Category: teenagers

The Dysfunctional Family and the “Black Hole” Child

The Dysfunctional Family and the “Black Hole” Child

Many families living with the proverbial “black hole” child start to cope in unhealthy ways. Everyone gradually alters their normal behavior to avoid stress, frustration, anxiety, or anger, but these behavioral accommodations actually make things more chaotic. It’s unintentional, but parents, siblings, extended family and friends take on psychological roles, and the resulting dynamics are harmful. This is the “dysfunctional family,” and these are some common roles:

    • Protector is the emotional caregiver and defends the child regardless.
    • Rulemaker wants Protector to stop enabling the child and set boundaries.
    • Helper smooths over conflict, calms others, and sacrifices for others.
    • Loner stays under the radar for safety and manages alone.
    • Victim shows a brave face but hurts. They become depressed or addicted, or run away (mentally or physically), or act out in the community.
    • Fixer has all the answers and keeps trying to make everyone do things ‘right’.
    • Black Hole Child devours everyone’s energy, and gets trapped in their own black drama. For complex psychological reasons, they learn to manipulate, split family members against each other, and blame their disorder for behaviors they can control. Due to insecurity, they act out repeatedly to test if those they depend on still care.

If this is your family, it’s not your fault. Forgive yourself and everyone else. Families living with an alcoholic or addict behave similarly. These families can receive specialized treatment that may help your family too, but it is a difficult path, and the family must work as a team.

For a child to be well, each person around the child must be well.

First:  A stress relief meeting.  Meet together without the “black hole” child present… now is not the time to include them.  Meetings might be held with the guidance of a family therapist or support group to keep emotions safe. The goal is to ease everyone’s fears by bringing them out into the open. Each member vents their hidden feelings without attacking others.  (The troubled child should never be demonized.) Brace yourself.  You may hear upsetting things, but once feelings are out in the open, people will genuinely feel better once things calm.

It is a relief to tell your story and have someone listen and understand.

It may only take one hour, but clearing the air helps people move on. People eventually forgive, make personal changes, and start trusting each other. Parents and caregivers, you can start telling your family supportive things like: “We’ve got your back;” “We’ll take over for you if you need a break;” “We’ve got this.”

Second:  A check-in meeting. A couple of weeks later, ask how everyone is doing. What is working well? and what needs improvement? Brainstorm solutions together.

Consider future meetings as needed.  At some point, the troubled child’s own opinions will need to be woven into new family rules.  This can be very tricky.  If you feel things will get out of control, get help from a therapist for yourself or for your family.

Warning:  Once family teamwork improves, prepare everyone for an explosive defiant backlash. This is actually a good sign, so plan for it in advance. Visualize standing shoulder-to-shoulder to keep everyone safe while the child explodes.  Stick together.  The child may blow-up multiple times, but stick together.  The explosions fall off over time.  This article explains the reasons for explosive defiance when limits are firmly enforced.  It is a sign you are regaining your power.

Ultimate goal:  The child’s behavior improves!  The child stabilizes; they are surrounded by a caring but firm team that locks arms and won’t be shaken by chaos. Surprisingly, this actually helps the child feel more secure and less likely to cause distress.

How it might unfold:

  • Protector steps back; cares for themselves; and accepts that Rulemaker has some legitimate reasons for for boundaries.
  • Rulemaker steps in to help Protector as needed and gives them a break. Rulemaker and Protector work out acceptable structure and make two to three simple rules that are fair and easily enforced.
  • Helper gets a life of their own, accepts they are not responsible for everyone, and is redirected to supportive friends or activities they really like.
  • Loner and Victim need lots of support and comfort and help to meet their needs. Both may benefit from mental health treatment such as therapy and relaxation skills.
  • Fixer: withholds judgement and realizes there are no simple answers. Their education or experience does not necessarily apply to this family. They should ask how to help instead trying to make people change, and they should be gracious and supportive.

Helping a troubled child means helping the family first, and family teams are the best way.  As each member strives for a healthier role, each gets support from other family members and hears things like, “Atta girl!”, “You rock!”, “Go Mom!”. Teamwork creates therapeutic homes and strong families. Research proves that strong families lead to better lifetime outcomes for the child.

