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What if My “Ex” Won’t Hold the Kids to the Same Rules?

When families go through a divorce and the kids end up splitting their time between parents (often called co-parenting), it changes the dynamics of the family, as well as the basic interactions between parent and child.  For parents of teens, this shift can be especially difficult as every member of the family tries to re-discover their role.

Changing Roles of Co-Parents

Co-parents often find themselves in different roles from those they had during the marriage.  Moms are especially affected by this because the dad is usually the disciplinarian in the family. When Dad leaves, Mom needs to develop a new set of skills.

Dads are usually the disciplinarian and authoritarian in the household.  They are the ones who build boundaries and structures that give teens the guidelines they need to help moderate their own actions.  Moms usually do great with relationships.  However, when Mom begins to take on the role that Dad used to play, the relationships can be shoved aside in order to ensure the rules and boundaries are in place.  But, Mom—the relationship you have with your teen needs to remain intact!  Don’t abandon the role you played before the divorce, but instead, find a way to support your teen through balancing discipline, boundaries, and relationships.  This is especially important as you walk through this difficult time together.  Your teen will either look to you for support and help—or he’ll look elsewhere.  It’s up to you.

Interacting with the Other Parent

Just as your role is changing, your relationship with your ex has changed.  And it will continue to change.  Your ex will do things that you don’t like, and this is going to affect you and your kids.  But it’s up to you to determine how much your response will affect your kids.  No matter how you feel about your ex-spouse, you can’t change them.  People are going to do what they are going to do.  Thankfully, that includes you.  You can change how you respond to your ex, your teen, and your changing role as a parent.

The boundaries that you set for your teen, and those that your ex sets, will help your child only if you keep your teen in mind first.  Think about your motivation behind setting a boundary—did you do it for your teen or did you do it as a way to get back at your ex?  And think about what you are saying about your ex—at least what you say in front of your teens.  Did you say that to knock the person down? Did you think about how this could affect your teen?  And if your teen pits your ex’s way of running his household against you, stick to your guns!  There’s a reason for the standards you set; remember that reason.  If you can still talk to your ex and clarify the boundaries you are each using, then take advantage of that.  Men—man up and stop using your kids against your ex-wife.  Women—stop using your kids against your ex-husband.  And kids—stop using your parents against each other.

How Teens Respond

When teens split their time between two parents, a lot of their reaction to mom and dad comes from the parents’ view of each other.  Stop badmouthing your ex in front of the kids.  What you say will form your child’s view of you, your ex, and your child himself.  But it’s not enough just to put up with the other parent—you need to give your child the structure and support that she needs.  That means setting your own standards and rules, making them clear to your teen, and consistently enforcing them.  It’s not enough just to have a conversation about rules.  Your actions and the way that you enforce the standards will affect how your teen responds to you in the future.

When I talk to the kids at Heartlight who have experienced co-parenting, they talk about how they respond well to the structure that their parents have given then.  It’s like me; I don’t like stoplights, and I don’t like stop signs, but I’d hate to live without them.  In the moment, your teen may rebel against you, your ex, and the rules each of you have set.  But Mom—stick to it. Dad—stick to it.  Eventually, your child will come back to you. At that point, it will be the relationship that you have built with your teen that will cushion the blow and help them find their way back to you.


Experimenting With Drugs

prodigalIf you’ve seen an unexplainable or drastic change in your teenager’s honesty, grades, behavior, attentiveness, or friends, it may not be hormones.  It could be that they are experimenting with intoxicating substances that are as close as your kitchen drawer, medicine cabinet or garage.

It used to be that older teens were most susceptible to drug experimentation, but kids today are experimenting earlier and earlier.  In fact, 10 to 14 year-olds are now the most likely to begin experimenting with one intoxicating substance or another.

One fad is a throwback to the 60’s hippie culture, marked by an increased popularity, availability and use of marijuana (pot), as well as the more seriously addicting 60′s drugs like heroin and LSD (acid).  Today’s pot is several times more potent than it was just a few years ago and heroin is even more accessible in some schools today than alcohol.

