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 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 it is 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 at Heartlight (www.heartlightministries.org) for 9-12 months at a time. We work with them daily 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 Corinthians 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 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 four grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.
His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.