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He sneaks back into the home well past curfew several nights a week, then refuses to go to school the next day. She has been hanging out with friends you have never met before and to whom she refuses to introduce you. He spends all afternoons and weekends laying in bed, with the bedroom door closed, angrily rejecting your inquiries. Her grades are slipping rapidly, her attitude harsh, her face sad and distant. You suspect substance use or are even sure that it is taking place well past the occasional experimentation.
You know in your mind that this is unusual or extreme behavior even for a teen, and especially for your teen. Maybe even friends or family members have said something to you. You feel that your child is slipping away. Yet you know she is a good kid, has plenty of talent, a bright future ahead. If you can just get her past this hurdle. If you just had an idea of what was bothering her.
It is so difficult to admit that our child is struggling, that despite our best efforts, something is just not working. It can feel like we are failing as parents. We see other teens doing well and feel embarrassed or ashamed. We look around and it doesn’t seem like anyone else is facing the same dilemma. We might not see that other families are struggling, as well. We might fear that setting limits will exacerbate difficulties, cause the teen to lash out further, rupturing what threads of a relationship are in place. We might miss that our teen’s behavior communicates what he or she doesn’t have the words for or that it might be difficult for a teen to face their need for parents’ boundaries and limits. We are terrified that if we admit there’s trouble, the path to college will crumble. We feel queasy reaching out for help, unsure what it will be like, if it will be a black hole.
Difficulties acknowledging that your teenager is in trouble is common. Feelings of disbelief, shame, fear and failure are the most important reasons experts cite for parents not seeking professional help. Yet, acknowledging that there is indeed trouble is a first, necessary step. Past this step lies the assistance you and your teen need to begin finding a path back to constructive engagement and academic stability.
And there is indeed a bright, silver lining beneath the dark clouds. Research and clinical experience indicate clearly that help during the teenage years magnifies the corrective impact. Numerous important developmental changes occur naturally during adolescence, and these coincide with a period of brain growth that is unparalleled at any other time of life except early childhood. Thus, seeking professional assistance for your troubled teen, even though it may go against your grain or challenge your sense of parenthood, is the most loving thing you can do for him or her. And for yourself. It is a gift that can keep on giving, well into adulthood.