–Margaret

Comments and stories encouraged. Please rate this article.

 

Marijuana is uniquely dangerous for troubled teens

Marijuana is uniquely dangerous for troubled teens

Marijuana’s effect on adolescents is much more serious than many realize, especially those with behavioral disorders.  This is no exaggeration; marijuana can lead to psychosis and long-term cognitive impairment for your troubled child.  Numerous recent research studies show that marijuana has a more damaging effect on the young brain than is generally understood. The THC in marijuana is psychoactive, which means it can affect your child’s unbalanced brain chemistry more than the general population. Serious depression, anxiety, paranoia, and psychosis can be triggered in children with latent psychiatric vulnerabilities. (additional marijuana research going back to 2004 are at the end of this post).

Just because marijuana is plant-based does not mean it is safe.  It has dangerous side-effects like any other psychoactive drug.

Marijuana legalization has deeply concerned pediatric psychiatrists and other providers specializing in child, adolescent, and young adult mental health treatment.  Up until the their early 20’s, young people’s brains undergo radical changes as part of normal development.  Neurons are “pruned” to reduce their number (yes indeed, one can have too much gray matter to function as an adult). Pruning occurs rapidly in teenagers–think about it, in addition to puberty, a lot of nonsensical teenage behavior can be explained by this.  The THC in marijuana, the part responsible for the high, interferes with the normal pruning process.

When marijuana is ‘medicinal,’ a doctor determines a safe dose.  And when it is ‘recreational,’ there is no such limit… teen users don’t realize there should be.

Let’s talk about “dose.”  Above a certain dose, which is different for each person, THC side effects can be intolerable to lethal (if it leads to unconsciousness or triggers suicidal thoughts).

“THC is known to relieve anxiety in smaller doses and increase it in larger; this is due to its bi-phasic effects, meaning it can have two opposite effects in high doses. Furthermore, some people are genetically predisposed to experience anxiety with cannabis as a result of brain chemistry.” —–What are the Side-Effects of High THC Cannabis. Bailey Rahn, 2016

Now let’s talk about long-term.  Our troubled children are already slipping behind their peers in important ways, which can include school; emotional maturity (certainly); and physical health (such as gut and digestive problems).   Marijuana will add to your teen’s problems by causing lethargy, impaired memory, and cognitive delays.

We can’t pretend or assume marijuana is safe anymore, regardless of its legality or medicinal uses.

I found this research result extraordinarily sad:

“Increasing levels of cannabis use at ages 14-21 resulted in lower levels of degree attainment by age 25, lower income at age 25, higher levels of welfare dependence, higher unemployment, lower levels of relationship satisfaction, and lower levels of life satisfaction.”
–Cannabis use and later life outcomes.  Fergusson DM, Boden JM, Addiction;  Pp: 969-76;  Vol: 103(6), June 2008

I worked with adolescents in residential care and in the juvenile justice system who regularly used marijuana when they could.  A young man on my caseload grew noticeably depressed after he started smoking regularly, and his anxiety, irritability, and paranoia increased.  He said that smoking helped him feel better, but he couldn’t observe what I and other social workers observed over time. Smoking marijuana, ironically, was temporarily relieving him of its own side-effects.

A clarification about the two substances in marijuana – The plant Cannabis sativa has two chemicals of interest:

  1. Cannabidiol (CBD) – the molecule is considered safe for a variety of treatments, such as relief of pain and nausea, and it is approved by the American Medical Association;
  2. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the molecule is responsible for the high, and is the one that can produce psychotic symptoms, paranoia, depression, anxiety, and memory loss.

Your child’s future is already at-risk, why worsen it with marijuana use?

Please share this information with other parents.   All children need the same warnings we give about alcohol and street drugs to include marijuana.  Whether you live in a jurisdiction where marijuana is legal or not, teens can and will find it.  It may not be possible to completely prevent your troubled child from using, but your caring persistence can reduce or end its use.

