How Can I Hold My 17 Yr.-Old Accountable?

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 176 · Duration: 00:16:37

How Can I Hold My 17 Yr. Old Accountable?

What do you do when your terrific 17-year-old is suddenly smoking and vaping weed and tells you it’s no big deal.Click To Tweet We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast, How Can I Hold My 17 Yr. Old accountable? How Can I Hold My 17 Yr. Old Accountable? 

Today we’re hearing from Marion of Torrance, California and Marion writes:

We are a recently divorced family and most of the parenting/limit setting has always been on my shoulders.  The kids continue to live with me and visit their Dad who moved to an apartment in town. We have 3 children, a 23-year-old daughter, a 17-year-old son, and a 15-year-old daughter.  

All are great kids and while meeting their needs is a lot of responsibility, they are all doing reasonably well.  Right now, however, I’m very concerned about my 17-year-old.  He’s a Junior and with Covid, and at-home learning, his grades have dropped from mostly A’s to B’s and C’s and emails from teachers saying he’s missing classes and assignments.  But the bigger issue is that I’ve discovered that he’s been smoking and vaping marijuana.  When I found out, I grounded him, but he seems to think I’m overreacting, and it’s no big deal.  My younger daughter tells me that she’s heard he’s doing other drugs as well so I’m not sure how to confront him. 

He was active in sports but now with free time and no responsibility to stay in shape, he’s going downhill. Their father will support my decisions; the divorce is over other issues. What can I do to hold a 17 year old accountable?

Now to Answer Marion’s question:

Now to Marion’s question and thanks for your question Marion because there is a big difference between older teens like yours and the younger ones we’ve been talking about lately.    There are a few things to zero in on here so let’s start with what a 17-year-old junior is.  

A 17-year-old has been a teenager for a few years now and is entering early young adulthood, the last stage of adolescence, which goes through about age 24.  So our 17-year-olds want to be more independent; essentially have their independent lives.  And to a large extent, we’d like to support that.  

We’d like them to be managing their educational responsibilities, extra-curricular activities, social lives, personal health, and hygiene including sleep hygiene and home responsibilities as independently as possible.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  The truth is however that since they are very, very early in the young adult stage and are still teenagers, and are legally under parental responsibility and therefore authority and aren’t ready to manage all that.  They often have very different ideas about what constitutes good choices, priorities, and safety.  So for instance Marion that your son says smoking and vaping cannabis is no big deal, doesn’t help you see him as ready for independence prime time, does it?

Now there are a couple of other things that we should think about here. Your son has done well and up until now, has responded well to your parental structure and support and now that he’s entered this stage, things have become strained.  So, why?  In addition to entering his new stage of development, his young adulthood, there are two major factors going on.  

One is the divorce, and even though you’ve borne the brunt of the parenting, the breakup of the family and family structure is huge and now, his father is not around and his father’s influence is not around and as minimal as it may seem to you, it was a vital part of the structure to your kids.  Also, related to the impact of divorce, divorce is not easy for anyone. So regardless of how cooperative or combative the divorce is, I’d have to assume that a certain amount of your bandwidth or your emotional resources and his father’s as well, was taken up by the divorce.  That made you both less available to the kids. 

Now let’s add to that, that the pandemic has added stress, taken away his passions and healthy activities, taken away direct influences of other healthy adults, and given him time to burn, well we’ve got to predict a certain amount of losing his way, don’t you think? 

So what we have here is a kid who needs some understanding as well as some structure and support and a Mom who needs some understanding and the bandwidth to offer structure and support, particularly knowing that her offerings will encounter some resistance. 

So Marion, I’ll leave you to find your own way to get personal and parenting support, and for your son, here is what we’re going to do.  First of all, let’s make sure Dad is on board and shares your concerns. 

