When we first hold our newborns, their whole life, all the possibilities, flash through our minds.
Will she be a dancer? Will he be a jock? I want her to do this. He needs to be like this. As our children grow, we are able to live out those dreams for our children with them for a while. Young children are only too happy to do what Mommy and Daddy ask. Life is good. Your family is just like you have always imagined. Everybody has his or her script and is following along perfectly.
Then in the teen years, something happens…
All of a sudden, seemingly overnight, everything changes. Someone is no longer following the script! Instead of a perfect princess, I now have an alien from outer space at the breakfast table. How did this happen?
When you wake up and discover that your teenager is not as you have always dreamed, the first question should be, “Is this a bad thing?” Seriously, just because it is not how you want it to be, is this the worst thing that could be happening? Is your teen making decisions that are having a negative impact on her life and future, or are they just not the decisions you want her to make?
If you are honest and the answer to this question is that your teen is making decisions appropriate for an immature adolescent to make – maybe not the ones you would like – then you need to relax. An intense desire to control a teen and mold them into your dream for them could provoke them to anger and full blown rebellion if you don’t lighten up a bit. That is not where you want to go nor will it accomplish what you intended. Instead of pulling them, find ways to encourage them in the right direction.
On the other hand, if your teen is spinning out of control and making self-destructive choices, that is a different situation altogether. It is time to take decisive action on their behalf. The first step should be to identify a specific situation that was the turning point in your teen’s behavior, like the death of a parent or a divorce or even an inappropriate sexual encounter in childhood. This is where you need to start with a counselor. The emotions wrapped up in such an event, exploding to the surface in the years of emotional adolescence, could be triggering your teen’s current inappropriate behavior.
Divorce, illness, job transfer, death, abuse, bullying — just about anything can trigger a change in your teen’s behavior, even the transition into adolescence itself.
But don’t assume that you know what the triggering event is. Only a professional counselor can bring that to the surface. It may not be what’s obvious. In fact, the obvious may just be a cover-up and a fallback position for your teen to hide behind. It could actually be something that your teen is keeping hidden. Something done by her or to her that is so personal that she would never dream of telling anyone about it, not even you.
Teens have not learned the skills to appropriately deal with all their emotions (especially the really intense emotions of anger, pain and loss). They’ll do whatever pops into their heads (or whatever their peers encourage them to do). They’ll take advantage of anything that is available to help dull their pain — including alcohol, drugs, cutting, eating disorders, and sex. Of course, this is not dealing with their pain. This is stuffing it into a box that will explode and take them even deeper when it does.
When parents try to eliminate the outward indicators of pain — drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual promiscuity — they are just taking away their teen’s coping mechanisms. That’s why intervention for these outward indicators, along with therapy relating to the deeper inward issues of loss and pain, is often necessary. The counselor will have to determine which is dealt with first, the cart or the horse.
Parent, I know you are crushed by your own emotions from this turn of events. But don’t let that ruin your other relationships. Don’t let it change the way you are parenting your other children (unless the change is good) nor let it strain your marriage. Find a friend to talk to and seek ways to reduce your stress, so the problem doesn’t spread through the family like a flu virus. It may be a good idea to get some counseling yourself. You’ll be no help to your teenager or could even make matters worse if you are always on pins and needles yourself.
When something devastating occurs within a family or to the teenager herself, or if there is some perceived or hidden loss that could affect your teenager in the future, I strongly recommend seeking professional help to work through the pain and anger that may come. Refusing to deal with these emotions in a healthy way will lead to more pain and anger and a full blown spin-out. It’s never too late to get help, but getting it sooner rather than later can save a lot of heartache for everyone.
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. Here you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens App, a great way to listen on your schedule.