But something was different on this day as we drove to the yearly youth event. Instead of the usual laughter and pleasant talk, our friend was rude. If I asked her a question she was sarcastic and sharp with her reply.
At the motel my wife said to me, "She is being so rude I’d like to just turn around and take her home. She had no right talking to you that way."
I had to agree. Even though my feelings were a bit stung, though, I knew there was something operating beneath the surface level. This behavior and speech was so out-of-character for this girl, I knew something had to be eating at her heart and soul.
Through years of working with youth and three kids of my own, Cheryl and I have learned that children act out for several reasons. One is that acting out is fun. There is a certain thrill that comes with crossing forbidden lines.
A second reason is that young people are sinners. Why do any of us sin? Before we give ourselves to Christ we have an unregenerate nature that exerts its will and pushes us into rebellious behavior.
Thirdly, kids act out because they want attention. It is horribly chilling to feel we are all alone. Kids see others in what appear to be genuine relationships and they die to be in one themselves. If you add to this desire any estrangement with their family at home, they are doubly lonely. So, they may act out just to get recognized. In Blind Spots author Bill McCartney notes this tendency in kids who act out, and says that they "are often comforted just from the fact that their parents care enough to get angry and come back at them" (p.74). Taking the time to engage with your kid through sports, music or whatever interests them can prevent much heartache later on.
Finally, kids can act out because they are carrying a terribly heavy burden. In the case of our young friend, we learned shortly afterwards that she had an abortion just before the youth trip. The baby’s father, a church leader’s son, had gotten the girl drunk and then used her. When he found out she was pregnant he yelled at her and said, "Get rid of it! Get rid of it!" Her parents thought she was too young to have a baby, so they supported the abortion as well. Everyone seemed to want it except this sweet girl. Now, weeks after the abortion, her heart was bursting with sadness, shame and guilt. That is why she was so verbally offensive in the vehicle. She was crying out to Cheryl and me, "There is something horrible in my life that I need help with, but I can’t tell you! I’m too ashamed! Instead, I’ll act like the terrible person I feel right now, and I hope you can pick up on it. Please don’t be put off by my mean speech. Read beneath the lines and help me, please!"
It is hard for a teenager that is lonely or carrying a secret sin to make themselves vulnerable to anyone. Being vulnerable may be why they are hurting now, so why risk any further ridicule or rejection from an adult? Acting out with offensive behavior or speech seems a better option for them, since it now places the burden to act on the adult.
The Bible warns that our speech should be wholesome and our behavior thoughtful of others (Eph. 4:29-32). Improper talk and behavior must be addressed. But, remember that lurking underneath the offending words and actions may be something more than a mischievous or sinful heart. There may also be a heart that is lonely and broken, one crying out for healthy attention from a concerned adult.
If a teen has singled you out for some uncharacteristically sharp words, resist responding too quickly. Pause and look beneath the surface. There may be a heart crying out to you for help.