I earned an undergraduate degree in Theology from a small Christian college in Canada. During my freshman year there, I and three other men went into the main women’s dorm in the middle of the night and played a very messy practical joke on them. Everyone on campus noticed this bit of tomfoolery –which, of course, was our goal–and the Dean of Women wanted to take severe action against us perps.
So as not to cause more trouble on campus, we turned ourselves in. The Dean of Women wanted the four of us expelled. But the Discipline Committee of the school opted for another approach. We would clean up our mess and keep cleaning other parts of the campus to a total of 40 hours work each. And we were to receive a “stern lecture from a chosen staff of professors and college leaders“.
The panel designated to deliver the “stern lecture” was made up of the Academic Dean, the Dean of Students, a church history teacher, and a wizened theology prof who had two doctorates. They were an ominous and scary tribunal. The four of us had trouble making eye-contact with this panel. After entering the room, the Dean of Students looked at us, shaking his head. Then he addressed us:
“Boys, you made a huge mistake this week.” We all dutifully agreed by nodding our heads.
“You should never have turned yourselves in!”
Then, the four of them proceeded to tell us about practical jokes they had played during their college years. For an hour, we were entertained by the exploits of these respected gentlemen as they told us about their own memorable pranks. They spoke of dismantling cars and reassembling them in libraries. They described using winches, ropes, gears, pullies, chicken feathers, tar, car engines, duct tape and firecrackers to pull their pranks.
At the end, they made their main point. The four of us had had our fun; now it was time to consider putting that phase behind us and grow up. It was a good point. I think all four of us could look at the results of our freshman year and come to the same conclusion. We had not put a lot of academic effort into our time there thus far.
One of the men on the panel came to me after and asked if he could help in any way. My father had died when I was 16 and I really did miss having an older man to mentor me. I asked if he could help in that way. He agreed. Over the next two years, we met weekly in his office in the basement of the library. He helped me in academic ways–writing papers, understanding grammar, time management–but also in life skills. I remember the day he bought me a stick of deodorant and highly encouraged me to use it daily.
I may never have married if it wasn’t for him.
My brother, sister and I made our way through life without a father during the last half of our teen years. By age 18, I was living on my own. I am proud of how I was able to find a path for life when many obstacles stood in my way. Yes, I made a lot of mistakes that could have been avoided with some good paternal advice. But, I did have God helping me as well, so I can’t claim all the credit.
But it could have been easier with a father there during the crises. I feel this way about many of the teens I see for counseling. If their parents walked with them through life’s dangerous turns, without over-reacting to crises, then teens are often more successful.
Almost anyone can parent a teen when there is no crisis. It’s the same as saying that marriage is easy if you have no conflict. But every teen has crises, either real or contrived. And they all feel real to teens.
There are those days when a teen admits they are suicidal.
Or when a daughter comes home and tells mom she has missed her period for two straight months.
Or when the smell of marijuana, whiskey, or cigarettes is too strong to ignore (and for some reason, teens don’t think that parents can smell).
Or when the phone call from school comes saying your teen has not attended a single class in a week, is missing all the assignments in English, punched out a fellow student in Phys-Ed, bragged about having sex with a classmate, and didn’t pay for class pictures (even though you gave them the money).
Or, when your teen tells you that you are the worst parent in the world and doesn’t come home from school that day.
You want to be their mentor, friend and guide–not their warden and executioner. But when the crisis starts, it seems you have become enemy #1. If you are following what I am writing so far about Respectful Parenting, you probably realize that this approach is easy when there are no crises. But I have had several people predict the technique fails when a teen blows everything up.
How do you do Respectful Parenting during a crisis?
Before I had kids, I was privileged to be in a friendship with Dr. John White, author of over 30 books on psychology, counseling and Christianity. Dr. White was the department chair at the University of Manitoba School of Medicine responsible for training psychiatrists. He also was a pastor of a church a block away from the church I pastored.
Inexplicably, this famous older man befriended me during our first year in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I learned so much from John. It was during those years there that Dr. White came out with his book, “Parents in Pain.” This was an autobiographical book, telling the story of how both his boys became drug addicts during their teen years. Here he was, a well-loved pastor, college professor, psychiatrist and author, and both his teens went off the rails into drugs. In the first chapter of this book, he makes this observation:
“God had two children–Adam and Eve–and both of them rebelled and made a mess of life. How can we as human parents expect to do much better than God? God is not responsible for the sins of Adam and Eve, and neither are we parents responsible for the mistakes of our children.”
This statement emphasizes the first critical need when helping teens through their crisis. Learn this truth: parents, it is not your fault. The crisis was created by the teen and their cohort. You did not cause the crisis and you, ultimately, cannot solve it. The teen must put the effort in, or your efforts are useless.
