As school starts back and I prepare to begin meeting weekly with my girls small group (now 10th graders!), I’ve been thinking about what it means to love them. I wish I could give a list of guaranteed ways to win the heart of a teenager, because I tend to be a glass-is-half-full type of person and that list is yellow and happy and sure.

But we all know there are no guarantees in matters of the heart. And maybe I have more questions than answers. My girls are only six, but I’ve been a mama long enough to know that six turns into sixteen all too quickly. After nearly 10 years in youth ministry, it seems like the issues are always the same between mamas and daughters, just dressed up in different clothes. It’s true that the Bible says she is to honor you as her mother. But are there ways to encourage that as her natural response rather than an external command?

It may be true that she is being too sensitive and too dramatic. But if you tell her that, it won’t help and it could hurt. I was too sensitive and too dramatic just last week. Or was it this morning? Their stuff may be minuscule in the scope of life, but it is their stuff. To respect her life-stage is to love her.

One of the biggest mistakes I make as a parent or as a small group leader is when I confuse her behavior with her identity. It is so important to encourage girls in their identity as individuals and in Christ rather than try to shame them into better behavior. It may be true that she is acting irresponsibly. But better to call the choice an irresponsible one or the behavior irresponsible rather than to say that she is irresponsible. The goal is to empower, not to shame.

Above all, remember what Love did. Even though he knew they would choose the wrong one, God still put two trees in the Garden. Because a choice with no opportunity for failure isn’t really a choice, is it?

That thought terrifies me. I want to give every opportunity for success. But I want to hang on without suffocating. I want to offer support without being pushy. Is it possible to lead or parent these girls without being motivated by fear?

When she isn’t listening or doesn’t seem to care, she hears more than we know and cares more than we think. She is just learning how to show it. She is asking if she is worth it. And oh, how you know that she is worth it. How you long to tell her so. She needs time, lots of time. She needs eye contact and gentle words and love poured out all over her.

She needs our faith, not our anxiety. She needs our love, not our fear. At the same time, she needs to see our weakness and then, she needs to watch what we do with it. How do you show love to the girls in your life?

The girls in these photos are two beautiful students from the youth group where The Man is a youth pastor.