Relationship help for busy parents

An interview with Relationship Experts Les and Leslie Parrott

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Apr 1, 2015

It’s probably no surprise that we think relationships are pretty valuable here at FYI. Research continues to affirm what we know from Scripture and experience: young people need strong relationships with their parents and with other adults in order to truly thrive. That’s why we interviewed 50 amazing families as part of our research for The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family so we could understand more about what makes family relationships sing.

Along the way, we have learned from folks who are experts in family relationships. At the top of that list are Fuller School of Psychology grads Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott. I’ve had the joy of learning from the Parrotts’ wisdom, and invited them to share insights with parents like you.

Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott are #1 New York Times best-selling authors of numerous books, including The Parent You Want to Be, Helping Your Struggling Teenager, and the award-winning Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts. Leslie, a marriage and family therapist, and Les, a psychologist, are professors and founders of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. They’ve appeared on CNN, Good Morning America, Today Show, The View, and Oprah. The Parrotts are also founders of the highly acclaimed pre-marriage tool, the SYMBIS Assessment. To find out more about them, visit

FYI: You’ve been talking about relationships for decades. What can parents of teenagers do when it comes to their own marriages?

Leslie: I love this question because it almost subsumes the answer within it. Parents of teens need to nurture their marriage. We know from research it’s the most neglected season in a couple’s life. You will find the lowest levels of satisfaction in marriage across the board with couples who have teenagers in their home.

Les: And that’s not all because of the teens. It’s mid-life and other factors, as well. But teens contribute to it, for sure.

Leslie: We’ve all heard that the most important thing parents can do for their children is to have a loving marriage. There’s so much truth to that. So what can parents of teens do for their marriage? One answer will come across as so hackneyed but it’s so true: build a consistent date night into your relationship.

Les: But not just any date night. Why? Because research reveals that couples who fall into a predictable routine of a movie and a dinner for their date night, for example, don’t get nearly as much out of their dates as couples who do novel experiences. If you want to really turbo power the positive effects of a date night, try unique experiences together.

Leslie: We actually went to a trapeze class on a date not too long ago. Crazy, right? We also went paddle boarding. Trust me, these kinds of activities do not come naturally. It would be easier to just go to a nice dinner (and we do that, too), but we know that your neurochemistry actually changes as a couple (like it did when you were first dating) when you do things together that get you out of your rut. Every mom and dad of a teenager needs to consider that.

FYI: What questions do you hear most from parents about their teenaged kids?

Les: Parents wonder about a lot of things, some of the most common being eating disorders, identity issues, video game addiction, peer pressure, masturbation, alcohol, loneliness, and so on.

Leslie: But we also hear questions like, “How do I get my kid to do such and such?” Parents seem to want a magic technique or formula for eliciting the kinds of behaviors they desire. Understandable, for sure. But if there’s any advice we feel compelled to give parents of teenagers, it’s this: Focus more on the kind of parent that you want to be than the kind of kid you want to raise. Why? Because when you do the former, the latter almost takes care of itself.

Les: We wrote a book called The Parent You Want to Be that’s all about the qualities you want your kids to see in you. And that’s what we’ve focused on most with our two boys. We want to be affirming and visionary parents, for example. Wanting that and being that are two different things. We fail miserably some days. But we know that being is often more important that doing because it’s what stays with your child years from now.

FYI: When parents see their kids start to explore dating and romantic relationship interests, they often freak out. What words or advice do you have for parents in that phase?

Les: Every teenager is different. We can’t give blanket statements, for example, about when it’s appropriate for your son or daughter to start dating. That has so much to do with each teenager’s maturity level. Some 16-year-olds seem like 14, while others seem like 18.

Leslie: Well, not only that, but “dating” is not what it used to be. It’s worlds away from what you as a parent experienced. Asking to “hang out” is more frequent than dating.

Les: So when you ask for words of advice, our answer is simple: empathize. Work diligently to put yourself in your child’s shoes and see their world as they do. This doesn’t mean pestering them with a million questions, but it does mean not projecting your own assumptions onto them. And it means listening with a “third ear” to their feelings – even when they don’t express them out loud. The more your child feels understood by you and feels that you genuinely want the very best for them, they will open up and come to you for advice.

Leslie: That’s when you can have conversations about their relationships, being ever so sensitive, of course. But empathy doesn’t mean you don’t set up guidelines for your child’s dating world, too. And the dating decisions you make with them at 15 are different than 18.

FYI: For parents slogging through the deep waters of the teenage and young adult years, what two relationship tips would you give them to help keep their own marriage strong?

Les: First, slay the time dragon that can so easily wreak havoc on your relationship. Few things pull a couple apart more significantly and sometimes subtly than simply not having enough quality time for each other.

Leslie: I completely agree. Time is a precious commodity for couples in a busy household with teenagers. Managing your kid’s schedules on top of your own can sabotage your time as a couple.

Les: That’s why you’ve got to carve grooves into the routine of your day, your week and your month to ensure you have couple time. It may be as simple as having 15 minutes together after dinner, just the two of you, to take a walk or chat about your days. It may mean reserving a time for date nights. It may mean having a weekend get-away every quarter. Whatever it is, you need to be intentional. Otherwise, it just won’t happen.

Leslie: And the second thought that immediately comes to mind is prayer. Sure, this may sound a bit perfunctory. After all, church-going parents already pray, right? But if there is ever a time to envelop your child, your marriage, and your home in God’s wisdom, grace, and guidance, it’s now.

Les: It seems like my continual prayer these days, with a pre-teen and a 17-year-old, is for the Holy Spirit to help me do the things as a father and a husband that I already know to do. I can’t do them on my own strength.

Leslie: Amen to that. Most of us don’t need new things to do to be better on the home front. We just need God’s strength and abiding Spirit to do what we already know needs to be done today.

Read Part 2 of this interview with Les and Leslie, especially for leaders: Practical help for the ministry leader preparing couples for marriage.

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.

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