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How to Not Exasperate Your Children

Many Christian parents are aware of Paul’s instructions to not exasperate or provoke their children (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21). But the line between loving discipline and exasperating discipline can be difficult to discern as parents engage their children’s unique personalities.

Though there’s no universal formula for disciplining and nurturing a child, Paul gives two clear indicators a child is feeling exasperated: anger and discouragement.

Spending more than 15 years counseling young adults wrestling with the ramifications of how they were parented has prompted me to think deeply about specific parenting behaviors that lead to feelings of anger and discouragement in most children. There’s a type of parenting that crosses the line from instructive and nurturing to oppressive and exasperating. And it’s important we understand the difference both because our parenting has ramifications for our children and because our parenting is a reflection of the gospel.

What’s the Big Deal?

If you read the chapters leading up to these parental commands, one thing is apparent: Paul can’t get enough of the gospel. Before issuing practical commands about family dynamics, Paul takes the time to convey the glorious reality that God “predestined” us for adoption “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4–5) to the “praise of his glorious grace” (v. 6).

Paul explains that being God’s child has nothing to do with our performance or our ability to repay him. Our adoption was a rescue operation, a “redemption” plan that cost Jesus his “blood” (v. 7). To cleanse us from sin, God “lavished” his “grace” on us “in all wisdom and insight” (vv. 7–8) so that “things in heaven and things on earth” would be united in him (v. 10).

Those undeservedly adopted into God’s family receive a “new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator,” leading to “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:10, 12). Salvation produces peace, love, and thankfulness in the hearts of believers (vv. 14–15; Eph. 2:17; 5:2) because the gospel “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13).

On the heels of these rich chapters overflowing with gospel truth, Paul says, “Do not provoke your children to anger” (Eph. 6:4) and “Do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Col. 3:21). We should take seriously the call to avoid parenting that exasperates and provokes, because our parenting is a reflection of the gospel.

Three Ways to Exasperate Kids

Parents are wise to take note when their child seems angry or discouraged and consider how their own behavior may have affected the child. After years of conversations with adolescent and adult children raised in Christian homes, I’ve noticed three parenting behaviors that, whether intentional or unintentional, commonly exasperate children to the point of anger and discouragement.     

1. Guilt-Tripping

Guilt-tripping tries to make people feel guilty to shape or control their behavior. It may come out of a desire to keep children from potential danger or future pain, but it often demonstrates a personal sense of entitlement. The parent might say statements like these:

“Did you not care about me?”
“If I weren’t here to help you, your life would be a mess.”
“I work so hard for you, and this is how you repay me?”
“When I was your age, I was already . . .”

Instead of gently and creatively directing the child to God’s empowering love that motivates us to do what’s right, the parent makes her own needs, desires, and accomplishments primary.

We should take seriously the call to avoid parenting that exasperates and provokes, because our parenting is a reflection of the gospel.

If our primary reaction when our kids do something disobedient or dangerous is to make the situation about us, we should consider whether we’re engaging in guilt-tripping. Are we training our kids to believe that Jesus should have “first place in everything” (Col. 1:18, CSB) or that we should?

When we resort to guilt-tripping to shape our child’s behavior, we replace the gospel story of grace with a worldview of entitlement. The reality of Christ’s death and resurrection should free Christian parents to calmly create a safe environment for productive dialogue and “sincere” fellowship (1 Pet. 1:22) centered around the supremacy of Christ (Col. 1:18). Conversations steeped in gospel truths will promote peace (3:15); conversations steeped in entitlement will cause confusion, anger, and discouragement.

2. Man-Made Laws

As we point our kids to the gospel of grace, we have a responsibility to teach them to love and submit to God’s law, as it’s a reflection of his perfect goodness, wisdom, and love. In the process, we must be careful to differentiate between God’s law and our preferences.

It’s good to have reasonable standards for a child as a functioning part of a family system, but if these standards are inconsistent, unpredictable, or unfair, the child may become exasperated. For example, if a child consistently responds to a particular rule or expectation with anger or discouragement, parents are wise to consider whether that rule is necessary. Would removing it cause your child to disobey God’s law in any way? Or is it primarily a matter of parental preference?

Consider what issues and occasions tend to evoke conflict between you and your child. Particularly as we engage with teenage and adult children, expectations about how to celebrate holidays, how often to call or text each week, how to raise kids, and how to make decisions can lead to anger and discouragement if we make our preferences into laws.

When a child disagrees with his parents’ rules or opinions, it can be easy to chalk it up to disobedience or disrespect. But the gospel should free us to hear our children out if they feel discouraged or angered by a particular standard. Before dismissing a child’s, teenager’s, or adult’s frustration, parents should consider whether their expectations have been clearly communicated and are appropriate for their child’s season of life.

3. Anger

Anger can seem easy to justify in parenting. We often think it’s the only thing that’ll get through to our kids. But if we’re honest, our anger toward our kids is rarely, if ever, righteous (Eph. 4:26). It usually flows from an inappropriate sense of entitlement or a prideful demand for respect.

I’ve heard too many stories of Christian parents pointing knives at their children, throwing objects at them, shoving them against walls, and verbally threatening them. These behaviors aren’t just exasperating; they’re abusive.

But even if we haven’t resorted to those means, there are other ways to express anger that shouldn’t be normalized: speaking harshly, yelling, mean looks, name-calling, mocking, and sarcasm. These behaviors don’t promote peace, unity, and understanding; they alienate us from our children and deeply discourage them. Anger may get our children to obey us temporarily, but it won’t help them grow in godly righteousness (James 1:20).

What If I’ve Already Exasperated My Child?

Not all anger and discouragement in children results from their parents’ behavior. There are many other reasons a child might struggle with these feelings. But Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21 remind us to consider how our behavior affects our children, and they exhort us to parent in ways consistent with the gospel of Christ.

Anger may get our children to obey us temporarily, but it will not help them grow in godly righteousness.

Whether our kids are living in our home or off on their own, the gospel should free us to humbly invite their feedback, genuinely try to understand them, sincerely apologize for exasperating behavior, and intentionally treat them with dignity and respect. Those conversations may be long and painful, and they might require the help of a pastor, mediator, or counselor. But they’re necessary for true reconciliation. If you know your child has been angered or discouraged because of your behavior, pursue peace “so far as it depends on you” (Rom. 12:18).

You need not worry that sincerely apologizing to your kids will cause them to take advantage of you. You may be surprised to find the opposite is true. When parents confess their sins openly and seek effective accountability, their children feel safer and more free to enjoy their parents’ company and pursue a healthy relationship. This is what true gospel living produces—sincere parent-child relationships grounded in love, peace, and thankfulness, not in anger and discouragement.


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