There is a general fear among parents in Oakville about “the teen years”. We hear all sorts of horror stories — ranging from the mild (won’t be seen in public with you anymore) to the downright scary (drug abuse, pregnancy, dropping out of school, jail time). There also seems to be this perception that it can just happen out of the blue, that one day you have a mild-mannered 12 year old, and the next you have an out-of-control, self-destructive teen. As a psychotherapist, I wonder how true that really is, though.
Humans are pattern-making creatures. Everything we do has a purpose, even if that purpose isn’t readily understandable to even ourselves. But the purpose is there, regardless of how destructive or counterintuitive it is. I have a theory that even those teens whose crazy behaviour seems to come from nowhere, had some sort of sign beforehand that they may be headed down this path. Kids don’t just turn nutty the moment they hit 13 (or 12 or even younger, as many parents are experiencing).
One article I read about out-of-control teens interviewed parents whose 13 year old daughter went off the rails in a big way: binge drinking, drug use, running away from home, stealing , and eventually becoming pregnant at 14. These were devoted parents who did everything they knew how to do to help her. They paid for treatment programs, they quietly paid back any money that she stole, they sent her to a lockdown-facility…eventually spending about $70 000 on trying to get her help. But it wasn’t until they attended a support group for parents with out-of-control kids that Mom really felt she learned anything useful. She learned how to put her foot down, set limits, and let their daughter know her behaviour would no longer be tolerated. When Mom and Dad finally filed for custody of their granddaughter and told their daughter that until she got her act together she would no longer be welcome at their home, it gave the teenager the wake-up call she needed to turn her life around. All of the previous, loving efforts her parents had made had only lead the daughter to believe that there would never be any consequences to her actions. This was the first time she was held accountable and forced to make a decision about her own conduct.
I hope none of you reading this ever have to go through this nightmare. But even Mom in this story came to recognize how their behaviour as parents, while not the reason their daughter had spun out of control, had inadvertently been promoting a lack of responsibility and keeping the teen from getting back on track. This is why appropriate consequences are so critical for kids of all ages. They need to be taught that whatever choice they make will have a ripple effect that they will have to deal with. And they need to learn how to deal with this ripple effect effectively and maturely.
While unfortunately most teens with these kind of self-destructive behaviours will not change until they make the decision to, there are things that you as a parent can do, both if your teen is spinning out of control now and if your kids are younger and you’re hoping to avoid this kind of anguish. First of all, spend quality time with each of your kids, as a family and one-on-one. Trust me, kids really do want to spend time with you…although I will agree that they may be very reluctant to tell you so. Study after study demonstrates this to be true.
Secondly, demonstrate respect for your children and yourself by having clearly defined boundaries and consequences that they have been given the opportunity to participate in creating. Watch out for signs of mental health issues. Anxiety and depression are often behind the drinking and drug use teens get involved in, so although we as parents tend to get caught up in the behaviour themselves, we may be better served by trying to get to the root of what’s behind the behaviour. And lastly, remember that kind and firm are the foundations of effective parenting. As tough as it may be, try to avoid anger; stay calm, create boundaries, and hold your ground. Counselling services may help here; this is a tough spot to be in, and sometimes we need support and a new perspective when it comes to parenting.