Today's Teenage Landscape

As parents, do we set our children up for failure? Now that is a very interesting question. We live in a time when our culture continuously gives out mixed messages. Some foundational values seem threatened. ...

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As parents, do we set our children up for failure? Now that is a very interesting question. We live in a time when our culture continuously gives out mixed messages. Some foundational values seem threatened. Many of us who grew up in the 50's, 60's and even 70's were raised to respect and comply with authority, even if we disagreed. We were never encouraged to arbitrarily obey certain civil laws and disobey others. In the 60's, some of us were encouraged to use our conscience when it came to issues of war, peace and social justice.

However, our consciences were grounded in the basic principles of truth, respect, responsibility and accountability. "If it feels good do it," was never a principle for living. Thinking of others before one's self was always an operational principle. Respecting other human beings and their differences was always important. Violence was never the first response to conflict or human disagreements. Our parents rarely enabled or sanctioned our negative behavior.

As teenagers and young adults, if we wanted to live at home and enjoy the material and emotional support of our parents, there were certain boundaries we would not cross. We would endure out of respect for them, as our parents.

Clearly, the parents of yesteryear would rarely, if ever, support, cooperate with and/or enable illegal/negative behavior. In other words, if drinking were illegal for high school students, our parents would not support a keg party. They would also not tolerate staying out all night or all weekend without permission. If we defied them, there would be serious consequences to face.

The teenage landscape today is very different. Many teenagers are raising themselves, although they may live at home. Many young people are growing up with little or no guidance or direction. Parental guidelines are minimal to nonexistent. In some cases, where they are present, they are rarely enforced. A growing number of parents are more interested in being best friends with their children than with parenting them.

The lack of parental guidance and support is evidenced every day in our daily newspapers. The dramatic increase in reckless behavior among high school and college students is reflective of a lack of consistent parental involvement and clear enforceable boundaries.

In this day and age, what kind of parent condones any teenage drinking party, where the social objective is to get drunk? What is even more disturbing is the growing attitude among some parents who feel their teenagers are going to drink anyway, so let's make it safe. That kind of thinking is lethal!

Setting clear parental boundaries is hard work. It is even more difficult to consistently enforce them, especially in the context where many other adults do not enforce or believe what they say. It is critical, if we hope to protect our children from themselves, that we as adults become more consistent and support one another with this consistency.

JC is presently eighteen. In the middle of his senior year, while attending a private high school, he was caught using and dealing cocaine. He's the middle child of five from a family of privilege. He was well liked in his high school and had a large circle of friends. However, he was sinking rapidly because of his drug use.

The school gave him a choice - "get treatment or you will be expelled." JC elected to get treatment. He was accepted into a long-term treatment program. He had to commit himself to one year. His school was willing to work out transportation so he could graduate on time with his class.

For eight months, he worked very hard on his recovery. He graduated, navigated the social pressures of his senior prom and dealt with absenting himself from his circle of friends because of their poor decision-making. With some help, he was accepted into a small liberal arts college. He began his freshman year in September. He was sober, straight and he excelled.

Probably one of his greatest challenges was and is dealing with his dysfunctional family. His parents divorced when he was in elementary school. It was bitter and destructive. To this day, the bitterness continues to infect this family.

All during his treatment, JC felt like an emotional football between his parents. At one point, he expressed to his counselor that he was parroting his parents. He expressed deep frustration at attempting to deal with them. They made their weekly Sunday visits very difficult. When JC graduated from high school, instead of having one celebration, he had to have two because his parents would not be in the same room with each other, even for their son.

Right after Thanksgiving, JC was contacted by his Dad. His Dad informed him that an uncle, who had no children, had died and had left a substantial inheritance to JC and his siblings. His Dad started to talk to JC about buying a new car, getting a new computer and other little gadgets. His Dad never thought about how this unexpected inheritance might impair JC's recovery. He meant well, but unfortunately did not understand the complexities of addiction.

By Christmas, JC had already emotionally left his treatment program. He was totally consumed with his newfound wealth. His parents did not help him stay focused. They unconsciously encouraged the distractions. Although his parents individually expressed support for their son's treatment, when it came to action and looking at family issues, they were resistant.

Immediately after New Year's, JC made a series of poor decisions that put his continuance in treatment in jeopardy. In early January, he was asked to leave. He had fractured the trust he had earned with a serious infraction.

In his exit interview, he confirmed that he had emotionally left treatment after Thanksgiving and that he really wanted to go home. He acknowledged being careless about his behavior and decision-making because he wanted to leave. He also admitted that he was going home to a toxic environment. Whether he lived with his Mom or his Dad, both environments tolerated inappropriate drug and alcohol use. However, he felt he had developed the skills to stay the course and do the right thing.

He's only been home a few weeks, but unfortunately, his parents have not been strong enough in holding him accountable. He is already making a series of poor decisions. Hopefully, he has learned enough to stay the course and not make a social choice that could be lethal to him and/or others. It's unfortunate that his parents are unable to parent him - it could make all the difference.