For parents, there is no worse feeling than watching your child spin out of control, while nothing you do seems to make any difference. If your teenager’s behavior is giving you feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and fear, I would like to offer some suggestions for regaining a sense of balance in your home.
Stage 1: Accept and Talk About What’s Happening
Accepting the reality of the problem can be difficult for parents. Some won’t acknowledge that their child is spinning out of control because to them it would be accepting responsibility for failure. Others tend to see just the good and refuse to acknowledge any wrong in their children. They are blinded to what everyone around them can already see until it becomes a full-blown crisis or tragedy. But don’t ignore what is happening in your family. Though you undoubtedly hope it will just go away, you are not likely to see any change in your teen without making a major change in the way your home operates. If you think the problem will disappear when your child turns 18, think again. It won’t disappear … it will get worse and linger well into adulthood if you do not deal with it now. Just envision what would happen if your child never changes. He will still be living with you until he’s 35, whether it’s because he continues to be addicted to drugs, or he can’t find a job because he was arrested and has a record, or just because he never learned responsibility. That’s a reality in more homes today than you might imagine.
When a teen is spinning out of control, it’s critical to ask questions to get to the root of your child’s change in behavior. Is she depressed? Is she being bullied, abused, or using drugs or alcohol? Has there been a major loss in your family recently? Most of the time, parents find out about underlying causes of a child’s behavior way too late. That’s why it’s so important to start talking with your teen right now. If the lines of communication are down, re-establish them—even gently forcing communication if need be. Require conversation from your child before you give them gas money, hand over the keys to the car, or sit down for a meal. Determine to establish good lines of communication and make sure you ask lots of questions.
Stage 2: Intervention
Ask yourself, “Six months from now, if my child continues down this road, will he be better or worse off?” If you determine that your teen will end up somewhere they should not be, then it’s time to step in and intervene. I’m sure you wish this situation wasn’t at your doorstep. But it is, so you have to act on your child’s behalf. And no matter how lonely it might be, or how difficult it might appear, no matter what your child’s response, you must act quickly.
Perhaps your child needs professional counseling or medication to get through this tough time. And maybe you’ll need counseling to get through it as well. Find a good Christian therapist who specializes in teen behavior, and trust what they recommend. If you’re going to pick and choose the counsel you receive, then you will more than likely just continue to do what you want, and your child will continue to spin out of control. Don’t let old beliefs about medicine control the new decisions that have to be made for your child. If your child is depressed or anxious, has ADD, or OCD, can’t sleep at night, is bi-polar, or has a true mental condition that demands medication, don’t let your outdated boundaries prevent your child from getting help for something that is essential to his well-being.
Hospitalization may even be needed if you feel that your child is a danger to himself or herself. Extreme cutting, eating disorders, bizarre behavior, extreme depression, suicidal thoughts, or excessive drug or alcohol abuse are just a few of the symptoms that might warrant hospitalization. If you are not sure, take them somewhere to get checked out. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
In the event that your teen is running away or otherwise hitting bottom, and counseling is going nowhere, you may need to place your teen in a therapeutic program outside of your home for a period. This is not the time to mull over where your parenting has gone wrong. If your child could damage her life and possibly make choices with grave consequences, then it’s time for action. After you’ve had time to get good counsel (hopefully from quite a few people) and you’ve had some time to think it through, start to put an intervention plan into action.
Stage 3: Plotting a Course for Correction
After intervention, plot a course of correction in your home by establishing and communicating clear boundaries for behavior by all members of your family (not just your wayward teen). Determine what you hold to be true and the principles upon which you will base your rules for living. Communicate and live by these boundaries, rather than “shooting from the hip” every time something comes up. Make a policy and procedure manual for your home, so everyone knows what to expect. Spend some time determining how you want to live and put some specifics in it to ensure that everyone understands those boundaries.
Once boundaries are in place, there must be reasonable consequences for inappropriate behavior, and they must be enforced, or your credibility goes right out the window. And keep in mind that they must be enforced for all members of the family, not just your teen, so one child doesn’t feel singled out.
Parents today tend to be so relational that they find it hard to send a strong “do not go this way” message for fear of losing their relationship. But what most parents don’t understand is that kids want direction, correction and help in moving through their transition to adulthood. Tom Landry once said, “A coach makes people do things they don’t want to do so they can get to a place where they do want to be.” Parents must do the same for their children.
Stage 4: Stand Firm
I know it’s tough to hang on when it feels like your family is falling apart. And when you step in to help, it’s more than likely there will be some backlash from your teen. But mom and dad—stand firm! Hold on. There is hope in every story, including yours.
By stepping into a teen’s mess and helping them through, you are loving them in a way that perhaps you haven’t loved them before. It’s a way of telling your teen, “Even on your worst days, life is so much better with you around.” This struggle may last awhile, but it won’t last forever – not if you take the necessary steps to correct it now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and 4 grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, 2 llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy. His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with over 2,700 teens, has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.
You can find out more about Heartlight at www.HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our Parenting Today’s Teens website at www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org. It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Here you will also find a station near you where you can listen to the Parenting Today’s Teens radio broadcast, or download the podcast of the most recent programs.