Q: Help! Our 18-year-old son just got arrested. He’s been in trouble with the law before and never did well in school. His mother and I know he’s responsible for his own actions, but we can’t help blaming ourselves. We feel like failures as parents. Where did we go wrong and what can we do for our son?
A: Parenting an adolescent isn’t a particularly easy thing to do even under the rosiest of circumstances. Having a healthy, well-adjusted, top-performing, polite, well-groomed, socially conscious teen would certainly make the process more enjoyable for everyone, but what if, despite all the wonderful things you’ve done for him, he turns out the very opposite?
They don’t prepare us for that. Simply put, it can be devastating. When a child has severe behavior problems, is rebellious, or gets into major trouble in school, parents’ initial reaction is to blame themselves, to ask themselves what they did wrong. Things get worse, from the parents’ point of view, if their child lands in jail or acts out in a particularly public way that embarrasses them. To make matters worse, most of the professionals these parents come in contact with-doctors, teachers, psychiatrists, and lawyers-blame them too, says Anne-Marie Ambert, a psychologist and expert in child development. Parents of delinquent teens suffer in a variety of ways, she says. They might start drinking too much, find it hard to concentrate at work, feel increased stress or shame, imagine that others are blaming them, and find all sorts of excuses to stay away from their teen. They begin to see themselves as parental failures, and they feel socially isolated.
Even worse, they feel that they can no longer trust a child who has lied to and betrayed them. Ambert found that these feelings of mistrust can set off a vicious circle: the parents react by becoming more controlling and monitoring their child’s friends. That, naturally, makes the child accuse the parents of not trusting them (which is true) and rebel even more. She blames her parents for everything, and takes no responsibility.
At the same time, parents who are in denial about their own contribution to the problem can be quick to blame the outside world (school or friends) or attribute their teen’s behavior to a specific cause, such as ADD, ADHD, or OCD.
If you’re in denial, wake up. If you’re blaming yourself, stop. Continuing on either of those paths will do absolutely nothing to change your teen’s behavior and could land you in a position of loving your teen very much but not really liking him. This could eventually destroy your relationship with him.
If he’s doing anything that could be harmful to himself or others (running away, behaving violently or threatening to, abusing drugs or alcohol, having sex with a lot of different people) get him to a child psychologist or psychiatrist right away. He needs the kind of help you’re probably not able to provide.
For less dangerous behavior (things like cutting school, being disrespectful, staying out past curfew, failing classes) you’re going to have to get tough. This means letting your teen know very clearly what your minimum behavior standards are and what kind of behavior is unacceptable. Do this in writing and be as specific as possible. Teens are brilliant in finding loopholes in rules. Next, come up with a list of consequences. Taking away phone privileges, car keys, free time, and social privileges are great attention getters. Be sure to include some positive consequences as well. Doing things right, for example, might earn your teen a curfew extension for a few hours or something else that indicates that you trust him.
Violating one of the rules might, though, might result in not being able to go to that concert he’d already bought tickets to.
Keep in mind that this whole being tough thing is going to be hard on you too. Most of us aren’t used to catching our kids being good. If they do what they’re supposed to, we hardly notice because we expect good behavior. Kids often find that incredibly frustrating, so rewarding good behavior once in a while will greatly increase the odds that it’ll continue. Conversely, when it comes time to enforcing the rules you have to learn to stand your ground, not giving in to whining, cajoling, threats, tears, screams, or manipulation. If you let your teen steamroller you one time, it’s guaranteed that he’ll try it again.