Unique tips for parents of at-risk teens
Posted May 3
By Kim Giles and Sean Barnett
I’m really suffering here; our son (who is now 19) is drinking and smoking weed. He is always lying, his grades have started to plummet, and he is of no help around the house. We tried everything from taking away his phone and car, grounding him and sending him to counseling, but he keeps gravitating toward friends that are obviously not concerned with their future. He only attended one semester of college and has lost two jobs in the last three months. The more I try to help him see that what he is doing is leading him down a miserable path, the more he pulls back. He doesn’t respect any of the family rules, and he often sleeps all day. I know he is depressed and anxious, but I am at my wit's end. What would you suggest?
(I have brought in coach Sean Barnett to help me answer your question, as he is an expert at working with at-risk teens.)
He says you must focus on the one thing you have control of: your suffering.
This may be hard to hear, but you and only you are responsible for the pain you are experiencing here. The intensity of your misery is in direct proportion to how far you are willing to go to avoid being responsible for the pain you are feeling. In other words, if you own responsibility for your suffering, you would finally have the power to lessen it.
It will also help if you will separate the facts from the judgments and meaning you are applying to the situation. The facts are that your son uses drugs and does not perform well in school or at work. You and your wife have tried punishing him and sending him elsewhere to be “fixed,” but he is still making the same choices. You would like to connect better with your son, have honest and direct communication and help him avoid a hard life, but you are not experiencing that.
The judgments and applied meaning to your story are that drugs are terribly harmful, school and work are critical, his friends are a bad influence, and your son is disrespectful, unhelpful, lazy and depressed. These are not totally true.
Let’s start with the drugs. Drugs can become addictive and can cause mental, emotional and physical damage to users, and the ones you are talking about are illegal, which means they can lead to incarceration and close doors to countless opportunities. It is normal for a parent to fear these things for their child. It can also feel like your son’s struggles are a reflection of the job you have done as a parent, and that brings personal fear of failure into the equation.
The reality of drug use (from many addiction experts) is that only about 10 percent of people who use recreational drugs become addicted or experience serious long-term adverse consequences. This means your son has at least a 90 percent chance of getting through this stage of his life with no more than a few figurative or literal bumps and bruises.
The hard truth is you have little control over what your son chooses to do. Even if he ends up in the place you fear, it will be the result of his choices alone. He will have signed up for those classes. Period.
You only have control over how you choose to feel and respond. So, the question is, how can you sleep well at night and feel you’ve done everything you can to be a good parent?
Here are a few things we recommend:
Trust that your son is choosing the perfect classroom journey for him. The most valuable lessons in life always come through extreme adversity. If your child experiences pain from his choices or makes choices that create rough trials, and there is nothing you can do to prevent this, do not carry the weight of having to save him from these consequences. Remember, a baby chick dies if you help it out of its shell because it needs the struggle to become strong. Some children need some of their lessons the hard way. If they keep signing themselves up for those classes, they apparently need the lessons (and consequences) those choices will bring. The message you want to send to your child is you love him no matter what and believe in him to come through this. Then trust he is in the hands of someone greater than you, who is ultimately in charge of your child’s journey and education. Hand the weight, worry and fear over to a higher power and trust him to see your child through. You aren’t giving up supporting your child, but you are trusting God to help make it all work out. (You are more likely to keep or create a good connection with your child, too, if you stay out of fear as much as possible. Fear-based responses are void of love, and love is what your child needs.)
Be the person you want your son to be. It is crucial to realize our children can’t hear our words. They only hear our actions and how we live. It is insane to yell at your kid in an attempt to teach him how to be a respectable adult. Do you remember being 19? Would you open up to someone that labeled you lazy or hated your friends? Would you feel comfortable sharing your deepest fears and shame with them? You want to be a safe place and an understanding person they can come to for unconditional love and support. Do not enable the bad behavior, but always love and believe in him to turn it around.
Speak your truth clearly and follow through with consequences. If drug use is unacceptable in your house, have the courage to stand in that truth. If you believe a 19-year-old should contribute to household operations, or be either enrolled in school or employed to live at home, own it. Write your ground rules clearly, and then let your son know these are simply conditions of residing in your house. They have nothing to do with how much you love him. These are rules that are necessary for your sanity, not his. But remember, you have all the latitude in the world concerning how drastically you set your consequences. Sean wrote contracts with his son that were clear, progressive and agreed upon, long before he realized he was no longer a good fit for living under his parent's roof. He would be happy to help you develop a sensible, fair and effective family contract.
Accept your own faults and fears first. Anything you see in your son that makes you angry or fearful might be a projection of fears within your own shadow side. Shadow work on your own fears can be frightening, but if you trust the treasure you seek is always in the cave you fear, this can be the most liberating work in your life. You must own all the faults and weaknesses you hate about yourself, and learn to tell the truth about them. It is only in this kind of vulnerability and humility you find true freedom and connection with your son. Take off the masks you have created in an attempt to protect you from your fears of not being good enough. As long as you have secrets about your own life, no one can connect to the real you. When you get real about your fears and weaknesses, you can connect with your child as two scared students in the classroom of life, with the same intrinsic worth, who are just learning different lessons. From this place of vulnerability, your child will feel safer with you, and you will have greater influence in his life. But you have to get off your high horse to connect from here.
The key to alleviating stress within your family has everything to do with addressing the things you control and accepting the things you cannot control. Remember, you are in charge of the amount you suffer over your child’s choices. Accountability for your feelings always resides directly with the person having the feelings. When you recognize a behavior in someone else that results in your emotional pain, the best place to start is by working on your own fear issues. We highly recommend that parents of at-risk teens be the first to get coaching or help. You cannot help your child from an unbalanced place.
Focus on trusting that we are all going through the perfect classroom journey for us, to teach us the precise lessons we need most.
You can do this.