June 25, 2005


You may think you'll never survive your child's teenage years. Especially if your child is a boy and his modus operandi involves drinking, taking drugs, skipping school and giving the finger to life's mundane routines.


As parents, some of us obliged not to engage. Yet their behaviour infuriates us -- daring us to lash out, making us feel impotent and helpless.


But if they're to survive their teens, these boys must learn to come to terms with their aggression.


Even Dr. Phil believes that the large majority of parents have no strategy in place to raise their kids, let alone aggressive kids.


I recently sat down with one of my patients who has two boys six years apart. The younger is 17, and dealing with his behaviour consumes all her energy. We talked about the differences between her boys and how she has adapted to raising them as a single parent. I asked when she first knew they were very different stripes in the same fabric.


"When he was three days old, he vomited blood. You had a clinic that Saturday morning and we raced down to have him checked out. The doctor on call didn't so much check him out as she did me, specifically my breast, and she pointed out the chewed nipple. That's how strong his suck was and after that it was a constant chase to keep him satisfied. His brother had never done anything like that. Even while he was losing weight initially, he never complained."


The distinction between him and his quiet brother became clearer as they grew up. He never backed down, he expressed his opinions early and often.


By Grade 2, he was in constant battle with his teachers, who suggested that he be put in a behavioural class after he peed up against a school wall at recess. While his mother prepared to thwart this idea, a kindly social worker offered the name of a counsellor. The school assumed that the death of his father a year or so earlier was the obvious source of his defiant behaviour. Even his mother believed that it was some diversion of his grief and anger into his manifest "pissing on the rules."


But the counsellor provided mom with the first solid reassurance that her boy wasn't the problem. She advised the mother to move her son out of the school.


But managing his aggression remained an issue. So mom decided to enroll her son in karate.


After an initial flurry of classes, she realized the discipline to achieve a black belt, to build his skills step by step, was lost on him. "I understand now how a teenager's brain functions," she said. "He lacks a normal sense of time. When he says I shouldn't worry, that everything's under control, he really believes it and he isn't aware that the control demands that he spend some time studying or doing the assignments or just getting to class.


"In the last three months, I think he's missed 22 classes. I get an auto-generated voice mail every day from his school saying:'A student named (insert name) has been absent from period two, five, nine. Please contact (insert vice-principal) re class attendance.' This is the biggest drain on my energy, the amount of time it takes to talk to this boy and ensure that neither of us shuts down."


In her professional life, my patient is a communications consultant. But her ceaseless focus on her younger son makes her understand all she had missed with her older one -- the non-verbal, and for the most, part stone-faced one. It was clear that depression held him down. But trying to divine the root cause of his difficulty left her listening to her own solitary echo.


The fact that he never, never acted out misled her about how deep his troubles went.


Dinner time in their home was always important. But today, the chance to "really talk" over a meal disappears as mom becomes a short-order cook when her younger son turns up late and asks if she will whip up some food for him. Still, over a BLT, every missed class, every outing with his buddies, is raised. "Your job is going to school," mom says. "My job is helping you do your job."


Her greatest influence came from reading Getting to Yes by Robert Fisher because it helped her understand how an issue can be separate from a person rather than the person being the problem. Not that it always worked.


Driving him home from school during one of their many arguments, his mother threatened to lock up his guitar -- as a lesson in consequences and because she couldn't think of any other way to get through to him. Guitar is his passion and when threatened with its removal, he lost his cool, pounding the dash with his fists and making his mother pull the car over until he calmed down. That was his only death threat, directed at himself, not his mother, but it is his wall; his mother respects it and doesn't hang it over his head.


The mom firmly maintains that her son's aggression requires management, not suppression, and that on reflection aggression is easier to tangle with than silence.


In the same way, she knew that forbidding her son's use of marijuana just wouldn't work. So she opted for a different strategy of harm reduction. She was clear and consistent in her observations about its effects on his concentration and his inability to finish assignments.


His recent 17th-birthday party provided a different sort of learning curve. He wanted to plan it himself, invite his own friends, have the house to himself. They discussed the issue of booze and drugs and how he would control them. He was confident. So mom and her date went to an early movie and then out for dinner. "We called as the movie was out and all was well."


But 20 minutes into dinner, the call came. Things were okay, but the police had been called. The house was being swarmed. Six police cruisers surrounded the house as they drove up.


The lessons even in this event are real for parents.


Give a lot of rope, and lots of responsibility. Discuss scenarios that more mature experience can predict. Involve a group of attendees who all have some ownership of the event or task.


Finally, be there. Maybe not on site but available and ready to react, to muster support, to provide essential and necessary back-up.


My patient learned all these lessons on her own. Her energy is constantly drained. Yet her mentor and model, though she doesn't know it, is another indomitable scrapper: Winston Churchill, who said, "Never, never, never give up!"

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.