Illegal drugs get a lot of news coverage, but there are literally thousands of less sinister, but potentially more dangerous, ways for kids to get high, including:  potent concoctions of common household glues, solvents and aerosols, prescription pain medications like Oxycontin and Vicodin, or even some of the plants found in your yard.  Some kids even get a buzz off of massive doses of certain vitamins.

Most teens think they’re invincible, so their drug history is their badge of courage.  They learn about every source of intoxication from the Internet and then try them one after another.  So, they could be experimenting with huffing aerosol propellants, glues, gasoline, or paint.  Or, they could be crushing cold medications and sniffing them like cocaine or guzzling liquid cold medicines.  They could be taking your prescription drugs or taking nothing at all and just playing the “choking game” to get a temporary high from near asphyxiation.  Still others show their courage by experimenting with the harder drugs like ecstasy, crystal meth, crack, cocaine, LSD, or heroin, which are all highly addictive.

When Does It Start?

When I ask kids in our counseling program the age they started experimenting with drugs or alcohol, they usually report it was in the 7th or 8th grade; and some as early as the 5th grade. Most say they were introduced to drugs or alcohol when staying overnight at a friend’s home or other overnight youth event; or, at their friend’s house after school when their parents weren’t home.  Others were introduced to drugs or alcohol when attending parties … usually parties where older teens are present and parents are absent, distracted, or don’t care.

Fact is, parents today who allow their teenagers to stay overnight with friends may be putting their teen in peril.  After the parents are asleep, the kids try to outdo each other in regard to how far they will go, armed with the latest vices from the Internet.  That’s why I recommend putting a stop to slumber parties at age ten.  Stop at age 10 for a couple of years …..slumber parties where the crowd influence is greater than just sleeping at someone’s house.  From then on, the normally innocent agenda of pizza and pillow fights tends to shift to more sinister things these days.

By the time most parents first discover their child is using drugs, the child has usually been involved for several years.  But if parents can be diligent in keeping their kids from experimenting with intoxicating substances before age 14, they’ll be less likely to get started at all, so it’s important to be the most vigilant in the critical tween and early teen years.

The Addicted Teen

There’s obviously a difference between experimenting with drugs and being addicted.  However, experimenting is no less dangerous, since we hear stories every day of deaths of first-time users.  And some drugs are so addictive, that they can lead to a lifetime addiction with their very first use.

There’s nothing more gut-wrenching for a parent than to deal with their teenager’s drug addiction.  Just watch a few episodes of the show “Intervention” on television and you’ll see what dealing with an addict is like.  It’s a constant nightmare, not just for an addict, but for the entire family.  The lying, stealing, fits of anger, run-ins with the law and constant fear that the child will overdose can destroy and bankrupt a family.  And it won’t get better without treatment and ongoing support, sometimes spanning the addict’s entire life.

Sadly, each year more than a million teenagers need to go into substance abuse treatment programs.  And just like alcoholism, many of them will struggle with that addiction throughout their entire life.  That’s why it’s far better for parents to prevent kids from experimenting with drugs early on, before they get a foothold.

Why Do They Experiment?

Kids are usually motivated to experiment with drugs by curiosity and the need to fit in.  They want to try what their friends are trying, and they have a great need to belong.

Some kids experiment because they are seeking relief from anxiety or emotional pain.  In essence they are self-medicating or using drugs or alcohol to cope with the stresses they are feeling.  For instance, many kids use marijuana to reduce their anxiety, but medical studies show that the prolonged use of the drug has the opposite effect, leading to heightened anxiety, depression, nervousness, mental disorders, paranoia and panic attacks.  While some parents diminish the seriousness of use of marijuana, they should pay attention to what the National Institute on Drug Abuse says are the effects of its prolonged use.  They report it can cause, “… impaired attention, memory problems, diminished learning capacity, interference with the formation of memories and the ability to retain knowledge, a general apathy toward life events, poor coordination, diminished interpersonal skills, and poor judgment.”

