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I’ve talked to many parents over the years who have shared their experiences with me and who have come to me for help with an extremely challenging situation. Of course each teen and their circumstances are different, but I hope in today’s conclusion, I can show that the theme throughout this series can still apply to the most severe of situations.
First, let me make it clear, that when a teen is engaging in self-destructive behavior, or who is violent, dangerous, or extremely addicted, these situations require parents to realize the severity of what is possible, and to seek professional assistance which may require the removal of the teen from the family for the safety of all. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help.
The help I’m offering is first philosophical, and then the strategies emerge out of it, based upon each person’s unique situation.The operating philosophical assertions are as follow:
- The parents are acting in sacrificial love toward their teen. Not from spite, competition, anger, revenge, jealousy, or hatred. If parents lack the self-awareness to see their own toxic motivations within their parenting, then no strategy can help your teen because they are and will remain victims of a low-consciousness environment.
- The parents are aligned in their philosophies and share the same resolve to bring healing through love. In my experience, teens go off the rails because the parents have diverging approaches to parenting. This can be due to divorce, or due to the absence of one of the parents or a number of factors. I’ve yet to see a teen change course for the better when parents cannot agree on how to parent. In such cases, there is a “divorce” between the parents (even if they are married) which adds a lot of confusion to the existing pain and disorientation.
- The teens behavior is derivative of the true problem. When a teen has an attitude, or is rebellious, or willfully disobedient, the parents often focus on the behavior, and not the underlying causes. In my experience, behavioral problems are almost always linked to the deeper issues of a teen’s identity, safety, relationship skills, and sense of purpose and hope. Sometimes there is something biological, medical, or dietary that must first be remedied.
You might be surprised just how these underlying issues tend to foster difficult teens. The reason is because the parents who don’t know how to truly love their child, or lack alignment, or who are always chasing behavior modification, are often those who have done so for a very long time. A parent’s lack self-awareness usually goes back prior to having babies. If parents will do the soul-work required to see, own, and address these core things, the relationship changes immediately. I used to lead a youth group with nothing but “troubled teens“and yet when they were with us in our group we rarely had any trouble. This illuminates that much of the “teen’s problem” is the relationship dynamic with parents. So if you require professional help, seek a family therapist.
Below are my suggestions for handling difficult teens.
- Immediately exchange authority for influence. When a baby is born a parent has 100% authority and 0% influence. When they become adults, a parent is to have 0% authority and 100% influence. This means that if a parent is still trying to manage behavior with threat, power plays, intimidation, etc… then they have not established sufficient influence and are relying on their diminished authority. Parents who control everything never empower independent decisions. Parents who control nothing have abdicated parenting to their kids. This means by the time child is eight or nine, a parent must begin a coaching model, not a ruler/authority figure. By the teen years, parenting should almost entirely be based in influence. Ask, “What do you think you should do?” instead of telling what to do.
- Control your own emotions if you have any hope of asking your teens to control theirs. A parent who is emotionally reactive, explosive, overly dramatic, or emotionally off the leash will model for their kids the emotional aptitude for the household. Nearly all fighting, and horrible feelings emerge from these punctuated emotional reactions. This is a learned behavior, and our world is mistaken to say that this is normal. Emotions are not to be ignored, but they are to be governed by the intellect and not given free vent. A parent who learns this can train their kids to do likewise. That pain the family feels after a blow up, is completely preventable, and can be replaced with peaceful, respectful, engagement. Simply turn the volume down. Emotions are real, BUT they are NOT reality. When my kids were young, their mother and I acknowledged their emotional reactions, but did not react to them. We did not escalate or raise intensity. No shouting. Arguing. We stated our expectations in a calm frame. As a result, our kids learned to process emotions, not be taken hostage by them. This is important during teen years where many of their “bad behaviors” are actually reactions to emotion they never tamed.
- Your teen’s attitude might just be yours. Can’t get your teen to unload the dishes or help around the house without them being snarky, hurtful, or hyper-critical? Where do you suppose it comes from? In my experience, someone in the family behaves this way and has taught it. What kinds of critical things are said to a teen who didn’t do the chores or homework? Do the parents feel entitled to walk away from the table while the kids do the cleaning? When a teen asks for help, assistance, or to engage from the parents, do they put it off, deflect it, or pacify the request because it comes at an inconvenient time, or is interrupting the parent’s all important “down-time?” If these trends or attitudes exist in your house, then you are teaching your teen to be entitled, transactional, dismissive, disconnected, and showing how to value something other than each other. Learn to “be HERE now”
- Eradicate all video games and gaming systems. I know there may be examples where gaming is employed as an alternative form of entertainment to TV or other media. However, the reasons for eradicating it are many, especially in the case of teens with behavior or attitude problems. Far too many parents rely on gaming as a babysitter or a pacifier not realizing that this establishes neurotransmitter pathways in the brain which greatly contribute to the teens problem. Video games cause the release of dopamine, adrenalin, and numerous other biochemicals which actually rewire the brain with neuro plasticity. As the brain seeks to regain biochemical homeostasis, it introduces the chemicals which cause a melancholy or slight depression to counter act the overgrowth of dopamine receptors. It’s common for teens who are addicted to gaming to also get depressed, unmotivated, and easily distracted. This often results in kids being prescribed psychotropic interventions which becomes a lifelong train of labels and interventions.
