Often when people think of teenagers who cannot live at home, they think of young people who have made poor choices and made life with their parents unbearable. That is clearly the dominant profile of many displaced young adults.
However, there is another profile that is on a rapid rise within our community. There are a growing number of teenagers who are being raised in very dysfunctional environments. Violence, drugs and parental neglect are rampant. Emotional abuse is often a daily occurrence.
These young people are clearly society's victims. Unfortunately, our social welfare system is so heavily burdened that many of these young people have no real chance of escaping these wretched environments.
Why is this becoming more and more the case? Probably the clearest response is that too many times in these kinds of circumstances it is difficult to prove the abuse and neglect. More often than not, if there are no bruises or indications of serious drug and alcohol abuse, CPS workers can do little to break the cycle.
The victimized teenager is often afraid to really tell the truth. He or she fears reprisals and fears that things will get worse if his or her parents get wind that he or she has complained. Thus, they take the position of "put up and shut up," always hoping that the end is in sight.
To survive, many of these young people plan and strategize how they are going to get out. More often than not, it is a mere fantasy, but it does ease the pain.
What many people don't realize is that much of the dysfunction emerging is from surfacely healthy, middle class families, where parents are well educated and financially secure. It is rising among single parents, but they are hiding the truth as well. They are emotionally abusive and are in total denial.
Every now and then a young person with such a profile escapes that living hell. He or she is planted some place else and genuinely blossoms into a whole and healthy person.
Over the past twenty-four years, I have seen many such young people thrive once they have left the abusive environment that held them captive. I have also witnessed many young people who could not escape. Emotionally they died in the captivity. The emotional burden became too much to fight, so they surrendered and decided to "put up and shut up."
Unfortunately, those young people stopped growing and became very bitter, resentful adults. Years later they expressed feeling abandoned and uncared for. They also expressed strong feelings of distrust and social isolation.
There are few to no resources for young people being victimized by emotionally abusive and destructive parents. Where does a teenager or any young person for that matter, turn? Too often he or she gets lost in the shuffle of bureaucracy that is already overburdened and understaffed.
However, some do survive and even thrive despite the odds. This is one young man's story of survival and actual growth into a dynamic adulthood.
TK was born into a middle class, reasonably educated family. When he was a little boy, his mother, out of fear, left her son with his father. The father was abusive. He drank and drugged too much and was emotionally and verbally lethal. He went on to have three more children with another woman, who was also abused like TK's mother. She too felt trapped, until she was killed in a tragic car accident.
At twelve years old, TK was put in charge of being the caretaker for three little pre-school age children. He loved his half sisters and felt compelled to protect them from the emotional abuse he grew up with. He literally became their caretaker. After their mother died, his father further withdrew into more and more destructive emotional behaviors.
By age sixteen, TK was a sophomore in high school. He went to school, not only to learn, but to survive. It was his only lifeline of support. In school he found a little room to be a teenager, to dream a little and to express himself.
However, the depression was becoming intolerable. TK consistently thought about running away, but did not know where to run and was afraid if his father caught him, his life would become even more unbearable.
In the late fall of his sophomore year, his mother told him about a place that might be the key to his rescue. He was very frightened, but agreed to secretly meet his mother and leave. On a cold winter night with just a duffel bag of clothes and a few schoolbooks, TK left the life he knew for a life he feared because of the unknown. That courageous move was the beginning of an adventure that would ultimately transform his life and lay the foundation for his adult journey.
He missed his sisters, the only real family he had, but knew they would be okay because their grandmother would not let what happened to him happen to them.
This new life began thirty miles from his home. He went to school in a small town. The high school was one-fifth the size of his former school. His new classmates welcomed him and made him feel at home. His new diverse family was large with kids from every perspective imaginable, but it became the family which gave him support and which he grew to love.
The newfound freedom from abuse, with intense emotional support, empowered him to become an accomplished student athlete. When he graduated from high school, he was determined to go to college. He decided he needed the support of home, so he attended a local small liberal arts school.
Last month, this young man who could have been lost in the shuffle of indifference, walked across the stage at his college commencement to receive his degree in secondary education with a concentration in history. He has already begun graduate school so that he may be permanently certified to teach. He hopes to teach high school history and coach football. He wants to give back a little of what has been given to him. He is so grateful for the life he has had and for the countless people who have made all the difference in his life.