Sadly, other kids experiment with drugs to tempt their fate.  Teens with more serious emotional and psychological problems turn to dangerous concoctions or massive doses of drugs as a form of “Russian Roulette.”  They reason, “If I die, then so be it.”  Not a week goes by that I don’t receive a message from a parent or grandparent, heartbroken that their teen overdosed and died.

Signs of Drug Use

There are many signs of substance abuse that a parent should watch for, but the only way to know for sure is to take your teenager to get a full-spectrum drug and alcohol test (a test for many types of drugs).  To be sure, have it done professionally by a local lab that processes tests for businesses.  Give your teen little forewarning to prepare for the test, since they can usually find ways on the Internet to falsify the results.

A substance abuse test is warranted if you see any of these signs:

Masking – you notice that they are consuming mega doses of vitamins, teas and herbs in attempt to mask drug use.

Increased lying – not just once or twice, but chronic dishonesty, especially if lying is new for your teen.

Breakdown in normal habits – drastic changes in sleep, appetite, the ability to complete schoolwork, loss of interest in things they once loved, extreme forgetfulness, and marked decrease in hygiene.

An unusual odor on clothes or in the room — frequent use of incense or deodorizers to mask the smell, frequent use of eye drops (to alleviate bloodshot eyes), extended periods locked alone in their room or the bathroom, frequent use of the garage or shed or other vacant buildings.

Change in friends – your teen exchanges healthy friendships for fierce loyalty to questionable people you don’t even know.  They may even run away, or disappear with their new friends for long stretches of time.

Stealing or sudden wealth — shoplifting, credit card abuse, valuables disappearing from the home without explanation.  Or, you may see unexplained money, jewelry, new clothes, or new gadgets from the selling of drugs (even from selling your prescriptions).

Change in schedule – up all night, or up very late at night, sleeps for days, misses work, misses appointments, wants to be on the phone late at night or regularly wants to stay overnight at a friend’s house or out camping.

Aggression, anger, mood swings, disrespect, and blaming – to an unreasonable degree, and directed against you and your family or other authorities.

Drug paraphernalia — pincers or paper clips for smoking, empty or disassembled pen cases for snorting, empty aerosol cans, burnt spoons, homemade pot pipes, steel wool, hypodermic needle parts, unknown prescription bottles, empty liquid cold remedy bottles, cold remedy blister packs, missing glues or solvents, or knives and spoons used for crushing and sniffing pills repeatedly show up in their room.

Dropping grades– lack of care for school, sports or other healthy pursuits.

Drugs May Be the Behavior Issue

It’s easy to identify bad behavior and blame drug use on teenage rebellion, but it could be that drugs are what’s affecting your child’s behavior.  The real dilemma comes from the parent not believing their child might be experimenting with or using drugs in the first place.  This is simply denial.  Until a parent understands the real possibility of drugs use — even if their teen has good Christian friends and is active in church — they won’t be able to get to the root of the problem.

You may not understand the reason your child has chosen drug use as their way to “cope” with some giant in their life, but that’s another matter altogether.  And because it is inconceivable that your child would ever do such a thing, you may fail to consider it, discuss it with him or drug test him to find out.  I’ve found that parents with kids in Christian schools are the least likely to admit their teen has a problem.  After all, they are in a “safe” environment, right?  Wrong!  Kids that have come to our program with drug issues tell me that the drug problem is more prevalent, not less, in the Christian schools they’ve attended than in public schools.

