A few months ago, two parents came to see me about their college-age son. They are the loving parents of four children. They've been married 25 years. Their oldest son is 20, a second son is 19, a third son is 17 and a daughter is 15. They have a comfortable life together. The dad is a successful business executive. Mom has had the privilege of being a stay at home mom, raising her children.
These parents would characterize their family as being very close and loving. All four children get along and mutually support one another. They live in an upper-middle-class community. The children attend good schools and are active in school and in their neighborhood.
Mom would say that communication between her and her children is better than average. At times, they tell her more than she wants to know. All four children are good students and have had no social difficulties in school.
TJ is a scholar athlete, who is on scholarship to a small Midwestern University. In high school, he was at the top of his class academically and was an exceptional athlete in two varsity sports. Socially, he was a leader. He was able to balance school, sports, work and a very active social life.
Like many of his peers, during his senior year he had a few missteps with partying. On several occasions, he came home in the spring of his senior year highly intoxicated. On one occasion, he was so drunk he did not know where he was when his friends brought him home. Each time he abused alcohol, his parents came down with some pretty harsh restrictions. He assured them he didn't have a problem and that he would act more responsibly. As far as they knew, the few occasions he was caught were the only times he drank.
His senior summer was without incident. He left for his freshman year of college highly motivated to excel academically and athletically. His freshman year was exceptional. He made the Dean's list and was voted most valuable player on his freshman football team.
However, what his parents did not know was that he got arrested in his college town for disorderly conduct due to public drunkenness. His friends and a couple of adults he befriended helped him to navigate this unfortunate circumstance. Thanks to their assistance and a good lawyer, all charges were dropped after he completed 150 hours of community service and an alcohol awareness educational program. He begged his friends to keep his confidence and not tell us parents about this.
Unfortunately, TJ continued to drink. He kept everything under the radar and continued to manage school and athletics effectively. But his drinking was becoming a problem. He was no longer limiting his drinking to the weekend. He was drinking a couple times a week, and he was getting drunk each time he went drinking. It was getting so bad that his friends were all over him about his social behavior. Their concerns fell on deaf ears.
For the most part, his sophomore and junior year had only a few social confrontations. TJ was able to navigate them on his own because he was so well-liked. Again, these circumstances were kept from his parents. As far as they knew, life was wonderful at school, he was a great student and he was doing a great job playing football.
During vacations and summer break, he was smart enough to be careful. Although he drank, he never came home intoxicated. When he did drink too much with his friends, he made sure that he was sleeping out.
In September, TJ began his senior year. Like his previous years, he did very well academically and athletically. Unfortunately, his drinking was out of control. By October, he had three major incidents on campus around drinking irresponsibly. He was now in danger of being dismissed from school. The Dean told TJ that the disciplinary committee was meeting to review his case and that they wanted his parents to be at that meeting.
He tried everything to avoid inviting his parents to this meeting. None of his manipulation worked. He was told that if he didn't invite them, the Dean would send a certified letter inviting them and would explain in the letter why their presence at the meeting was imperative.
TJ made that dreaded phone call. Needless to say, his parents were in shock. They had no idea that TJ's drinking was out of control, and that there was a history of inappropriate behavior on campus.
His parents came out to school in mid- October for this disciplinary hearing. The Dean made it clear that this was TJ's last chance to stay the course. One more disciplinary infraction around drinking, he would be dismissed from school and would not be welcome back. He was also directed to engage in counseling and abstain from all drinking. He was reminded that although he is a good student and an exceptional athlete, he is not above the law. TJ agreed to all that was asked of him.
Before his parents returned home, they expressed how disappointed they were in TJ s social behavior. He assured them that he could abstain from alcohol and do the right thing. He promised he would engage in counseling and make better social decisions when hanging out with his friends.
A week after his disciplinary hearing, he was out with members of the football team celebrating a big win and made the mistake of drinking. He was walking back to his dorm, entered the building and was confronted by his RA, who smelled alcohol. His RA informed him that he would have to report him. TJ begged him not to.
The next morning, the Dean's office called him and informed him that he was dismissed from school. He was devastated. He called his parents and told them he was coming home. They were also devastated. He minimized the drinking and complained that it was unfair. He said he wasn't drunk and that there was no altercation. He was just going back to his room. His parents also minimized his behavior. They immediately appealed to the Dean. He reminded them of the meeting and the school s zero-tolerance for his drinking. The Dean also reminded them that underage drinking was still against the law and that the school was concerned that TJ had a serious alcohol problem. He urged them to get TJ into counseling immediately.
When TJ got home, they had a family meeting. He gave them an all-star performance and swore that his drinking was controllable. They believed him, or should I say they wanted to believe him. They were unaware that his drinking started back in his senior year of high school. They also were unaware of all of his little missteps along the way, because he was so effective in covering his tracks.
He went for a drug and alcohol evaluation. The evaluation indicated a serious alcohol problem. The counselor who did the assessment warned TJ that if he did not make some major adjustments, he was on the road to becoming a full-blown alcoholic. She recommended counseling and AA. If he couldn't stop drinking, she encouraged him to consider an intensive outpatient program, or even a rehab. TJ left the assessment, saying that he would think about the recommendations.
TJ s parents were uncomfortable with the counselor s recommendations. They thought they were a bit extreme. They felt that TJ was just going through a phase. They felt he was a good student and a good athlete and because neither of those things suffered due to his drinking, he would be fine.
Unfortunately, phases like TJ s that go unaddressed can be lethal!