Denial! That is a word that most of us don't like to hear when it is applied to our own parenting skills or the living of our own life. Too often when dealing with teenagers, we make excuses for their negative behavior. No parent wants to believe that their son or daughter is making poor choices that might potentially jeopardize his or her life.
However, the reality of life is that many of our children at different stages of their journey make reckless choices. For some it's just a phase they pass through. For others, it's not a phase, but rather a point in their life where they get stuck and can't get out. Some are drowning in poor decision making while we adults don't even see it.
The holiday season for all of us, young and old alike is a time for celebrating. For many of our high school and college students it is a time for catching up with old friends, celebrating with new friends and unfortunately making some decisions and social choices that could be lethal.
As parents, we do not want to believe that our children are at risk. Too often during the holiday season we turn a blind eye to their social choices. We want to believe that they will act responsibly and appropriately. Thus, we tend to be lax with our traditional guidelines for social behavior.
Unfortunately, today's teenage holiday season gatherings do not just involve a beer to toast the season, but rather they involve multiple drinks and at times other chemicals that are not healthy.
Twenty years ago the only teenagers who drank and smoked pot were those who lived on the fringe. Today, there is not a single group of high school and college students who do not drink socially and also from time to time experiment with other chemical substances. Too many parents want to believe their children are good students and/or athletes. They want to believe their children are involved in healthy extracurricular activities and that they are not involved in potentially dangerous social behavior.
So many of our good students believe that our social prohibitions around drinking and smoking pot are ridiculous. So often, students have said to me that if they do well in school and are respectful and responsible at home, "what's the big deal?" The same students have made the point that they believe their social behavior and social choices are their own business and their business alone.
The frustrating aspect about teenage social behavior is that we do not have universal agreement on how to hold our teenage and college students accountable and responsible. A good number of parents believe that as long as their children do well in school and act responsibly, social drinking and smoking are tolerable.
Some of those very parents believe that they cannot prevent their children from making those kinds of social choices. So, they've taken the position of toleration with the hope that it will be a brief phase of social development.
That kind of thinking makes it very difficult for parents who are trying to hold their high school and college age children more accountable to the law that presently exists. They also feel that if they turn their back and take the position of social toleration and something happens to their child or someone else's child, they would feel responsible.
Teenage socializing is definitely a challenge and at times a real problem. As parents, we cannot be silent or take the position of social indifference. However, if we take a position, we need to be prepared to enforce that position, even if it's difficult and uncomfortable.
What we don't realize is that many of our children are developing serious addiction problems while in high school. We might think it's just a phase or a period of social experimentation, but in fact unbeknownst to us as parents, it has become a serious problem. Too often in high school and in college, our children learn how to mask their problem. They become very sophisticated in hiding their symptoms and their social behavior.
As responsible parents, we need to continuously be on top of these concerns. Our children won't be happy. They will feel that we are being too overprotective, overbearing and downright intrusive. We need to be respectful, but we also need to communicate that we are concerned and that we realize no one is invincible.
AJ is seventeen and a senior in a local North Shore high school. When he was sixteen he started to drink socially. He was a good student, a good athlete and very popular in his class. The night of his junior prom, he came home totally inebriated. His parents dismissed the whole circumstance because it was prom night. The next week, they sat him down and spoke to him about their concerns relative to teenage drinking. He assured them that it was an isolated circumstance and that they should have no worries. Of course they wanted to believe him, and they did.
The summer between junior and senior was a real adventure. AJ really spread his wings. He partied every weekend, but made sure he never came home under the influence. When he drank too much, he made sure he stayed at a friend's house. So, most of the summer, his parents felt he was acting just like any teenage boy.
In addition to his drinking, AJ started to experiment with a wide range of street drugs. Since middle school, he had smoked pot on and off. In high school, he tried a few other drugs, but never used anything consistently. However, during his junior summer all of that changed. Some of his so-called friends introduced him to ecstasy, mushrooms, crack and cocaine. Cocaine became his drug of choice.
In the fall of his senior year, AJ got caught dealing pot in the halls of his high school. He was immediately suspended, pending an administrative hearing. Needless to say, his parents were devastated. AJ claimed it was the first time he dealt anything. The school administration contends he had been dealing all year long, but this was the first time he was caught. His parents continued to defend their son and minimize the seriousness of his behavior.
After the administrative hearing, school officials urged that AJ go for a drug and alcohol evaluation. Once that evaluation was completed, they would determine whether or not AJ could return to school.
A number of dates were set for the evaluation, but each time AJ cancelled them. The continued cancellations were seen by the school administration as a lack of cooperation. Since they were a private school, they decided to terminate his placement.
While deciding what to do since it was his senior year, AJ was arrested in the parking lot of a 7/11 store for possession with the intent to sell. The police told his parents that they had been watching him for six months and were concerned that he was becoming a leading drug dealer.
Again, AJ denied everything. His parents still did not want to believe that he had a problem. Finally after close family and friends suggested they take the blinders off, they were open to some recommendations to get their son help.
He was screened for a very successful, non-traditional, long-term treatment program. Their assessment indicated that AJ had a very serious substance abuse problem. They recommended that he immediately begin long-term residential care.
When his parents got these results, they immediately started to negotiate with the program administrators about the type of care and treatment their son needed. They have no knowledge, experience or training in the area of addiction, but because their son was resistant to long-term care, they were attempting to amend the program prescribed for him.
The program administrators made it very clear that if AJ were to begin treatment with them, it would be on their terms not his or his parents. When his mother continued to question the guidelines around visitation, phone calls and length of stay, the administrator told her rather candidly that this decision was about her son's life or death and that she should stop making excuses for his behavior and his need for long-term treatment. With great reluctance, his mother supported his beginning treatment.
Unfortunately, AJ's parents are still living with intense denial of the seriousness of their son's addiction problem. He's only just begun his treatment. Time will tell if he has the courage to do the work and complete the process. Hopefully, his parents won't sabotage the experience.