–Margaret

 

What’s in your troubled child’s future?

What’s in your troubled child’s future?

Are you scared for your child’s future? Is he or she is falling behind? On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is “Normal” and 5 is “Worst Case Scenario”, what will your child’s adulthood look like?

This chart depicts a spectrum of outcomes of children when they are adults.  No matter how ill your child is, if he or she gets support and treatment early, their future adult life should avoid the last column.  A network of family, friends, and professional staff can keep them from the worst-case scenario in the far right column, and even move them in the direction of normalcy.  There is research evidence for this.

“Wellbeing” is very important.

 

This is a checklist of childhood problems that lead to poor life outcomes as adults.  Jump on them one by one.

  • Friend problems:  they have inappropriate friends, or no friends, or they mistreat friends (and siblings).
  • Behavior problems:  they do or say disturbing things (swearing, hurting, breaking, manipulating, sinking in depression, attempting suicide…). Everyone is stressed.
  • School problems:  disruptive behavior; poor grades (or a sudden drop in good grades); bullying or being bullied.
  • Health problems:  physical health problems become mental health problems, and vice versa:
    • trouble with sleep
    • digestive system and gut problems
    • poor diet and lack of exercise
    • epilepsy or neurological disorders
    • hormones during puberty
    • substance abuse.

We designate legal adulthood between the ages 18 and 21.  That’s too young.  Many normal healthy young people at this age are immature and irresponsible, but your son or daughter may lag well behind them.  Your child may need support and rescuing well into the 20’s or early 30’s–this is not unusual.

You’ll survive the marathon of tough years by pacing yourself, finding support for yourself, and protecting your mental health.

There is reason for hope.  Your child may take many horrible directions in their teens and 20’s, and you may feel hopeless or helpless as you witness their life nosedive.  If you can hang on and marshal support, your child will find a circuitous path to recovery.  It will have sharp turns and back steps and falls, but they’ll find it… and enter stable adulthood.

Some parents and families have seen the worst.  They’ve endured violence due to their child’s addiction; sat in court when their son or daughter was convicted of a crime; or they waited in the Emergency Room when their son or daughter was admitted for psychiatric care.  They also lived to see their child achieve the sanity to finish their education, support themselves, develop good relationships, and get that future you always wanted for them.

How two parents handled a “worst case scenario” and supported their child’s wellbeing:

These are true stories of mothers who stuck by their very ill adult children and provided what little they could to bring a bit of wellbeing.  These mothers found some peace by simply doing what they could.

One had a grown son with schizophrenia and a heroin addiction who lived in squalor in supported housing.  He spent all of his disability assistance money on heroin and nothing else.  Her efforts to help him met with verbal abuse and threats of violence, and she feared for her safety.  What could she do, witness his slow suicide by starvation or overdose?  She arranged to visit him once a week in the parking lot, and brought 2 sacks of groceries in the trunk of her car.  He was to come out and get the groceries while she stood at a safe distance.  This worked.  He was still verbally abusive when he got the groceries, but he got food and she stayed safe.  Did he have wellbeing?  Was his life humane?

He lived indoors
He had enough food and clothing
He had encounters with social services and police, which led to some health care
A support system was available if he was ready for help.

One had a son addicted to methamphetamine who was lost to the streets. One day, she discovered a nest of old clothes and rags in an overgrown area behind her garage, and instinctively knew it was from her son.  “Good,” she thought, “He’s alive; I can keep him safe.”  She rarely saw him come and go, but she replaced the rags with clean blankets and a sleeping bag, and put out food for him, and provided a tent.  She couldn’t free her son from addiction, but she could keep him safe from the streets and its desperate people, and fed and sheltered in a way he accepted.

Like the man above, there was a modicum of safety and support and ongoing monitoring if he was ready for help.

–Margaret

 

Please share a comment or story.

4 Easy Ways to Deal With A Troubled Teenager

4 Easy Ways to Deal With A Troubled Teenager

The adolescent and teenage years are a time of intense emotion, hormonal outbursts, and inner growth. The intensity of the energy and passion flowing through the mind and body of a teenager during this time can lead to discomforts, anxieties, and damaging behaviors and emotions.