Before Counseling, Get the Drug Use Under Control

Since drug use may be the cause of behavioral issues, all the behavioral counseling in the world will have little positive effect until the drug use is stopped and the lingering effects of the drug are out of the teenager’s system.  Depending on the drug that was used, the after-effects can last several months.  That’s why at Heartlight, we require that kids with known drug dependencies first go through a separate addiction treatment program.  We cannot deal with their inner issues until the drug issues are taken care of.  Likewise, don’t attempt to get counseling for your teen until the drugs are out of their system.  It’s a waste of money and time.  The best plan is to have the two therapies work hand in hand, ensuring that the ongoing support of an Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous program continue in tandem with your teen’s counseling for emotional and behavioral issues.

If your teen is showing any of the signs I’ve already mentioned, I recommend that every few weeks, unannounced, you drug test your teen.  Make it a prerequisite for using the car.  Hold them accountable to the results, just as if a court would hold them accountable if they were on probation.  Test them even when they squeal in protest or appear disappointed that you don’t trust them.  Easy-to-use home drug and alcohol test kits can be bought in almost any drug store that can be used for regular monitoring.  And when you test them, stay in the room.  Don’t trust them to give you a valid sample.  If they are getting caught up in that culture, they’ll also know ways to get around the test and they’ll have no trouble lying to you about it.

Overall, your teenager needs to know you will do everything in your parental power to keep drugs from becoming a part of their history, even if it means putting them in an addiction treatment program or reporting them to the authorities and landing them in jail.  Better a few days in jail and a time on probation where they’ll get tested regularly, than a lifetime in the grip of drugs.

Don’t stick your head in the sand or otherwise pretend that your teen knows better than to try drugs.  If you are dealing with an out of control teen, and there have been no other traumatic events or psychological problems in your child’s life, you are most likely dealing with the effects of drugs or alcohol or other intoxicating substances in one form or another.  The sooner you know what you are dealing with, the better the chance you’ll have for finding the right kind of help for your child.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.

 


When It’s Time to Act

prodigalFor 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 you some suggestions.

First, stop what you are doing and start a new way of thinking in regard to how you are handling the situation.  Albert Einstein defined insanity as “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  If your home is feeling a little insane these days, perhaps you need to change how it operates.

Start in a new direction by first talking to others, like your friends, pastor, youth minister, your parents, your child’s teachers, and the rest of the family.  You need to gain wisdom and a sense of reality regarding the situation.  Are you blowing it out of proportion, or perhaps not even noticing how bad it has become?  Is your teenager just acting out at home, or are they behaving even worse when away from home?  People around you will know, and they can help you gain perspective.

Accepting the reality of the problem is difficult for some parents.  They won’t acknowledge it because to them it would be accepting responsibility for failure.  Others tend to see just the good and believe no wrong in their children.  They are blinded to what everyone around them can already see; that is, until it becomes a full blown crisis or tragedy.  So when you come to a right “realization,” don’t hesitate to begin your search for a resolution by validating your suspicions with those around you.  They know what’s going on and will be glad that you finally see the light.

WHAT IS AN “OUT OF CONTROL TEEN”? An out of control teenager is one who doesn’t appear to have the internal ability to function within established boundaries and rules of the home or society. Their behaviors, if allowed to continue, could have dangerous or grave consequences for them physically, for their future, or for your family.

When Is It Time to Act?

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.

STEP ONE:  INVESTIGATE

It is critical to ask questions to get to the root of what is causing your child’s change in behavior.  Is he depressed?  Is he being bullied, abused, or using drugs or alcohol?  Has a major loss happened in your family recently?  Most of the time, parents find out way too late about underlying causes of a child’s behavior.  Communication is key at this time.  If the lines of communication are down, then re-establish them—forcing communication if need be.  Require time from your child to discuss how they’re doing before you pay their next car insurance bill, give them gas money, or hand over the keys to the car.  Determine to establish the lines of communication and make sure you ask lots of questions.

Find out how your child is acting outside of the home.  Talk to your child’s teachers and coaches, kids at church, your own parents, your siblings, their siblings, your friends, their friends, their youth minister and just about anyone who has had contact with your child.  See if they have any insights into why your child’s behavior has changed.  In fact, if your teen’s friends show up at your home, don’t be afraid to ask them what’s going on.  Some will be honest, as they might be just as concerned as well.  Just make sure you ask questions, and ask everyone to be honest with you.

