I Thought I Knew My Kid

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 122 · Duration: 00:14:56

I Thought I Knew My Kid

If your teenager does pretty well, and stays mostly out of trouble, should you let things slide?  

And if you have a question you’d like me to address on this podcast, don’t be shy, we’ll all benefit from your question so come on over to my website, neildbrown.com and enter it there today.  And while you’re there, download a free copy of my Parental Burnout Recovery Guide.

Today we’re hearing from Sarah from Colorado Springs, Colorado. 

Our 16 year old son has been a good kid all through childhood and adolescence.  His older brother was more challenging fighting with us, not managing responsibilities, pot smoking etc.  He joined the military and is straightening himself out, but his younger brother mostly does his work, has friends, plays sports, talks with us and is cooperative.  We know he’s not perfect, he could get better grades if he really tried, and he and his friends will drink and smoke a little, but we were shocked when we were called by the police and learned he and two friends were arrested for stealing marijuana from a pot farm.  An attorney is costing us several thousand dollars and she advises counseling which we want anyway.  I think his dad and I are the one’s who need the counseling the most, we’re shocked and dismayed.  We don’t even know how to understand what went through our son’s head or how to ever trust him again.  Help.

Thanks for your question Sarah and of course we’re sorry you’re having to go through this, but don’t despair.  I think we can shed some light on the situation that will help you and your son. 

For starters, it sounds like you settled into the idea that you have one really difficult son and one much easier one. Right?  It's not really true and it’s a dangerous way to think because it becomes a family narrative that is burdensome to your sons.  It’s easy to understand how your older son might be effected by a narrative where he gets pigeon holed as difficult, but it’s also burdensome to your younger son to have to live up to being the kid who doesn’t cause trouble. 

No doubt, a lot of parental bandwidth went to the Control Battle between parents and your older son. As Control Battles go, that took attention and family positivity away from your younger son.  If this is the case, then he’s been trying not to cause trouble and fly under the radar, which isn’t the same as learning, maturing and growing. It’s avoiding.  You say that you’re sure he drinks and smokes some, but it hasn’t seemed like a problem.  Sarah, I’m here to tell you that teen drinking and smoking is a problem and parents shouldn't turn a blind eye or a “wink, wink, just not too much” attitude towards.  If we say or imply that a little is okay, guess what their interpretation of that will be?  Drugs and alcohol are bad for kids so unless you’re allowing your teenager to have a small glass of red wine at the family Thanksgiving meal, the parental position should be “I expect you to be able to have a good time socializing with your friends without drugs, including marijuana, or alcohol and if you can’t agree to that and be accountable to that, there will be no going out.”

Now, let’s look at how a pretty darn good kid, who is more or less responsible and cooperative, could now be under arrest for felony theft.  There are two strong forces that can negatively influence teenage behavior.  Peer Pressure and enhanced dopamine release.   

For starters, as adults we too succumb to social pressure.  It effects what we wear, where and how we live; even what we think. 

But with youth, it’s far more pronounced and youth are far more likely to make high risk, potentially self-destructive decisions to gain peer approval.  Prior to middle school, children form friendships based on their classrooms, their activities, their families and neighborhoods.  Children make friends from the social groupings that parents arrange.  As our children move into adolescence, they choose and are chosen into their own social groupings based on interests, identity and social hierarchy.  Teenagers’ self-esteem is strongly tied to social acceptance so their desire for social acceptance can be stronger than, well, their common sense. 

Teenagers’ self-esteem is strongly tied to social acceptance so their desire for social acceptance can be stronger than, well, their common sense. Click To Tweet

Second,  neurological changes are taking place during adolescence and one of these changes is a heightened release of dopamine.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that drives the desire for excitement.  Often that desire for excitement will over shadow thinking about the potential negative consequences of an activity.  So if one teen has an exciting idea, just the thought of it will give everyone a dopamine reward and incline them to go along.