What this means is not jumping in too early to rescue them. Let them sort the options through for awhile. At the very least, let them know you’re there to help them process the problem. But don’t immediately offer solutions. It is in the process of panic, retrenching, seeking resources and answers, and final execution that we all learned to grow through life’s difficulties.
Also parents, resist the temptation to read too much meaning into a child’s failure. Unfortunately, parents like to extrapolate one event into an entire predictive future. One drunken experience suggests to a parent the teen will grow up to be an alcoholic. Or if a teen shoplifts, parents fear they will adopt a life of crime and delinquency. But resist that fear and remember that you had many preteen years to teach them right and wrong. Those teachings will not be forgotten overnight, no matter how many experiments the teen tries.
And even if the teen does grow up to become a failure at life, that still is not the parent’s fault. David Sheff, in his autobiographical book on his son’s Meth addiction “Beautiful Boy”, tells how he and his ex-wife worked through the process of watching their son’s life fall apart. At one point, Sheff blames himself and the divorce for causing the addiction. But when his son went to his third treatment center for meth addiction, part of the healing process was having the parents meet with a counselor. The counselor asked each of them who they thought was to blame for the problems Nic was having with meth. They both blamed themselves. Then they blamed their marriage. Each of them blamed their new spouses as well.
The counselor let them go through this blaming process for a long while. Then, he looked at them and said “No. You have just told me all the people who are not to blame. Only one person is responsible for Nic’s addiction and his descent into hell. That person is Nic.”
It is fascinating to read the other side of this story. Nic Sheff himself also wrote a book about his addiction called “Tweak”. Nic observes many times how he would blame his family and friends for his drug use. But he finally realizes that he himself is responsible for all the garbage in his life. He also realized at one point how badly his family suffered because of him. These are his words from an article in “Fix” Magazine:
“Because, something that does truly make my situation unique, is that, unlike with most addicts, my dad actually wrote a whole book (that is, a New York Times #1 bestselling book) about his experience with his drug addict son. So, uh, I got to read in detail about how my addiction had nearly destroyed his life and his marriage and the lives of my little brother and sister. I got to read, along with a lot of other people, just how much my actions really did affect the people that loved me.
It was super f****** intense. I remember when I got my first copy of the book, I could only read like three pages at a time ‘cause it was so painful and embarrassing.”
Then later in that same article, this is what he says he would do if one of his children was an addict:
“And, if I were to have a child of my own one day who was struggling with addiction, I’d like to think I’d do the same thing for him that my dad did for me—not necessarily write a book about him or anything like that but just telling him the truth about how he was affecting me and my family. Because really, trying to “protect” an addict from the truth is like nailing up their coffin. I’ve seen it before, with the parents of addicts who refuse to ever acknowledge the problem. And I’ve seen those addicts die the way I’m a hundred percent sure I would have, too, if the people in my life who love me hadn’t been willing to tell me the truth about what an asshole I’d become.”
What rescued David Sheff from being defeated in working with his son in crisis was the idea that none of this was his fault: none of it. By recording his thoughts in the book, he was able to externalize the pain he was feeling. I am describing this to you so you can see that even if things turn out the worst they can possibly be, there is still hope and it is still NOT YOUR FAULT.
My wife, a school nurse, works with pregnant teens much more than she would like. It’s not that she dislikes them–she is able to bond with most of them on a deep level–it is that she knows they will face challenges their classmates know nothing about. When I asked her what the biggest fear pregnant teens have, she didn’t hesitate to answer: “They are afraid of how their parents will react.”
Of course, in today’s culture, a pregnant teen can get an abortion without informing a parent. My wife has observed there are many teens that end up getting abortions because they would rather face the pain of that procedure than the pain of their parents knowing they had become pregnant.
This underscores for me the second principle in helping teens work through a crisis: Don’t over-react when you first hear. Take a time-out. Catch your emotional breath. Let a good portion of the emotion out before talking with them. Above all, don’t say anything that will make a division in your relationship with them.
This is important because one of the first goals of helping a teen through a crisis is determining the absolute nature of the crime. There are three possibilities of the source of the problem:
- Ignorance: The teen did not see the consequences of their action before it was too late.
- Experimentation: They knew there would be consequences, but their curiosity tied to an inborn sinful nature got the better of them.
- Willful Rebellion: They knew what would happen and didn’t care.
I hope the reader can see that these sources differ greatly from each other. My experience tells me that most teen crises fall into one of the first two categories. As I said earlier, teens are inexperienced adults. They don’t know what they don’t know. But because they are abstract thinkers with strong wills, they like to pretend they know everything. I can tell you as a counselor to teens that they are actually insecure about what they don’t know. They are a basket full of insecurity. But they don’t want anyone else to know it.
