this love more than anything else that constantly motivates them to be good Muslims.
The same applies to a child who is not interested in studying, or in getting the degree you want them to get. Rather than shaming them and forcing them to do what you want, you should instead make it perfectly clear that you will love them regardless of what they choose to do with their lives. You may wish your child to become a doctor or engineer, but they may want to become an artist instead. If you are attached to worldly results, this will be extremely upsetting to you. But if you have a saint’s attitude, then you will accept their wish with a completely open heart, knowing that God can always take care of them and make them successful regardless of what career path they choose.
Give your children the freedom to decide their own destiny for themselves. Even if they want to make a decision that you consider a very bad decision, let them make it. They will learn from their experience, and if you believe that God is all-powerful, He can always change things.
If your child does not like to study, find out the reason. Maybe they have depression or ADHD and they need to receive treatment. Some children have bipolar type II disorder. People with this disorder often drop out of school despite getting extremely high marks sometimes, because they go through periods of intense depression where they are completely unable to motivate themselves to study. Even if you force them to study they will not be able to take the material in, because the depression severely limits their ability to focus on what they are reading or retain it. Things like bipolar and other kinds of depression run in families and there is nothing to do about it except getting treatment. Many people blessed with never suffering depression think that it is just a weakness of character. The worst thing you can say to a depressed child is telling them they should be grateful and happy with all the blessings they enjoy in their lives. Depression can be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain caused by a person’s genes or by trauma and no amount of success can make it go away.
If your child wants a boyfriend or girlfriend, instead of threatening them, acknowledge their desire for romance and companionship. Make it clear why relationships outside of marriage are not a good idea. See my following articles on this issue:
- The Point of Marriage in Islam (and the Problem with Romantic Relationships Outside of Marriage)
- Secret romantic relationships in Islam
- Dating and Relationships in Islam: What is Allowed and What is Not
If they are old enough, rather than preventing them from dating and marriage until they get older, let them find someone to marry now. Preventing them from this will only encourage them to sin behind your back. A saint knows that God can fix any bad situation, so even if they marry someone and have a terrible experience, God can always change things for the better.
So the main point is to stop being attached to results and to always reassure the child that you will love them regardless of what they choose to do. If you have difficulty in maintaining such a mindset, the best course of action is to work daily to maintain a high spiritual state through extra acts of worship. You cannot be a saint without daily work. Start reading the Quran for half an hour or an hour a day for the rest of your life, or start performing tahajjud, or do anything else that helps you maintain a close relationship with God and helps you avoid getting attached to results.
I personally find reading the Quran for an hour every day to be the most helpful thing in the world for maintaining a close relationship with God year-round. Reading the sayings of Ibn al-Qayyim and Ibn al-Jawzi are also very helpful.