Learning how to effectively accompany adolescents and teenagers as they journey through this time of growth, passion, and new discoveries about their selves is something that every parent needs to learn. With the right amount of accompaniment, support, and an appropriate balance between encouraging their independence and putting needed limitations on that independence, the teenage years can become a time of incredible growth, development and learning the path towards a healthy adulthood.

Often, anger and bad attitudes are normal for teenagers.

For parents of teenagers, it is incredibly common to see your child happy in the morning and depressed at night. He or she might be very communicative one day, and closed off and silent the next day. This roller coaster of emotions, attitudes, and behaviors can be frustrating at times for a parent because teenagers might feel as if the end of the world is near, but is an entirely normal aspect of the late adolescent and teenage period.

According to an article written by Preston Ni for the review “Psychology Today”, teenagers regularly oscillate between seemingly polar opposites. They staunchly defend their individuality while also longing for acceptance of their peers. They may act like they know everything there is to know, but at the same time willingly show their ignorance.

Teens may feel invincible and unconquerable one moment, and
then insecure, timid, and vulnerable the next moment.

While we might wish that our child could be a little more stable, it is important to understand and accept that the hormonal changes raging through the bodies of our teenager are completely normal. To help guide your child through this sometimes-difficult period, the following four methods offer some helpful advice and suggestions.

Watch for Evidence of Deeper Behavioral Problems

Interests, hobbies, and pursuits will inevitably change over time. As your teenager grows up into adulthood, he or she will most likely leave behind certain aspects of their childhood that used to define them. However, one common sign of serious emotional and behavioral problems is when your adolescent or teenager suddenly quits or withdraws from several activities they previously enjoyed.

For example, if your teenager used to enjoy organized sports but suddenly shows no interest in going to practice, that might very well be a sign of a deeper issue. As a parent, learning to watch for these sudden changes in interest and learning to differentiate them from the normal process of “growing up” is essential to help your teenager navigate successfully through the changes he or she is experiencing.  You might clarity here: Is my teen ‘normal’ crazy or seriously troubled? 

Don’t Settle for Only Get-Tough Methods

If your teenager has been actively rebelling against authority and showing some serious behavioral problems, one of the main parental responses is to get “tough” on your child and sternly discipline the child. While discipline and correction strategies certainly do have a place in dealing with problematic teenagers, relying solely on these strict strategies can backfire and cause more harm than good.

One recent study by Scientific American even finds that get-tough tactics can lead to further youth delinquency and even worse behavioral problems. Though you may feel that the best way to deal with your difficult teenager is through tough discipline, make it a priority to always combine any sort of discipline with other tactics that we further explore below.

Set Clear Boundaries

This is the tricky one for most parents. Trying to find a balance between allowing your teenager to explore the full range of emotions and passions flowing through him or her while also imposing strict limitations on what type of behavior is acceptable is never easy. It is important to set clear boundaries that are evident and understood by both you and your teenager.

Testing authority and pushing against limits is a normal part of the development of a teenager’s independence. However, it is necessary for both parties to willingly accept that some things are essentially off-limits. Instead of simply unilaterally imposing these limitations and boundaries on your teenager, try to have a conversation and discuss what is acceptable and what is not. Explain why you, as a parent, will not accept certain behaviors but also be willing to listen to his or her point of view as well.

Limit Your Advice in Mild Situations

From the perspective of a teenager, there is nothing worse than an annoying parent who is continually pressing them on every issue from how they dress, to their grades, to their posture, and everything in between.

Your child is more likely not to listen to serious advice
if all he or she hears is constant nagging from you.

Learn to choose your battles and offer important advice and guidance when it is most needed. If you don’t constantly badger your child, he or she will understand the seriousness of a moment when you do sit down for the infamous “parent-to-child” chat.