In the previous article, I mentioned a young girl who had her first sexual experience and was shamed by her parents when she told them. In my interview with her, I realized it was a date rape. But she didn’t know that because not only had she never had sex before, she had never been told what she should expect in a sexual encounter. She thought her experience was normal.
When I told her why this experience is considered date rape, she had an amazing transformation. She went from being a shamed, confused teen to an angry, offended adult. It didn’t take very long either. Just having enough information to judge her own situation changed her outlook completely. I don’t think it is any coincidence that during the past decade she has worked in women’s shelters in her city. Her teen experience opened her eyes to the way that women are often hurt and exploited.
Her parents reacted quickly and wrongly. Those two results often go together. What should a parent do when they discover a child acted out of ignorance to the consequences? My experience is that the parent should either inform the child about the truth in life or get someone else to do it. And then let the teen learn their own lesson. If the mistake was one borne of ignorance, offer to help with the consequences.
How does a parent react when the child was experimenting? I believe the key here is to dialogue with them, asking if they knew what would happen. Most teens will admit they knew there might be some harsh consequences, but almost all of them will say they didn’t know it would be this bad. One of my kids experimented one night with drinking half a bottle of brandy. I happened to be awake when they got home–I couldn’t sleep because of a leg cramp–and they came in while I was massaging my calf. I could smell the brandy from about 20 feet away.
Brandy burns the gut. It is why most people sip it. This child denied completely that they had been drinking. Then, in the middle of our conversation, they threw up all over the floor. It was all i could do not to laugh. (By the way, I never claimed to be a compassionate parent. Nor have my children ever claimed this either). What bothered me the most is this child drove home with my car. I couldn’t care less that they had experimented with alcohol. But then they drove home in my car.
I did nothing that night. I sent this stomach-heaving teen to their room to sleep it off. The next afternoon, we had a long talk about what they had expected to happen. I realized quickly this was a venial sin–they had some idea of the consequences, but never knew it would be that bad.
But they also were guilty of drinking and driving. I spent 20 minutes telling them all about what might have happened with my car. I told them what would have happened to my insurance rates, to their own driver’s license. Then, my wife regaled this teen with stories of the victims of drunk drivers she had seen in the hospital over the years. By the end of her description, our teen was in tears.
I have never observed that teen drunk again. If they have, I can’t imagine they have ever got drunk and drove a car.
Oh, and that teen never drove that car again. There have to be some obvious consequences with certain misdemeanors. With ignorance, we can help them with consequences. But with experimentation, we must help them to learn the full benefit of trial-by-error. Science teachers us that experimentation is worthless if you don’t learn anything.
But willful disobedience, especially if it involves hurting others, is a different matter altogether. It must be treated with much more stringent reaction.
For several years while living in Canada, I worked for a Sexual Abuse awareness group. We educated the public on the realities of familial child abuse. One of my co-workers contacted me one evening. He was devastated. His son had been babysitting for some neighbors. The neighbor’s youngest daughter revealed to her mom that my friend’s son had sexually assaulted her while babysitting. The neighbor was horrified–as you can imagine–but they also didn’t want to go to the police.
My friend had called me because this didn’t sit right with him. He felt something more needed to be done. His son was 16 and knew the realities and wrongness of sexual abuse. His actions were evil, illegal and immoral. They could not and should not be swept under the rug. And, even though his neighbor did not want to press charges, dad decided to go to the police himself. I accompanied him and I was there when the police arrested the teen. He was put into jail, then mandatory treatment and the sex offender label. Even though he shed that label when he was 18, he had to move from our small town because everyone knew what he had done.
Even though only a small portion of teen delinquency rises to this level of wrongness, when it does, it must be treated very seriously. It is not wrong to contact police when a teen commits a crime against other people or their property. In fact, it would be wrong not to. I would love to tell you that dad’s actions solved his son’s sexual abuse problem, but I have no way of knowing that. A person has to cross so many boundaries emotionally to get to the place where they will be willing to assault another person. If there is an antidote to this, it often resides in the police or a treatment program.
Chronically suicidal teens can only be helped by having them committed under a 5150 (i.e. mandatory 72-hour hold in a treatment facility). Drug addicted teens (not experimenters) should get professional help if they will receive it. If a teen deliberately keeps hurting others through their actions, and shows no remorse, it is time for them to leave home.
But I challenge parents of teens to consider this: If you have maintained a good level of communication with your teen over the years, rarely will you see this kind of behavior. Most mistakes will be borne of ignorance and experimentation. You do not need to add extra punishment for these. Simply make them accountable for cleaning up their own mess. And like the professors who gave us the “stern rebuke”, perhaps telling them occasionally about some of your mistakes might help them see you as an ally, not an adversary.
Other Articles in this Series:
White Paper on Punishing Teens
The Basic Offenses of Teens
Teens and High School Successes (and Failures)