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Taking back control for the good of our kids

We cannot force our kids to take a different path, but we can do two important things.

Photo Credit: INGIMAGE

In working as a counselor for troubled youth over the past 25 years, I have found that the only way to assist the children, no matter their age, is through the parents.

When I worked at the Grove treatment center in Florida many years ago, if the parents didn’t commit to coming to the parent support group twice a week, we would not take their children. Once a week, we had a group with only the parents. We explained about the disease of addiction so they could understand their kids better. The other meeting was for family therapy.

The family therapy was done via a system called “fish bowl.” We would choose one family to work with, and they would sit with two of the primary counselors in the middle of the room. Surrounding them was a large circle of all of the other families, including the other kids in treatment at the Grove.

As the family worked with the counselors, the other parents were free to intervene to provide support.

Whenever the kid in the middle was less than honest about his past drug and alcohol use or about his present attitude toward his treatment, the other kids in treatment with him called him on it. This had a profound effect on the therapeutic process.

As we all know, the last thing our teens want is to be honest with us about their condition. They will hide it as best as they can so we won’t insist that they make changes and get the help they need. Unfortunately for them, we are not blind. We see what is going on, even if we don’t want to. No matter what the issue is – be it stealing, an eating disorder, substance abuse, gambling, sex abuse, anger or anything else – the actual “acting out” is only 10 percent of the problem.

The other 90% is the behaviors around the acting out that take over their lives and often ours.

We often hear of addicts switching drugs, going from pot smokers to drinkers, to gamblers, etc.

This is because the drug or dysfunctional action of choice is the result of something much deeper. Using replacement substances and actions allows them to avoid dealing with the actual issue. One feels better at the time, using the dysfunction of choice for the immediate gratification. Unfortunately, when they are done using whatever it happens to be, the problem is greater, as is their inability to deal with it.

The reason substance abusers tend to be emotionally immature for their age is that their emotional growth stops when they first pick up their substance of choice. How does one grow emotionally? Through handling difficult situations, not by running away.

As mentioned above, it does not need to be actual mood-altering substances. It could be any unhealthy behavior that stunts their emotional growth. The expression “dry drunk” refers to drinkers who stop drinking but maintain all of the unhealthy behaviors they had when they were using alcohol as an escape.

The anger and irritability, lack of motivation, unrealistic fears, lack of follow-through, lack of patience, easy frustration, inflated ego, deflated self-esteem, and other behaviors may well remain unless the original issues are dealt with.

And the pain connected with the issues – that is something they will have to be willing to feel. There is generally little growth without some sort of pain or fear, and as we all know, pain and fear can be a healthy thing. We know that the outcome is strengthening our emotional muscles, so that next time we will make better choices.

SO BACK to us as parents. How can we help our kids grow and make positive changes? We start off by helping them to see the problem and then holding them accountable for their choices, helping them to think twice about what direction they take. As I have mentioned in previous articles, letting our kids take total responsibility over their health if they are dysfunctional in any way is like giving a 10-year-old keys to a car. They are not capable of being in the driver’s seat, and as much as they protest, they want us to take those keys away.

How many times have we seen a two-year-old screaming and crying in public, the parents doing whatever they can to quiet the child down at any cost? It makes us wonder who is the parent. But then we go home and allow our kids to dictate whom they hang out with, what their curfew is, how they dress, when they get up in the morning, and even what therapist or other professional they see, without our input, when we are the one paying the fee.

We cannot force our kids to take a different path, but we can do two important things.

One is to be consistent with our messages to them. They might not listen at first, but if we say the same thing over and over, it can’t help but sink in eventually.

The other is consequences. There are natural consequences and applied consequences. A natural consequence would be something like: If you cross the street on red, you might get hit by a car. The applied consequence would be getting a ticket.

The most effective consequences are those applied quickly after the infraction and related to the infraction.

Once again, no matter the age, if your kids live with you, they are accountable to your rules and consequences. For example: Come home late, and you can’t go out the next night; go out anyway, and (if over 18) you get locked out; come home drunk or stoned, you’re grounded for a week (if it happens often, see a counselor to have the child evaluated).

If they’re over 18 and living at home and not doing anything, discuss some short-term and long-term goals, and discuss rewards and consequences for reaching or not reaching them – including no longer being welcome to live at home, not being allowed to have friends over, no computer use, etc.

For a dress-code infraction, they might lose favorite outfits for a month; for phone infractions, they might lose the phone for a period of time.

Bottom line, it is up to us to dictate appropriate behaviors in our homes and to alert our children that we have a responsibility to put a mirror in front of their faces. We need to show them that not only do we see the troubles they are dealing with, it affects all of us, and we will not give up until we find a way together to redirect them so that the outcome will be in their and everyone else’s favor.

We need to show that we have the power to make a difference in their lives, even if it takes longer than we would have hoped and causes us to feel uncomfortable – and that we will insist on helping them because they mean that much to us.

Tracey Shipley CAAP, counsels teens, young adults and parents in Jerusalem, and is the founder of the Sobar Music Center Project (Facebook: Sobar Jerusalem).
She can be reached at 054-810-8918, jerusalemteencounseling@gmail.com, and on her web site.