Enjoy Your Child’s Teenage Years

Most importantly, as a parent you need to learn to appreciate and value the teenage years of your child. Not only is the teenage period the last years you will have your child in your home before he or she sets out into the wider world, but it is also an incredibly exciting time when you can help to shape the future for the one you love.

by Aron James

Bio
Aron James is the founder of StubblePatrol.com. Stubble Patrol is a site on male grooming. He loves to write about his personal experiences.

Use the “S” word: talk openly with your child about suicide

Use the “S” word: talk openly with your child about suicide

Don’t be silent on the subject of suicide, even if there’s no evidence your child has considered it.  Bring it in the open, especially if you have a hunch something is wrong.  This article addresses:

  1. Why you should talk about suicide with your child
  2. How to respond if there’s been a threat
  3. How to respond if there’s been an attempt

Parents talk about many uncomfortable subjects with their child; and suicide must be one of them.

Don’t let suicide become a ‘sensitive’ subject.  Your child needs to hear about it from you.  They should feel safe talking about it.  Don’t expect them to bring this subject up.  You could overreact, a scary thought for your child, or you could under-react or dismiss it because you’re uncomfortable.  Neither response helps.

Won’t this give my child ideas and encourage suicidal thoughts?

No.  Children usually know what suicide is and will have wondered about it—even young children. Ask what your child thinks. Children as young as 7 and 8 have asked about suicide or threatened it.  Children as young as 10 and 11 have attempted or completed suicide.  The ages of highest suicide risk are between 10 to 24.

Talk with your child. Don’t leave him or her alone with thoughts or questions about suicide.

An 11-year-old boy died of suicide a couple of weeks before this article was written. There had been no prior signs.  He killed himself after receiving a prank text saying his girlfriend had committed suicide. He told no one beforehand.  His parents had no idea he was even at risk.

Why might my child consider suicide?

Mental health professionals assess risk by using the Biopsychosocial Model.  The more negatives in the biological, social, and psychological aspects of one’s life, the higher the risk of suicide or other mental health problems.

The major risks of suicide are in the central part of this diagram: drug effects, temperament, IQ, family relationships, trauma.

From Pinterest and the blog, Social Workers Scrapbook

What can you control and change at home?
What do you and family members need to reduce these risks?
Communicate about these with everyone. (Can be hard to do, but try.)

What can trigger thoughts of suicide?

Examples from two states that did the research:

Oregon: Survey results for an exceptionally high suicide rate among 10-24 year olds by population, 180 individuals in one year (“Suicide circumstances by life stage, 2013-2014”).

  • 62% – Current depressed mood
  • 53% – Relationship problems
  • 47% – Current mental health problems
  • 43% – Current/past mental health treatment
  • 42% – History of suicidal thoughts/plans
  • 31% – Recent/imminent crisis
  • 22% – Family relationship problems
  • 21% – Non-alcohol substance abuse problems
  • 8% – School problem

New York: Life situations of children completing suicide, 88 individuals; (“Suicide Prevention, Children Ages 10 to 19 Years”, 2016)

  • Feeling hopeless and worthless (often because of bullying at school, home, or online)
  • Previous suicide attempt(s)
  • Physical illness
  • Feeling detached and isolated from friends, peers, and family
  • Family history of suicide, mental illness, or depression
  • Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse
  • Access to a weapon in the home
  • Knowing someone with suicidal behavior or who committed suicide, such as a family member, friend, or celebrity
  • Coping with homosexuality in an unsupported family, community, or hostile school environmental
  • Incarceration (time in juvenile detention or youth prison)

What if my child has threatened suicide?

A threat opens a door for a discussion.  A good approach is to interview your child about their feelings, plans, needs, and reasons.  Listen earnestly without input.*  You might be surprised to find their problem is solvable, but their depressed mood paints it as hopeless.  Listening helps them get clarity and feel heard and respected.  Once you understand their problems, you assist them in identifying options and provide emotional support.