STEP TWO:  SET BOUNDARIES

Establish and communicate 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 feet to it to ensure that all understand those boundaries.

STEP THREE:  ESTABLISH AND ENFORCE CONSEQUENCES

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 they don’t feel singled out.

Parents today tend to be so relational that they find it hard to send a strong message to “not go this way” for fear of losing their relationship.  But what most parents don’t understand is that kids do want direction, correction and help in moving through the 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.

STEP FOUR:  GET OUTSIDE HELP

“He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.”  — Chinese Proverb 

Perhaps your child’s issues are deeper and they’ll need professional counseling or medication to get through it.  And maybe you’ll need counseling to get through it as well.  Find a good Christian counselor that specializes in teen behavior, and trust what they recommend.  If you’re going to pick and choose the counsel you receive, then you’ll 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 your 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 from something that is essential to their 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.  Don’t hesitate to hospitalize your child just because you don’t know what it is.  It’s better to be safe than sorry.

When Nothing is Working

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 time.  This is not the time to spend mulling over where your parenting has gone wrong.  It’s time for action, when your child could damage his life and possibly make choices with grave consequences.  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.

A therapeutic program or facility away from home will get them away from their peers, drugs and other influences.  It will give the whole family a time of rest and regrouping.  It will offer the teen a fresh perspective and a concentrated, focused way of dealing with their issues.  Yes, it’s a “last ditch” effort, to be initiated when all other options and attempts to help your child have been exhausted, but for some kids, it can be a lifesaver.  Over the past 20 years, some 3,000 kids have come to live with us a Heartlight (http://www.heartlightministries.org) for 9 to 12 months at a time.  We daily work with them in a relational way to change their thinking and ambitions to more positive pursuits.

All therapeutic programs are not the same, and there is very little regulation or standards in therapeutic care for youth.  So do your homework.  Check out each program’s professional references.  Call the local Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any complaints.  Get a list and call the parents who have had their child in the program recently.  If the program won’t allow you to call parents, then that may be a sign to look elsewhere.  And make sure the list they supply is made up of real parents, not just people trained to convince you to enroll in that program.

A therapeutic program isn’t an easy or inexpensive option for parents.  It can cost tens of thousands of dollars.  No doubt, it will be one of the hardest decisions you’ll ever have to make.  But one statement I hear from kids and from their parents over and over is this:  “If I (they) didn’t come to Heartlight, I think I (they) would have been dead or in prison by now.” 

It’s a harsh reality to send a child off to be cared for elsewhere.  But that reality pales when you consider the possibilities or outcomes of your child’s current behavior and how such behavior could ruin his or her life.  What you are giving him or her is something that can’t be found in the current home setting.  You are loving them in a way that perhaps you haven’t loved them before.  It’s tough to think that they’ll have to miss some of their time in the local high school, and may never graduate there.  But it’s a good decision if it will save your child.

Don’t ignore what is happening in your family.  Though you undoubtedly hope it will just go away, it won’t likely do so without a major change in the way your home operates, or placement of the teen in a therapeutic program away from home, especially if the behavior has already been going on for many months.  And if you think the problem will disappear when your child turns 18, think again.  It won’t disappear; it will likely get worse and linger well into adulthood if it is not dealt with earlier.  Just envision the chaos in your home from having your teenager still living with you at age 35, either because they continue to be addicted to drugs or they can’t find a job because they were arrested and have a record.  That’s a reality in more homes today than you might imagine.

Consider this … if God’s timing is perfect, and I believe it is, these issues are happening at this time in your life for a reason.  So take advantage of it, and do what you need to do.  And know that this time of trouble will one day be over.  II Corinthian 4:17 states, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”  I would put an emphasis on “momentary.”

This struggle may last awhile, but it won’t last long – 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 therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.