Often after divorce, the less active parent becomes more active. Click To TweetGoing to his Dad with your concerns in a healthy way will be as important as how you go to your son but here’s how you can approach your son and you can use these points for engaging support with his Dad as well.  How about if I call your son Max?

First of all, let him know that you need 20 minutes of his undivided attention and let him tell you when he can do that and then, hold him to it.  

Before you start, have both of you leave your phones in another room or turned off, not on silent since the buzzing will still be distracting.

Here’s how this can go.

Mom:  Max, this is a hard time for all of us.   Between the Pandemic and the divorce, our lives have changed dramatically.  You’ve lost your sports and you have much less time with your friends.  Now Dad’s out of the house and while you still see him a lot, everyone isn’t in one place anymore and that must be hard too.

Max:  Yea, things are harder for sure.  But I’m dealing with it okay.  

Mom:   I’m glad about that, you’re a resilient kid.  You’re smart, talented, and a genuinely good human being.  I’m always proud of you.

Right now, while the divorce is fresh and this horrible pandemic goes on, you are also getting older and seeking greater independence. And that’s a large part of what I want to talk with you about.  You’re in the last half of your junior year.  Next year is your last year of high school and then off to college.  What are you thinking about that?

Max:  I don’t know.  Things are going along okay.  I think college will be fine.  

Mom: Okay that’s good.  I want to share my thoughts on this with you.  I think college will go as well as you prepare for it to go well.  If you build the skills for healthy decision making, then it’s guaranteed to go well.  On the other hand, if you get distracted by the trappings of fresh independence, then college could be challenging to you and could go far less well.

Max:  I’ll do fine.

Mom:   Like I said, you’ll do well and you’ll do fine, if you’ve prepared well, to do fine.  Although I’m not sure what fine is if fine means embrace the learning opportunities, meet new people and challenge yourself to bring your best whether academically, athletically, or socially, then fine works for me because that’s what I want for you.  Right now I’m not seeing you at your best. I see you lowering your standards and performance and like I said, things are tougher now so I get it.  But while you’re wanting greater independence, while you’re also lowering your standards, that won’t work.

Max:  I’m doing okay.  What are you talking about?

Mom:  Max, there are several things I’m talking about and you know what they are, what are they?

Max:  Probably weed, right?

Mom:  Yes and no.  Yes, smoking weed in high school is absolutely not okay.  Nor are the other substances you’re messing around with including alcohol.  

Max:  Why do you think I’m using other drugs?

Mom:  Things get around Max and that’s not the point.  

The point is essentially two things. 

1) One is you being committed to your best.  Your best in school, your best at home, and your best away from home, socially. 

 2) The second thing is our relationship.  I want you to grow your independence and know that I trust you.  

In order to do that, I need to know that you have the high personal standards I just spoke to.   I need to know you and I are on the same page, that you understand that my support for your going out includes no drugs or alcohol and that you’re managing your school responsibilities, up to the best of your ability.  That you’re trying your hardest.  

Max:  I don’t know how to prove anything to you.  Do you want me to drug test.  

Mom:  Not really, but that’s an option.  What I really want is for you to think about what I’ve said here.  That you are a fabulous young man who is entering a new stage of life under challenging circumstances, and you are committed to handling this period with the same determination you showed on the volleyball court and other challenging situations you faced, and that you are honoring my trust and faith in you.  I’d like you to think about these things and come up with your own personal response.  I’d like a response both verbally and behaviorally, whenever you’ve given yourself the time you need to think this through.  Until then, your Dad and I agree that you’re not to be using the car except to go from our place to Dad’s and back or specific errands with permission. 

Does this help Marion?  It’s not going to work playing cat and mouse with marijuana. 

We need to see the bigger picture and communicate the bigger picture and with positivity, appeal to your son’s best self.Click To Tweet Then we have to give it time to sink in, for him to process what you’ve talked about and leave the solution vague enough that he can’t use his thinking time to figure out how to get around the solution.  Instead, he has to bring the solution to you.


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