* I have a friend who worked for a suicide hotline, and he said the job wasn’t difficult at all.  He said, “All I did was listen and show understanding of their feelings and just let them talk. “

After a frustrating discussion about my teenage daughter’s suicide threats, I gave up and said “No.  I’m telling you not to commit suicide.”  She was incredulous; “You can’t tell me what to do!  You can’t stop me!”  I responded, “Don’t commit suicide. You’re important to us.  You have important things to do in life.”  She made a few attempts in the following years (they were always public as if she wanted to be noticed), and she always reached out to her family afterwards for support.  Did my words make a difference?

What if a threat is just for attention?

It’s hard to tell. It could be genuine  or manipulative.  Some children use threats to prevent parents from asserting rules.  Angry children, especially teens, use threats to blame and hurt parents emotionally.  If you think a threat is not genuine, open up the suicide discussion.  “Talk to me about this”, “It seems like an extreme reaction to something we can fix.” “What needs to change?”  “How can I help?”  Focusing on the threat will either expose the ruse or draw out important information for addressing an underlying problem.

What else can I do if my child threatens suicide?

  1. Observe and investigate.
  • Do they have access to unsafe objects or substances?  You can legally search their room.
  • Do they frequent unsafe places or spend time with people who encourage drug use?
  • Do they have extreme mood swings (up or down), or a chronic dark mood?
  • Do they take dangerous risks and seek dangerous activities?
  • Are there any other danger signs?
  1. Build a network of eyes–choose people who will observe your child and keep you advised of risk, e.g. a mature sibling, a teacher, your child’s friend or the friend’s parents, your child’s boyfriend or girlfriend, a relative, or a trusted person who knows your child.
  1. Make changes you have control over, and solidly commit to these changes. Bring the whole family along on the plan.  FOLLOW THROUGH.
  • In family life – reduce chaos, fighting, blaming, or bullying; express appreciation; neglect no one including yourself; create 2 – 3  house rules that are easy to enforce and everyone follows, even you.
  • In social and online life – learn as much as you can about the nature of your child’s relationships, whether romantic or social. Support them if they distress your child. Can they remove themselves from a toxic relationship? or cope effectively with anxiety? Can you help them address bullying at school or online?
  • Biological health – Sleep, Exercise, Diet.  Limit screen time at night because blue light inhibits sleep.  Pay attention to digestive health, which affects mental health. These are some natural approaches.
  • Psychological health – Ask a school counselor about your child.  Seek a working diagnosis and mental health treatment.  Help your child find outlets for personal self-expression:  journaling, music, art, poetry, or a website such as this one, where teens help teens.  Mind Your Mind is an excellent example.

What if my child attempted suicide?

He or she is still very fragile, even if in treatment!  They have taken the action, they’ve been there, and have the option for taking it again—a high percentage try againSuicide attempts are long-term emergencies. You need to be on alert in the following days, weeks, months, and possibly years.  In addition to intensive mental and physical health treatment, ensure your child gets regular deep sleep, exercise, and a good diet.  Ask them if they’ve had suicidal thoughts if you sense something is wrong.  Don’t be shy about checking in.

Pay attention to events that trigger suicide.

Check-in with your child when something traumatic happens or might happen, especially if someone he or she knows attempted or committed suicide, or a suicide was in a TV drama or covered in the news.  Triggers are an emergency, act immediately.

You have the power to prevent a child’s suicide.
Be strong. You can do this. 

Take care of yourself.

–Margaret

Take this parenting test if you have a troubled child

Take this parenting test if you have a troubled child

So how are you doing in this parenting job you have?  Score your parenting skills on a test designed for parents of children ages 11-15 with serious behavior problems.  (If you are brave, have someone else score you too and compare notes.)

Parenting Skills Test – printable form

Don’t be hard on yourself if you score low.  Only a saint could have an excellent score.

Troubled kids are extraordinarily difficult. You might be thinking:  “I agree these are good parenting skills, but practicing them is impossible with my child. They hate/defy/scream/fill-in-the-blank at me constantly.” Suggestion:  Work on one at a time, and take the test again in few weeks to see if you’ve improved your score.

This parenting skills test is drawn from a parenting guide created in 2007 by StandUp Parenting (www.standup.org)
to help parents understand what is needed to maintain authority and model maturity.  

