I often tell parents that if they find themselves seriously concerned about their child’s behavior or emotional state more than once or twice a month, then they need to take action. They know their child better than anyone else, and they need to pay attention to their “gut.”
The longer a parent waits to deal with serious emotional and behavioral issues in their teen, the more difficult it will be for a parent to address these issues themselves, and the greater the potential that residential therapy will be needed to assist the parents.
There are many specific warning signs: defiance, rebellion, lying, depression, isolation, suicidal communication, refusing to participate in family activities, being secretive, dramatic changes in behavior, friends, or academics, destructive habits such as drugs, alcohol, cutting, or eating disorders, choosing poorly in relationships.
When you get to this stage, you have probably already discussed your concerns with your child on multiple occasions with little success and have maybe consulted with a local therapist. Unfortunately, outpatient counseling typically depends on some level of willing participation from the client. Oppositional teens often struggle to make positive gains in the local counseling office for three specific reasons: First, because they have difficulty trusting a professional that they only see for brief weekly sessions. It usually takes a great deal of time to build trust with a teen and they often doubt the motivations of people that they perceive as only caring because it is their ‘job.’ Second, teens often have difficulty expressing themselves through talk therapy and do much better when given an opportunity to express themselves through experiential therapy. Some of the best counseling is done at Shelterwood while walking on the campus in the evening or sitting around the campus lounge with a cup of hot chocolate. Third, when left to their description of events or attitudes, teens find it to easy to mislead an outpatient counselor. Outpatient counselors are put in a tough spot because they can only work with the information that they are being provided and oppositional teens find it easy to shift blame and avoid responsibility when they are the only ones in the office and the counselor has no other vantage point.
If your teen remains unmotivated and uninterested in changing his/her approach to life than residential care is the best option. Residential therapy affords the counselor an opportunity to watch and interact with the teen throughout the day, seeing them at their best and worst while they interact with teachers, peers, and house staff. Having been burned before, parents are often wary of a counselor’s ability to see through the manipulation of their teen.
Because of the 24/7 nature of residential therapy, it is really difficult for teens to mislead for very long. But they certainly try, especially at first, enlisting one of three different approaches. One approach that usually only lasts a few days is to make attempts to act ‘good,’ trying to demonstrate that their placement was an overreaction by the parents and that they really don’t need to attend such a program. A second strategy that they use is to try and create doubt within their parents. They make assertions as to how bad the other kids are, or how horrible the food is, or maybe they will create elaborate stories about how the teachers don’t care about academics enough, or how the counselors just don’t understand. After all, “You are right, Mom and Dad, I really do want help but just not here. It seems dangerous, unprofessional or not right for our unique family needs.” The third technique is simply a power play, an effort to threaten parents with hurting themselves, hurting others, running away, or withholding future love and connection if they are left in the program. Of course, I have also seen teens switch techniques when they are not achieving their desired results of getting removed from the program.
It usually takes a few weeks and maybe even a month or two to work through the teen’s resistance to change. We use empathy and strength until teens slowly recognize the safety of their current surroundings and begin to let down their guard and become more honest. By placing their teens at Shelterwood, parents are clearly communicating to their teen that there are consequences. And by keeping their teen at Shelterwood through graduation, those teens are learning that their mom and dad are serious about them learning these lessons before they return home.
It is important to remember that each teen is a free moral agent with his or her own will. Some teens act on what they are learning while they are still in the program. For others, they might need to return and struggle again before what they learned can be solidified into lasting change. Earlier this year, I heard from one young man who wrote to thank me and to tell me what he had learned at Shelterwood. The remarkable thing is that this young man did not finish our program; in fact, he had to be removed from the program. He described in some detail the things he learned in our program and the desire to come back and visit.
So, if you are dealing with a struggling teen right now, you are not alone, and you are not a bad parent. However, you are in a massive battle. You cannot focus on your past mistakes, and lose heart and give up. The Bible reminds us to “forget what lies behind and to press on.” Seek the prayer and encouragement of others, and the wisdom and counsel of professionals. And continue to believe that love never fails!