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For many of the parents of children that come to our offices at The Price Group needing therapeutic placement, it is very hard to admit that their teen or young adult is totally out of control. A term we like that comes from a book by John McKinnon, M.D., called An Unchanged Mind is “global failure.” What this means to us is that the young person’s life is failing on ALL dimensions and levels… They are struggling in school, often with missed assignments or even excessive absences. They are struggling at home, often missing curfews or worse, getting so angry that they have destroyed property or have a habit of isolating for hours playing computer games. They typically are not active in extracurricular activities at school or in the community. They do not engage in very much physical exercise and are often described as “couch potatoes.” When asked what they most like to do, they most often say, “hang with my friends” but then when you ask about friends, they have either made a poor choice of a peer group that is smoking weed or drinking, or they really would like to have friends but are actually very socially isolated.
For the teens or young adults, their feelings are often a mix of anxiety and depression, and they may feel they are in a “hole” or negative pattern they can’t escape, with no idea how they got there or what to do. They are frequently explosive in their anger, lashing out at parents and siblings, dropping the “f” bomb as a way to get people to leave them alone. Parents tell us they feel they are being held hostage by their young person and often tell us they feel they are “walking on eggshells” when their young person is near.
What is interesting for us is that after a very intense discussion with parents in which they very articulately describe this “global failure,” they then may ask us, “Do you really think my son/daughter is that bad?” “Do you really think we need to “ship them” away?” “Can’t we just home school him/her and get him/her to a therapist once a week?” “Is there a diagnosis or medicine that could resolve this issue?” Unfortunately, other alternatives up to this point have only created temporary fixes. Parents have bargained, pleaded, threatened, avoided, rescued, and created extreme consequences that have not worked.
By the time parents reach our office, in reality, they usually have tried many options: a tutor for school, medications from a psychiatrist, visits to a psychologist, several local school placements and/or the aid of a learning specialist. These interventions were tried with high hopes of success and sometimes they do indeed work. However, at this point, the real thing parents are having to face is that they have truly lost control of their lives, their house, their own sense of peace, and the ability to hold boundaries with their son or daughter. They have a child or young adult that seems almost as if an alien has inhabited the body of their beautiful, talented, fun-loving, respectful child and has replaced their child with a tense, angry, withdrawn, disrespectful alien who shouts, curses, and takes no responsibility for their actions or the consequences. We hope that our conversations and subsequent write up of the most recent history of their child/young adult helps them begin to see that things need to CHANGE.
The first and most important change that needs to take place is for the parents to realize that while this situation and pattern of “global failure” probably happened over time, the people who they have the most control over is not their son or daughter, it is themselves! Remember the Serenity Prayer phrase about granting me the courage to change the things I can? Can they have the courage to make a decision that is going to be very uncomfortable initially, but may begin to set them and their child on the road to recovery and health of the family?
We think a metaphor illustrates what has happened to create the parent’s sense of helplessness and powerlessness. Have you ever heard of the “Boiled Frog” analogy? This metaphor has even made it to Wikipedia (click here to see) and a person has made a mock version of a video on YouTube (no frogs were hurt)! Basically the analogy goes like this: if you take a frog and place it near boiling water, it senses danger and will move to get away from the danger/heat. However, since frogs are cold-blooded and adapt to their environment, if the water is turned up gradually, they will not sense the danger and will boil to death! Now, we haven’t actually seen this occur, but the analogy is apt: we hope parents will begin to see the serious danger signs of a teen or young adult beginning to fail at a very alarming rate and will ask for help from professionals. What the parents frequently cannot do is control their child’s self-destruction in the peer environment. Often the young person is more influenced by the peer group outside the home and if boundaries have been ignored for a long time, a serious “wake up call” to a new environment may be what is needed. If anyone has been involved in a professional “intervention,” the intent of an intervention is very similar: the emphasis is on the adult or young person choosing on some level to get help. By having loved ones explain to a person how their life has become destructive or unmanageable, the hope is that the young person will begin to “feel the heat” of loved ones concerns and choose to overcome the denial of the problem and choose to ACT… Jump out of the danger!
When families can see the early danger signs of trouble and seek help early, sometimes these serious failures and mental health crises can be averted through the help of trusted counselors and family friends. However, when a family continues to deny issues, sadly, some will not act and seek out help soon enough. If parents wait too long to intervene, a child can either have legal problems, serious substance abuse problems, or be heading toward a more serious mental illness or personality disorder.
We at The Price Group are here to help! – Louise R. Slater
Postscript added September 14:
When I went on the listserve for the Independent Educational Consultant’s Association (IECA) this week, there was a post from a consultant who has been working primarily with college students. As is typical in college consultants, after a student begins to identify interests and majors, the consultant helps the student develop a list of colleges with usually three categories: “reach” schools, “likely” schools, and “safety” schools. What she has been finding is that parents are often so status conscious that they do not allow their child to apply to the so called “safety” schools because they feel it is below their status. The last sentence in the post ended with the consultant remarking that the parents were “riding down de’ Nile with no paddle or life jackets”! So, I guess I am not the only one who has had this experience of parents being in denial! We all have blind spots in our thinking but hopefully if a consultant gives you some advice about your young person, you will at least consider the input and let your student apply to a few of the so called “safety” schools!