Please add a comment if you have found other skills to be effective,

–Margaret

 

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Mothers and Teenage Daughters: a School Counselor’s Story

Mothers and Teenage Daughters: a School Counselor’s Story

This article contributed by Benjamin Dancer.

I’m a high school counselor, which means I work with parents every day. Because I’ve made a career out of my work with adolescents, I see what a parent might be seeing for the first time. This includes a long list of unfortunate life events.

Back when we were teenagers, there wasn’t a massive network of servers positioned strategically across the globe to capture and record, forever, the embarrassment of our adolescent choices.

As a parent, I have a lot of empathy for other parents. It’s not easy, especially when you’re going through something for the first time. My life, on the other hand, is a little bit like Groundhog Day. In a sense, I’ve never left high school. Every school year I see the same things. Different kids, but the same behavior: alcohol, drugs, tobacco, bullying, kids running away from home, pregnancy and something new: sexting.

Take an adolescent boy with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, which by definition means he is incapable of fully contemplating notions such as consequence; take this teenager raging with sex hormones and give him a tiny device that he will carry with him everywhere, a device capable of sending messages instantly to anybody, anywhere in the world, and install a camera in that device. What do you imagine might go wrong?

facebook sextingWhen you and I were adolescents, we were no less reckless, no less idiotic with our choices, no less eager to use our bodies as grownups. The difference is that our stupidity has been forgotten by history. Back when we were teenagers, there wasn’t a massive network of servers positioned strategically across the globe to capture and record, forever, the embarrassment of our adolescent choices.  Sexting changes everything.

Over the last seventeen years in my work of mentoring adolescents and partnering with their parents, I’ve seen a lot of parenting styles. I’ve learned some important strategies in dealing with the situations teenagers present–strategies the average parent doesn’t have the time, through repetition, to learn. I feel confident telling you that there are some really good ideas out there. And some really bad ones, too.

Because I’m a writer, it occurred to me to write it down, what I’ve learned over the years. I’m a parent. I know it just as well as you do. We need a little grace in our lives.

Sexting book coverExcerpt from SEXTING AT SCHOOL:

The police called the sexting child pornography. So I understood Nicole’s concern: she wanted to talk to me about her daughter. Jessica was fourteen and three years younger than her boyfriend. He had been distributing images of Jessica through his phone. Nicole was worried; she was scared, and understandably so.

Jessica still thought she was in love.

“He calls her a bitch,” Nicole told me. “I read the texts. He says horrible things to her.”

“And she still wants to be with him,” I said.

The pain I felt for her was communicated in my voice. As a teacher, I see the scenario every year, but Nicole was experiencing this for the first time. Jessica was her daughter. Not long ago she was her baby. I could only begin to imagine the suffering the situation provoked. Nicole was in no position to hear how common this was.

Why do girls throw themselves at boys who treat them badly?

In Jessica’s circumstance there was a tremendous amount of grief. She had barely processed the loss of her dad. He was killed in an accident over the summer.

“I can’t stop her from being with him. I’ve tried. I took away her phone. I grounded her. She sneaks out of the house. I drop her off at school, and she ditches to be with him.” The mascara was now running beneath Nicole’s cheekbones, “Last night, she told me that she wished it was me who was dead. He was waiting for her out front. I saw her get into his car.”

sexting image“I can’t imagine what that’s like,” I told her. “I’m sorry.”

“Unless I physically restrain her, she will find a way to get back to him.”

I allowed for a long silence, as I thought there might be more Nicole needed to say.


“What did I do? What did I do wrong?”

I didn’t answer her question. And I didn’t dismiss it. I sat with her in it.

* * * * *

My role with Nicole is not all that different from my role with Jessica. It doesn’t matter whether you’re fourteen or forty, what you need is for someone to listen. What you need is for someone to understand.

Jessica and I talked later the same day.

“She went through my phone,” Jessica was angry. “She read my texts.”

I let her know that I understood her frustration.

“She won’t let me leave the house.”

“Why?”

“She’s trying to keep me from him.”

“Have you told her that you love him?”

“Yes.”

