So often when a teenager runs away, we as adults make a number of assumptions that are not usually based on facts. We presume that the teenager must be at fault.
Over the years, I have come to appreciate that whenever a young person leaves his/her home by choice, it is usually not as black and white as most of us would like to believe. Most fractured relationships take two participants.
Every family system is unique and every set of parents has their own set of standards and rules. We don't have to agree with them, but we should respect them. As most who read this column know, as a parent I am pretty strict. I would like to believe that I am fair, respectful and flexible. I do insist on responsibility and accountability. What I say, I do, even if it is painful.
However, kids do know where I stand. There is little gray area in our family system. There is a lot of compassion and forgiveness, but also real clarity on the rules, on consequences for non-compliance and on my expectations for being a member of the community.
Too many families are in crisis because they live in the gray area. Their family lacks clarity and consistency. These deficiencies feed resentment, anger and non-compliance. Needless to say, the non-compliance leads to conflict. Unresolved conflicts oftentimes lead to a war zone that will probably escalate to violence with the teenager ultimately leaving the house either by choice or by circumstance.
The teenager who chooses to leave home more often than not leaves home because home is a very volatile environment with little hope for a peaceful resolution of the on-going conflicts. In these circumstances, the parents are often very resistant to outside intervention. They tend to deny that there is a problem. They place all the blame on the teenager. Usually they excuse him or her as being rebellious and immature.
It is important to note that most conflicts with our teenagers don't just erupt. They usually ferment over time for a variety of reasons. Parental-child communication is usually non-existent. Both parents usually work, so basic family routines are not consistent. Too often, said teenager is raising him or her self.
MJ is the oldest of three children. He is seventeen and a junior. His two younger siblings are elementary school students. Both of his parents work long hours. More often than not, he is the built in babysitter. Little consideration is given to his age and his need to be social. Whenever he brings up feeling trapped or stuck, both parents immediately shut him down. His frustration level is almost unmanageable.
As a teenager, MJ feels caught between a rock and a hard place. He cannot communicate with his parents. Additionally, they have made it clear that it is a betrayal of the family to talk to other adults outside the family, especially mental health professionals. They have made it clear that these other adults are the enemy.
This family system is very misleading. On the surface, they are an intact family. It is a long term, first marriage for both parents. They are both well educated and have reasonable jobs with reasonable incomes, but they are clinically dysfunctional.
Both parents have masked their own substance abuse problem. They hide it behind social drinking. When the father gets drunk, which according to the son is often, he is verbally abusive and violent. The mother does little to protect her son in those circumstances. When MJ confronts his mother on her inaction, she says nothing, which only furthers his hostility.
A few months ago, they had a major confrontation. MJ left and has not been back. Needless to say, when they were confronted about why MJ does not live at home, they painted the picture that he is a reckless, rebellious teenager. He in turn says that they merely have irreconcilable differences and then becomes silent. He is embarrassed and ashamed.
Each time a school social worker and/or local helping professional tried to help MJ, the system dropped the ball. So MJ is without any real support or advocacy. His parents have been neglectful with his health care. When charges of neglect have been filed, they have fallen on deaf ears.
MJ is seventeen. He is living from house to house, continues to attend school and works part time to survive. He has become very bitter because his parents have blocked any kind of assistance. Those investigating his case always seem to be satisfied with his parents story, even though MJ has a list of very credible adults who suggest that his parents are not who they say they are.
Despite his adverse living conditions, MJ is determined to graduate from high school and begin Suffolk Community College in the fall. He has no intention of turning back. He worries about his younger siblings and hopes they will not suffer as he did.
The other side of this tragic human story is the family that is victimized by their out of control son and members of the local adult community rescue him and enable his reckless behavior.
PJ is sixteen and out of control. He comes from a strong middle class, intact family. By age fifteen, PJ was smoking pot, drinking, skipping full days of school, staying out all night and taking the family car without permission.
PJ's parents have tried every resource recommended. They tried family counseling, the school social worker and a PINS petition. PJ is a Jekyll and Hyde. At home, he has no respect. He is loud, vulgar and provocative. When he meets adults outside the home, he is respectful, polite and most accommodating. He has an angelic face with a devilish attitude.
Finally, PJ ran away and refused to come home. A number of families took him in. They never returned calls from his parents. He painted the picture that he was the most abused child since Oliver Twist. Every one bought his story, hook, line and sinker. He convinced anyone who would listen that his parents were overbearing, emotionally abusive control freaks. The real truth of the matter was that PJ was out of control. He wanted to do whatever, whenever and not be held responsible or accountable.
In the name of trying to be helpful, a number of well-intentioned families, who were misguided, made a painful family circumstance even more tragic because parents were not willing to call the alleged problem parents and hear their side of the story.
PJ continues to live on the edge, manipulating everyone around him. No one is calling him to accountability. Meanwhile, his parents feel powerless in a system that does not support the rights of parents and children. Rather the system polarizes you and sets you up for disaster. Painfully, an entire family's livelihood hangs in the balance.