Recently I had a very disturbing conversation with a seventeen-year-old male high school senior. His life has not been a walk in the park. His parents, although together, have not been able to parent their five children in a long time. Thus, JC has been in and out of foster homes since the age of ten.
Our paths crossed because he was mandated to mental health counseling. That mandate was ordered because of JC's poor choices.
As I got to know this very bright, undisciplined young man, I realize two important things. There is a side of him that is very endearing and a side that makes you want to go for his throat.
During this past year, JC has made a number of positive strides. When he first entered treatment he was extremely truant. He would go to school, but never go to class. While he was on campus and not in class, he got into all kinds of mischief. And of course, it was never his fault.
After a series of meetings with his principal and teachers, and some restructuring of his class schedule, school started to turn around. With structure, accountability and consistent consequences, JC went from being an "F" student to being an "C" student, with still much room for improving.
Although his schoolwork has dramatically improved, his social behavior is out of control. JC is seventeen and a senior in high school, but acts like he is an immature twelve year old. He lies incessantly about everything, even when he is not in trouble. When confronted about this behavior, his response is always the same, "what is the big deal?"
Unfortunately, he has no social boundaries. In each foster home, he had to share a room. Initially he got along very well with his roommates and other housemates. As JC settled in, he and his roommate always had a conflict. The conflict each and every time centered around JC taking his roommates things, lying about it and oftentimes breaking or losing the item taken without permission.
Each time one of these conflicts was brought to counseling, JC would talk around the issue. He would minimize the issue and accuse his roommate of overreacting. He would always end his defense with "what is the big deal?"
Probably the most disturbing part of JC's story is his ongoing justification of the use of violence in resolving the typical teenage conflicts that emerge on an ongoing basis.
It was a Wednesday. There was no school. JC was home with his other foster brothers, all of whom are in high school. A few weeks before, they had gone to a Yankees game on "Kid's Day." Everyone in their group had been given an umbrella. It was a rainy afternoon. One of the boys JC lived with came down with his Yankee umbrella. JC said it was his. The other boy said it wasn't. He showed JC where his name was etched in the handle. JC wrestled him for it. After a brief tussle, JC grabbed the umbrella, opened and deliberately broke it. He threw it in the other boy's face and walked away.
Shortly after that confrontation, his foster parents confronted him. He did not deny what happened. He tried to justify his behavior by contending that the umbrella was his. When confronted about the deliberate destruction of property, he could not see what the big deal was.
JC is a taker. He believes with his heart that taking whatever and whenever is no big deal. He has a warped sense of entitlements.
Whenever he plays a game and does not like the outcome, he provokes a confrontation. His foster parents have cited countless circumstances where JC was shaking another boy or bullying someone. When asked about these episodes, he would always say he was kidding. The boys involved never felt he was kidding.
After a closer look at his family, so much of this dysfunctional behavior can be traced back to how he was parented or not parented when he was a little boy. As he started to act out, even as a little boy, too many people made excuses for JC and never really held him accountable for his choices. The excuse was "this poor kid, he is in such a poor environment." Most who know his story would not disagree. However, making excuses for him has ultimately only compounded his social problems.
At seventeen, JC is a bright, good-looking and at times charming young man, who is on the verge of social disaster. If his cycle of socio-pathic choices and behavior aren't arrested and changed, this young man is going to spend his twenties in the Riverhead Hilton wearing an orange jumpsuit.
Too often we set the JC's of the world up for disaster. We don't set appropriate social boundaries. We are afraid to set social rules and establish some very basic values that human beings are supposed to live by.
Most of us would subscribe to values like respect, responsibility, accountability, honesty, truth and non-violence. We would probably especially encourage males not to exploit and/or use and abuse women.
This formula sounds so simple, but unfortunately many so called functional parents have a hard time being consistent.
It is very difficult to impose a value system or social way of acting on a seventeen year old who has grown and developed in certain ways. It is not impossible to empower change, but it is very difficult. Most of us on a good day hate to change or even admit that we need to change.
Imagine a teenager who has been set in his ways for seventeen years. This is a teenager who unfortunately grew up believing that might makes right. He truly believes there are some entitlements that are not negotiable and that one is justified in using whatever means to get them.
JC was terminated from his last placement because of his reckless and violent behavior. Before the system could do their job, he ran. He is on the run now. If they catch him, what will happen to him? Where will he go? Is he destined for the orange jumpsuit and an accommodation at the Riverhead Hilton?
Parenting teenagers is probably the most challenging adventure before us. No matter what the young person's profile, it takes a team effort with everyone reading the same script and willing to reinforce the same basic plan.
The JC's of the world need this if they are going to survive, never mind really live.