“And…?”

“She hates him. She doesn’t want me to see him.”

“Why does she hate him?”

At this Jessica paused. We had already talked about the pictures. She had told me stories about the boy. The way he had flaunted his sexual conquests. He was in my English class, and I had seen it firsthand: there were countless other girls.

After a long silence, she answered my question, “She thinks he’s not good for me. Is he?”mean boyfriend

It was ground we had already covered. In past conversations Jessica told me that she respects her mom for trying to protect her. I handed Jessica a box of tissues. She wiped the tears and told me, “No. He’s really, really mean.”

I listened to her cry for several minutes. I was thinking about her father. I knew the man well. I liked him. I was thinking about her mother. I was thinking about my own daughter.  It was true for all of us. What we need is empathy.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.  She questioned me with her eyes.

So I answered it, “I’m sorry you’re so alone.”

Jessica’s whole body shook when she sobbed.

* * * * *

no cell phoneThe last time Nicole was in my office she asked me if she should return Jessica’s phone. We had a similar conversation the day she asked me if she should call the police.

“What do you think?”

“I think Jessica needs to figure this out for herself. I’ve tried to protect her, but I can’t. I just can’t protect her from everything.”

“Does that mean you’ll give it back?”

“No. She’s not ready for that.”

“I don’t know the answers to the particulars,” I told Nicole, “but I know this. You’re a good mom. Jessica needs you right now. She needs you to be confident in your role.”

I saw the tears washing through the mascara, gave Nicole the box of tissues, and kept on going.

This is universal: the teenager wants desperately to have her independence, and she is terrified of it.

“Jessica loves you, and she knows that you love her.  Jessica is not aware of the fact that she is conflicted about this. She’s just a kid. As much as she pushes you away, she wants you to be strong, to love her.”

* * * * *

I talked to Jessica again a week later.

“Do you still see him?” I asked.

She was embarrassed, “Yeah.”

“Is he good to you?”

“Sometimes.”

“How about last night?”

She hesitated then said, “Last night he left me in a parking lot. I had to borrow a phone and call my mom to come pick me up.”

“Why’d he leave you?”

“To hook up with someone else.”

“Will you see him again?”

“Probably.”

“I have a vision for you,” I said.

Jessica smiled, like she had heard lines like that from me before.

But that didn’t deter me. I have an advantage over most parents of teenagers: I’ve made a career out of the adolescent. Their behavior can be alarming, infuriating and even demoralizing, but after seventeen years of guiding teenagers as they come of age, I have established proven routines.

I have a pretty good idea of how many repetitions it will take, of how many times I’ll have to say it before Jessica can even make sense of the words, of how many more times I’ll have to repeat it before she begins to adopt the language as her own.

So I told her again, “In my vision of your future, you will love yourself too much to let a boy treat you badly.”

* * * * *

BenjaminDancerThe story above is a composite of a dozen mothers and a dozen daughters I’ve work with over the years. In my FREE e-book, I analyze that narrative–elucidating what I believe to be the important parenting considerations.  

Find out more at: SEXTING AT SCHOOL, a FREE download at Goodreads.com, or if you’re feeling generous, you can buy it for $0.99 at Amazon.com.

About Benjamin Dancer:

Benjamin is a high school counselor at Jefferson County Open School where he has made a career out of mentoring young people as they come of age. He wrote the novels PATRIARCH RUN, IN SIGHT OF THE SUN and FIDELITY. He also writes about parenting and education. You can learn more at:

Website:      BenjaminDancer.com

Facebook:    https://www.facebook.com/benjamin.dancer

Twitter:        @BenjaminDancer1


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Margaret

Parent to Parent Guidance

Parent to Parent Guidance

Margaret Puckette is a Certified Parent Support Provider, and helps parents with tailored advice for raising their troubled child, teen, or young adult. She is a parent who understands that parents and families need realistic practical guidance for maintaining their lives without stress. Margaret has coached and mentored families for over 20 years. She is an author & speaker, and believes parent & family support is essential. Mentally healthy parents with the right skills raise mentally healthy children.

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