Stuck: Hold On, Or Let Go?

“Your son has the chance to wise up now or pay the costs later.  Should he choose the latter, there is nothing you, as a parent, can do except get out of the way.”

-Dr. Kane

My Dear Readers,

One of the most stressful phases of parenting is adolescence. From time to time, the parent must become a bystander and watch the adolescent struggle in their journey, learning how to either sink or swim.

Below is such a story………

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Dear Dr. Kane,

My husband and I have two children. Our daughter attends college out of state, and our 15 year-old son attends a private high school here in Bellevue.

Our son is a good boy, but my husband and I are at our wits end.  We are proud of his maturity and the fact that he can hold his own in interactions with young adults.  However, he constantly makes poor decisions. Last year, he was suspended from school for selling marijuana to a minor. This summer, as my husband and I were about to embark on a cruise, we were notified that after dropping us off at the port, my son and his friend was in the dining room rolling marijuana cigarettes and smoking it in our home.

Recently, I woke at two in the morning to find that my son and his friend who had slept over were not in the house and our car was gone.   I texted my son and ordered him to come home immediately.  He did, but I later learned that he and his friends had taken the car on at least three other occasions while we were asleep.

On one of these occasions, we found that he had a one-car accident where he actually damaged one of the tires on the car.  He and his friends replaced the damaged tire with the spare and for the last several weeks, my husband and I have been unknowingly driving long distances without a spare tire.  We grounded him for a month and have now decided not to allow him to get his driver’s license.  We have taken his cell phone away so that he can’t talk to his friends.

We have taken him to a counselor, but I believe that he’s been running games on her the same way he’s been doing with us.  I am very angry and frustrated.  I can’t trust him.  He lies so well and so easily, I can tell whether he is telling the truth or lying.

Like I said earlier, we are at our wits end.  I believe the problem is the kids he associates with.  He refused to give me the names of those who have been with him during those times he took the car.

He has now started his sophomore year in high school.  Although neither the parents nor the school pressed charges for the marijuana sale, my son is now being forced to attend a public high school where he will be exposed to rougher kids and could be led into more poor decisions.  The counselor indicates that those poor decisions are because he is distressed.

We have resorted to hiding the keys to the car.  I hope you can provide guidance and direction for us.  We have provided him with resources and it does not appear to improve anything.

Bellevue Mother (Bellevue, WA)

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My Dear Woman,

I appreciate you writing to me.  To start, I would want to examine more in detail what the counselor means by he is distressed and making poor decisions.   For example:

  • Is his behavior a consequence of being ejected from the private school environment?
  • Is he responding to loss of peer friendship and as a result, acting out?
  • Is he having adjustment issues regarding settling into the culture/community of public school where he may feel more vulnerable than in the private school setting?

The answers to these questions may help you understand the specific issues your son may be responding to. However, these do not justify his actions or behavior.  There is no indication from your letter that he cannot distinguish right from wrong.  From what I can see, your son is simply doing what he wants to do.  

There is a phenomenon that happens during adolescent development that I call parentally stuck: where a child may exhibit inappropriate actions that the parents recognize as the same actions they had when they were adolescents. As a result, the parent may allow some leeway, thinking that with some reasonable discipline and consequences, the problem will resolve itself.

If you’re parentally stuck, the parent may say:

  • “I was the same way when I was at that age.”
  • “He/she will grow out of it.”
  • He/she is young, just trying to find him/her self.”

Parents may want to resolve the problem by:

  • Providing additional resources and activities,
  • Allowing more freedom and independence, and
  • Relaxation of rules, boundaries or guidelines

When I was young, it was not uncommon to allow an adolescent to have a few friends at the home where alcohol was being consumed and controlled under the watchful eye of a parent.  However, today’s parents appear to be more liberal and understanding:  Here are some of my favorites:

  • Movie night”-The parent whom allowing her 16 year old son, in exchange for using condoms, allowing her son to use the house when he wanted to engage in sexual intercourse with his girlfriend. (Outcome: The girlfriend gets pregnant.)
  • Staying in range”- the parent who allows her teen daughter’s boyfriend to move into her bedroom so the parent does not lose connection with the daughter. (Outcome: The daughter becomes pregnant, the boyfriend refuses to go to work.  The mother works two jobs to support her “new” family.)
  • The Cool Parents”-parents who smoke marijuana with their son and his friends so they can be part of their child’s life. (The home, located in a middle class neighborhood, becomes known as the “dope house,” with numerous teens coming and going.)

Being parentally stuck occurs when the parents realize that these strategies are failing and are unable to pull them back due to them essentially normalizing the behavior. Here are some recommendations to resolve being parentally stuck:

  • Accept the reality that as parents, we all make mistakes in using specific strategies.
  • Understand the parental role of providing guidance, discipline and boundaries.
  • Stop attempting to be friends with your adolescent. Parents, not friends, have a stake in the adolescent’s future.
  • As the adolescent moves to adulthood, be willing to transform your own role from that of director, supervisor and manager to those of an advocate, guide and consultant.

In this specific situation, your son not only shows a lack of concern for his own well-being, but for yours as well.   Should your son, who is unlicensed, be involved in an accident, you will be held responsible for his actions and financially liable for the damages and destruction committed by him, since he is a minor.

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Concluding Words

My Dear Woman,

The consequences you have put in place are ineffective, since they are short term and have little to no impact on him.   Hiding the keys from your son doesn’t help him make positive decisions and prevent negative consequences.   It may be time for more direct action that will impact his thinking and focus his attention on his own behavior.

In situations such as this, I have recommended that law enforcement be notified. In one such situation, the son had been hitting his mother since he was 12 years old.  Since he could not be persuaded to stop this behavior in therapy, I recommended that the mother notify the police and have her son arrested for domestic violence, serve jail time, do community service, and most importantly, participate in domestic violence counseling. There was no repeat of this behavior.

I have yet to meet a parent who has positive feelings about calling law enforcement when the adolescent is involved in criminal behavior.  However, please be aware that every day that you don’t do this, you are rolling the dice and hoping that your son does not engage in actions which will leave you with the financial liability, or worse, will result in his injury or death.

I deem it as a plus for an adolescent to have contact and involvement with the juvenile justice system rather than the adult correction system.  In juvenile correction systems, there are trained professionals who specialize in understanding adolescent development and behavior.  One cannot say the same for the adult correction system. The prison yards are filled with young fresh meat.  Your son does not have to be the next meal waiting to be chewed up in the correctional system.

Dr. Micheal Kane  …The Visible Man

 

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