LOSING THEIR WAY -- WHEN TEENS BECOME TROUBLE

January 31, 2004

 

'I should be been firmer." What parent has not said this? Or more likely, what mom, since they're the ones more often who question their methods, doubt their successes and bear the family load for the seeming failure of their children to weather the stormy passage into adulthood.

 

Especially today when the age of dependency outstrips any parent's sense of the appropriate moment for their children to be freed from our cheque books, Sunday dinners and washer/dryers. Yet we continue to quartermaster them until they're well into their 20s, and the passage is often as tortuous for mom and dad as it is for the child, so long and embedded is their relationship in dependency.

 

As a physician who has been a midwife to birthing mothers for more than 20 years, I can often spot the problem babies early on and give mom a heads-up on what could be a challenging child to raise. My job often involves finding them special services, help groups, classes in parenting skills. But for the most part, I see the love and liberalism showered on children from their doting parents, as Sammy and Shailin grow basking in parental glow until they're teens.

 

Then I watch agape as these same parents are thrown into confusion, dismay and helpless inertia in the face of the overnight transformation of their child into a pit bull.

 

Before Christmas, one of my young patients was a docile, tender girl. This month, she arrived in my office a loud, defiant, coarse, resentful harridan. She doesn't give a damn any more about her grades, or getting her assignments in on time, and takes pure pleasure in yelling back at her "nagging hag" of a mother. Her friends are equally rude and mom wonders if they are all using drugs.

 

That same mother reports nightly shouting, punctuated by sullen silence and endless forbidden hours on a cellphone or the latest distraction, MSN.

 

Mom asks anyone who will listen for advice. "How do I get her to take me seriously?" she said to me. "Where did my lovely daughter go and how did I miss it?"

 

For other teenagers, the anger is the outer face of depression. One of my patients brought in by her mother had been "given up" by her sister for cutting herself. I don't mean accidentally, but deliberately. The younger sister couldn't bear keeping the secret she had been sworn to; anything could trigger an eruption -- a bad grade, a fight with mom, a stormy day. Then her sister would retreat to her room, cut herself in front of her little sister's horrified eyes, and coolly shut the door.

 

In my office, sitting with her mother and younger sister, this apparently sullen young woman looked just plain sad to me, and the reason for it became clearer as we talked.

 

She had been the victim of some school bullying the year before while she was on an official school trip. The teachers had come down hard on the perpetrators, giving them a public dressing down and obtaining an apology. But, of course, it didn't end there. Resentments on both sides continued to seethe. This year, a vicious e-mail was sent around, author unknown. One of the girl's computer friends traced the original e-mail back and found it likely came from the same girls who bullied her on the trip. But this time around, as I look at the victim, it's clear she feels vulnerable and unprotected, her parents helpless to prevent the pain she's enduring.

 

And so she cuts herself and watches her grades fall like a stone.

 

Stories like this are no longer a rarity, and the solution to this teenager's terrible fear will involve more than a therapist. It needs to include the school, and address the larger issues of bullying in this new and pervasive form of techno-hazing.

 

One new source of help is created by cyber-bullying expert Bill Belsey. He believes that this is at a tipping point, posed to grow even faster than e-mail, because of the availability of photo cellphones with instant messaging. Now your girl doesn't have to be sitting at home on her computer in order to be bullied; she just has to carry a cellphone.

 

But lord help you if one of your kids is the perp in these cases, and not the victim.

 

"What can I do?" the distraught mother of a cyber-bully asks.

 

"Whatever I f-ing well please," comes the reply between them in my office.

 

But if these teens -- victim and bully both -- are feeling too much of everything already; doubts about passing, needing to belong, unsafe or unsure of their sexuality, then the appeal of the pack becomes very strong. For lots of kids, it's much more potent and attractive than anything offered at home.

 

Counsellors tell parents that their kids must accept the consequences for their behaviours that result in failure at school, parental censure and even police action. That's tough advice for loving parents who are already collapsing under the guilt they carry for the pain and failure of their children.

 

"Consequences" often mean they won't make it through high school, at least not in the painless, predictable way parents would wish, remembering their own growing up. For some children, invariably from "good families," consequences could mean police charges, plus the embarrassment as mom and dad disclose the turmoil of the not-so-perfect family to their closest friends.

 

But "consequences" also mean dismantling the computer. Cutting off the cellphone. It means standing in the face of your teen's fury as he's looking down on you or punching out the wall. Having been there with a towering, shouting teen myself, I learned that tactical withdrawal for both of us to cool down was essential. It wasn't a retreat. It was a strategic feint and regroup for a prescribed 10 minutes. I also learned to give myself an out. Even if I knew the answer was a flat "no," I learned to say, "I'll think about it." The gesture was enough to stop the escalation of warring words.

 

But what happens if parents deliver their own children up to "consequences?" What if their kids have to leave school as a result? Or worse, leave home? What if they have to face criminal charges because we don't save them?

 

One of the greatest assurances I have to offer these parents of babies I've delivered is that they never have to apologize for loving their kids. And for the most part, these parents have almost inexhaustible supplies of love to offer. I'm also blessed --- as many family doctors are -- with seeing the huge majority of even the most intransigent kids return not only to earth, but to home, as young adults in their 20s. And that return in those years permits the redress of the time lost from their teens.

 

For some teens, the chaos of home is what drives them out. But for others, home is unfortunately too seductive a nest. So finding their own way, even at such pain, is the necessary path.

Dr. Jean

Marmoreo

 

Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.