A few more observations about video games. Video games give the illusion to the teen that they are accomplishing something, when in fact they are not. A high score is not an accomplishment. Just because the world calls obsessive video game addiction an “E-Sport” and even if it has economic gains associated with it, does not mean your teen has accomplished anything. Accomplishments are how a teen learns appropriate self confidence. As a general rule, the longer they spend in the game environment, the less capable they are in real life. Gaming is the opportunity cost of true skill and confidence. My kids learned to create businesses, or skill in athletics, or used tech to gain engineering skills like auto-CAD, 3-D printing, and building RC planes. These not only give them valuable skill for life but created economic gains which were powerfully tangible.
Since gaming has also become a medium of communicating with friends, it becomes a far more substantial issue if it is to be removed. If removing gaming from a teens life would “ruin” them socially, or force a biochemical withdrawal, then far too much ground has been given to gaming already. Add to this the easy progression to pornography use, the diminished ability to socially interact, and you have a recipe for the loss of generation. This is already on display as gamers are now second generation.
A parent who is unwilling to remove or strictly curtail such a toxic form of media from their home needs to examine the benefits they derive from the arrangement. If a parent has to bribe behavior with screen time, or use it as a threat, the parent has already forsaken parenting. Again, there may be appropriate, supervised, limited use of gaming or simulation tech, and the test to whether you have that in your household is if selling the console creates huge disruption. If selling it is no big deal, then you have gaming, if selling means the end of the teens or the parents homeostasis, then gaming has your family. In most cases, a family simply chooses video games over real sports, community, and connection because it’s cheaper, easy to access, and requires nothing from parents.
I’ll close by sharing a sad case study.
I remember trying to help some parents who had a sixteen year old son who was out of control. He was doing drugs and alcohol, was sexually active, failing in school, and occasionally violent in the home. He disregarded his parents and was mean to his siblings. Meanwhile, the parents couldn’t imaging taking his gaming console away, it seemed too severe to them. They allowed him to eat their food, wear the clothes they bought and basically do as he pleased. They were funding his (party) or demise as I put it to them.
My advice was to provide him a scorched earth existence. Go to the Goodwill and get one pair of really ugly pants and two horribly ugly shirts. Then two pairs of socks and two pairs of underwear. Then take all his clothes, all his games, all his tech, all his music and leave him with his homework, and a basic meal plan with no treats of any kind. The advice was to just take everything that fed his toxic, self destructive life and leave the most rudimentary existence and care. This was in part to test the resolve of the parents. Next I told them to say nothing about these changes and to not react to what comes. If he’s destructive, call the authorities. Think through the implications of this. His so-called friends won’t last. His social credit will wane. His dependence on the family will re-emerge. And he’ll be cut off from the main channels that are feeding his non-sense. As he re-engages, he can earn back a better life and the parents can begin parenting in love rather than disconnection .
The teen was off the rails, but the tracks were laid by mom and dad. Sadly, the parents couldn’t do it. They saw it as cruel. I’m not sure what eventually happened, but I do know the boy got a girl pregnant and they killed the baby. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon scenario. In fact many parents are just enduring their teens and hoping nothing horrible happens before they can eject them from their life. It doesn’t need to be this way. Healing can come to a family, but as I’ve said in this series, it all starts with parents. If beneath it all is really an unwanted teen, then we should not be surprised to have a bunch of unwanted behaviors. The fix is just the converse.
Loving our teens is not the same as needing them or wanting them, but it is understanding them, and helping them to know who they truly are in God. We can only lead them from where we’ve been ourselves, so loving our teens means that parents must begin by doing the soul work required to mitigate the pain we will otherwise inflict on them. As Richard Rohr says, we either transmit our pain, or we transform it.
Consider these verses from scripture which place the responsibility on parents, primarily fathers:
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4)
“Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” (Colossians 3:21)
By now I hope you have learned that most difficult teens, are actually the unaware or unskilled parents. I’ve worked in many residential treatment centers for teens, and prisons for adults and with the exception of those with a severe biological disorder, none of them came from loving, integrated and self-aware parents. Our children are a reflection of not only our parenting skills, but our ability to remain in a loving relationship. Help for your teen is possible. Change can happen within the next hour if we choose it. It all starts with us.