These two influencers I’m sure had everything to do with your son’s decision.  I’m imagining that the conversation with your son and his friends went something like this: 

“Russ, don’t tell anyone but there’s this pot grow right in back of the grape vines on Hill Top Road.  No one is ever there it’s so hidden they don’t think anyone can see it.” 

“Wow, if we took just 10 or 20 buds we could probably get like $1,000. for it and have plenty for ourselves.  There’s so much up there they won’t even care.”

“Totally, let’s do it.”

If there were just one of them deciding to steal it or not, they probably wouldn’t.  With three of them, the synergy of proving their bravery to each other and the excitement of the adventure all colluded to promote the really bad decision. 

Sarah here is where I think you can go with this.  First off, of course, your son is going to have some work to do to get through this legal mess.  Not get in more trouble, do some serious counseling and come to terms with his immaturity and what you describe as his not trying his best in school and he and his friends drinking and smoking, mostly under the radar.  What you’re describing is a formula for mediocrity, and I’m sorry Sarah, but that’s not fair to your son.  It’s like the message to him is, “If you aren’t as bad as your brother, and mostly stay out of trouble, and you’re mostly cooperative, you’re good to go.”

What we really want for your son is to totally believe in himself and want to invest in himself, and of course care about his grades and see drinking and smoking as not supporting his goals.  It takes strong self-esteem for a teenager to be there and that’s what we want for your son.

If he were a more self-confident and mature 16 year old and his friends suggested such a thing, he’d say, “That sounds exciting, but we could get shot, I don’t want to sell weed, and I don’t smoke weed.  Besides, I have a lot of homework.” 

Sarah, here is how you could talk with your son, maybe even in a counseling session and I do advise that you and your husband go to counseling with your son at least for starters because otherwise the therapist will see a well spoken pretty good kid who made a mistake, and never get to the real issues holding him back.  The therapist will be supportive and unwittingly enable mediocrity.  This happens all the time with teenagers and counseling and it’s why a family therapy approach is so critical to counseling with teens.

In counseling together you can talk about:

  • How the Control Battle with his brother overshadowed other needs in the family.  And how as parents, you were responsible for the Control Battle.
  • How worn out you all were and settled for decent with your younger son instead of supporting him and requiring him to do his best.
  • How you let drinking and smoking go by without confronting it.
  • How he may have felt burdened to be the “good kid” rather than have his own unique set of problems and issues.
  • And how you all need to work together now to raise the standards and help your son believe in himself and get involved in truly rewarding activities and experiences.
  • And how you take responsibility and apologize for not helping him be his best.

Sarah, once you and his father have done this or whichever part of this is accurate and appropriate, now you can move forward. He and his therapist can work on whatever might be in the way between where he is and his best. 

As I’ve often said, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” and Sarah, this is the crisis that can save your son from a life of mediocrity and lead instead to a life of empowerment and leadership.

So parents and therapists,  Sarah has given us a lot to think about here; the unacceptability of mediocrity.  Of course no one is going to be great at everything, that’s not the point.  But are our youth supported and empowered to bring their best selves to their lives?  That is the point.

Control Battles have serious negative impacts on everyone in the family so if one is going on, that’s problem number one.Click To Tweet

Also, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.  How can we help our children, our selves and our clients learn and grow from theirs?

And finally, providing counseling with a teenager without understanding the family dynamics and changing unhealthy dynamics to into healthy ones is enabling the problem.

Thank you Sarah for your important question and our best wishes to you and your family.

Here is a challenge I’d like to invite you all to take on.  So often, we shrug off a complement or a gift.  We’ll say, “Oh you didn’t need to do that.” or “Oh, it was nothing.  No you don’t have it right, I’m not that pretty, talented, fast, disciplined, or whatever.”  Try this, notice when someone gives you a gift; a gift of a complement, or doing something for you or giving you something, and truly appreciate it.  Let it in.  Feel liked, loved, worthy.  Give this a try and shoot me an email and let me know what you discover. 

And thanks for tuning in today everyone and please, Take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.  Bye for now.


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