What’s a Parent To Do?

I wish there were easy answers to this. There aren’t. Every kid is different. Every family has different capacities. But perhaps these principals will give you something to work with.

First: Love him. Love him. Love him. Even though it may seem to you that a body snatcher has come along and taken the place of your child, this is your son. Try to find ways to put aside your anger, fear, and disappointment. Let him know that the reason you are angry and afraid is that you care deeply about him. Catch him being good as much as you can. Give him a hug and a pat at least a couple of times a day, even if you don’t feel like it. Without the current of love and caring that runs between parent and child, you can’t have influence.

Find his strengths: Identify the things that are going well, however small. These are the things you can build on to develop better self-esteem and better communication. Does he obey you at all? Does he give you a hug now and then or respond to one from you? Does he come to dinner with the family? Share any news? Laugh at a joke? Anything like this means that he is not totally disengaged from the family. Remember this to give yourself hope and encouragement. Compliment him whenever you can to strengthen the connection between you.

Now talk to him. Talk. Do not scold, preach, yell, or threaten. Just talk. And listen. Let him know that you are sorry that you two got locked into warfare when what you wanted was to look after his welfare. Share your guesses about the underlying causes and see what he thinks. See if he will engage with you around solving the problem. He might. Be prepared to return to the discussion over several days and weeks.

Reassure him: Let him know that you see through the bad behavior to the talented, smart kid he is. He doesn’t have to meet some abstract standard of perfection or compete with anyone else for your love or attention. He is valued for who he is. Be prepared to tell him honestly what you think his strengths really are. Ask him what he has in mind for himself? What would help him realize those dreams? How can you help?

Try to get him involved with something he likes that will put him into a different group and take up his time in a positive way. He needs new ways to feel good about himself. Work behind the scenes and get someone else to call him with an offer or an idea. (Remember, a kid his age doesn’t generally want to take suggestions from his parents.) Is there a coach who would be willing to recruit him for a team? Is there a kids program that needs teen helpers? Do you have a friend who would be willing to hire him?

Make an appointment with a psychiatrist who is familiar with substance abuse for a comprehensive evaluation. Let your son know that sometimes people get involved with illegal drugs because there is something legitimate going on. You care enough about him to find out.

Get engaged with the school. School guidance people have seen lots of kids like your son. They have also seen lots of parents who have abdicated their responsibility for their teens. They don’t know that you are a concerned parent unless you tell them. There may be a substance abuse program connected to the school. If so, this is no time for false pride. You need their help. Take advantage of what help is offered.

Get your extended family to help in a positive way. Saving a child is a family project. Tell them it doesn’t help for them to tell you, or him, all the ways he is going wrong. You know that. He knows that. What you need from them is practical help. Can they take him along on weekend outings? Are any of his adult relatives doing something he’d like to learn? Are there any younger cousins who look up to him who would like his attention?