Emancipation and Teenagers

August 7, 2017

Resistance to Authority

A 15-year-old counselee (“Jen”) informed me that she had no intention of cooperating with counseling unless I would help her to emancipate. I did not agree with her ultimatum, nor did I agree that she should pursue emancipation, but I did agree to research the ins and outs of emancipation. This was not the first teen I have counseled who has mentioned wishing they could emancipate, but this was the first one who was completely serious about it. I needed to educate myself, and so the two of us sat side by side at the computer and looked up the California legal requirements to emancipate.

We learned the following:

To get a declaration of emancipation, you have to prove ALL of these things:

  1. You are at least 14 years old.
  2. You do not want to live with your parents. Your parents do not mind if you move out.
  3. You can handle your own money.
  4. You have a legal way to make money.
  5. Emancipation would be good for you.

Needless to say, Jen could not make her plan work, because she only met one of the requirements (her age). When she realized this, she agreed to open up a bit about her life. The details of her situation were difficult, and counsel had to be given delicately. There was no abuse as far as I could detect, but there certainly was some poor parenting in the family dynamic (harsh words, lack of support). What was far more important in this situation was what her desire to emancipate revealed about her family dynamic, her worldview, and her heart. “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23).

It is not unusual for a teenager to want to move outside of her parent’s authority at some point during the teen years. When she googles “emancipation” she sees it means that her parents no longer have control over her and her decisions. That sounds good to a struggling teenager! Legal emancipation is unlikely in most of the cases we counsel because there needs to be a very good reason for it. Much to my counselee’s disappointment, hating your parents is not considered a good reason.

Clearly there is something deeper going on with Jen. Biblical counseling with teens must target the heart but not before we gain a clear understanding of the situation. A teen does not proclaim her independence because of hatred for her parents without cause. It is important to spend time gathering data. It is possible that a teen’s parents truly are mistreating or neglecting her in some way. This should not be assumed, but it should be investigated through careful discussions with both the teen and her parents. Often the teen is simply displaying a resistance to authority that has less to do with her parents than it has to do with her understanding of authority.

Resistance to authority is where Jen and I found common ground. This is where all of us can find common ground! At the heart level, you and I are no different than my counselee who wants to emancipate from her authority. When we avoid God and go our own way and sin, we are doing the same thing.

The Blessing of Authority

Authority truly is a blessing! My counselee certainly has not seen it this way because she has looked to her parents to meet her expectations. She considers herself a Christian, but she has not yet been discipled in many areas of her struggles. This is where biblical counseling steps in. “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1).

As we talked for a few sessions, it was clear that my counselee was looking for some sense of peace, but she was looking for it in all the wrong places. She believed that peace would be found in removing herself from authority. As people continued to reject and disappoint her, she became convinced that the only hope was to get out from under the weight of the situation.

Submitting to Authority

Submitting to God’s authority is the answer to my counselee’s wish to be emancipated. As she surrenders to Him she will be able to come to know the peace that is only found in Him.

Authority is a hard concept for many, not just teens. Walking carefully through Romans 13 with a believing teenager can be impactful as it teaches that God’s call to show love, honor, and respect to others represents how God designed His kingdom to function. According to Scripture, authority ought to be submitted to, because all authority has been established by God (Rom. 13:1). This includes one’s parents, regardless how badly a teen wishes to escape this fact. A teen must also come to realize that rebelling against (or trying to run from) authority is rebelling against God (Rom. 13:2). These are hard but necessary truths when you are walking alongside a teen who wishes to emancipate.

It is helpful to teach a teen that despite what may be truly poor parenting (I am not talking about abuse here), God assures us that respect, kindness, and submission are part of His plan (1 Thess. 5:12-18), and failure to follow this plan results in further decline of the family relationship.

Rejecting God’s Authoritative Word

After counseling Jen for a few weeks, she fled. She wanted so badly for counseling to offer her an escape, but she was unwilling to receive counsel unless it would help her to emancipate. Her parents would not partner with me in the counseling process, and it seemed as if so many strikes were against Jen. Ultimately, she quit keeping her appointments and I have not heard from her since.

Pray for Jen, and scores of other teens who are suffering in difficult parental relationships and feel that there is no escape. Jen may give a verbal profession of faith, but she is still resistant to authority. In her lack of spiritual maturity, she struggles to find the purpose in her suffering and to look beyond her circumstances towards the hope found only in the gospel.

Questions for Reflection

Have you known a teen who wants to emancipate? Were you able to offer hope and if so, how? Have you seen a bit of yourself in Jen, too?

Ellen Castillo is the Director and Biblical Counselor at Word of Hope Ministries, Inc., on the Central Coast of California. Ellen most enjoys counseling teenagers and her passion is to reach the younger generations through mentoring and biblical counseling.

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