Reining in an out-of-control teen

When there is open communication with our kids, the willingness to do what it takes to help them make better choices and a plan, there is hope.

Rebellious teen and worried mother (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Rebellious teen and worried mother (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
I met this family a month ago, in our first counseling session together. The mother had approached me about her fear for her 14-year-old daughter. She told me she was hanging out with the wrong crowd, smoking cigarettes, drinking, going late to school and acting disrespectfully at home.
We met a week later and the mother explained that everything had dramatically improved. She had taken her daughter to the beach and had a long talk with her.
The daughter admitted that her life was out of control and that she couldn’t avoid getting into trouble when she was around her crowd of friends. Her mother did not criticize her for her behavior, and found herself crying and asking what she could do to make it better.
When her daughter told her she missed her old town, her mother decided to move back to the city they had moved away from two years earlier, where the extended family lived and her daughter had a good group of friends. Immediately there were changes. Her daughter stopped hanging out with her new group of friends and the risky behaviors stopped.
We discussed what had happened and the value kids find in being truly listened to by their parents. The daughter told us about her closest friend, who acts out all the time and almost died of alcohol poisoning. This friend smokes pot with her mother, who allows her to stay out as late as she wishes and doesn’t check up on her.
The daughter agreed that often kids go out of their way to startle their parents just to get attention. I shared with her one of my mottoes – that kids have many friends but only two (and at most four) parents. They need their parents to guide them, not to be their friend.
The father’s biggest concern was that they would move back to their former town and the daughter would revert to her old risky behaviors. She is the only child in the family and no holds are barred when it comes to devoting attention and funds toward improving her well-being. This included traveling over an hour to consult with me. They pay a lot of money to provide their daughter with Skype tutoring on many subjects.
My suggestions were the following: Don’t leave anything up to chance. Prepare in advance.
Make sure all the bases are covered. What groups can she join to assure her new and meaningful relationships and activities? The daughter became excited, telling us that her friend from early childhood is in the Scouts, which she would love to join.
Next I asked her what she could do to give to others, knowing that when we focus on others we tend to take better care of ourselves. She explained that another friend is in a leadership group called madatzim, and that she would call to ask her how to join.
Then we moved on to physical activity. A recent article in Scientific American explains how exercise improves memory, moods and test scores, in addition, of course, to keeping you in good physical shape. Her mother mentioned that her daughter had been asking about swimming and made a note to call about setting her up with a swim team.
I told the mother that it was important that her daughter take the initiative with whatever ideas we had come up with – she should make the calls, set up the appointments and share what she had learned with her mother. The more our kids invest in making things happen, the more apt they are to follow through. The daughter commented that the pool was right next to her grandmother’s apartment, and it would give her a chance to be with her whenever she had swimming lessons.
Next we spoke about spirituality. I explained that this was not about being religious, but about understanding that there is a power greater than us, that we are never alone and that what we do matters to the universe. This can sometimes stop us from making bad choices.
I also suggested suspending the Skype tutoring and replacing it with an actual person. I explained that a physical tutor will most likely become a friend, confidant and mentor if the right one is chosen.
Lastly we spoke about the relationship between the parents. I asked them which day a week was their date night. They looked at each other, then at me, and said, “We don’t do that.”
Everybody knows that when the kids come, parents tend to stop thinking of themselves as lovers, as a couple – we become mom and dad, providers and caretakers.
There are many aspects of being a role models for our kids. Allowing them to see that you can be married for a long time and still be affectionate and enjoy each other’s company is very important.
The daughter smiled and the mother commented that her daughter often encouraged them to hug each other in front of her. I explained that kids want their parents to love each other. There is an old cliché: What’s the best present a father can give to his children? To love their mother. They laughed and agreed that they need to spend private time with each other, and looked at their daughter as she laughed and agreed.
I concluded the session by giving the daughter a “Keep it Green” assignment. I asked her to write down all of the experiences she had since she began making bad choices. To remember how it got started, how the risky behaviors increased, what caused her to go from one extreme to another. I asked her to make sure to write all of the bad things that happened to her and her friends during the past year and to use this account to remind her what her life would be like if she reverted to these behaviors.
At this point her mother began to cry, remembering the past year when her daughter was out of control and wouldn’t listen to her. She shared with her daughter that it was the worst time of her life. Her daughter looked at her and said, “I regret it all, mom and it won’t happen again.”
When there is open communication with our kids, the willingness to do what it takes to help them make better choices and a plan, there is hope. Not many families can pick up and move away, but all of the other ideas can be just as easily implemented at home.
The writer is an addiction counselor for teens, young adults and parents, and is the founder of the Sobar alcohol- free live music bar project for teens and young adults.,