The Healthy Family Connections Podcast
Episode 142 · Duration: 00:18:51
Your Son Has Been In Decline For Too Long
What do you do when your son, a talented athlete being recruited by colleges, is throwing it all away?
Rob of Northern California writes:
Our 17 year old son's behavior and anger issues have steadily gotten worse between the ages of 15 to 17 years old. Coincidentally (or not), that is the time frame he began vaping nicotine products and using marijuana. His behavior has put a strain on the entire family. He is a middle child. He has developed a deep resentment towards his older brother. His older brother also dislikes him very much and they have been in several verbal and nearly physical altercations in our home. He was a standout athlete and is being recruited by colleges but shows zero interest and refuses to answer phone calls from college coaches. His moods are sometimes pleasant but mostly irritable and withdrawn. He refuses to have a face to face conversation about his life or future. He will only text about it using his phone. He believes nothing is wrong with him and refuses to go to family counseling. He gets most angry when we find his stash of vape and marijuana products in his room and we take it away. He hasn't had control of his own money for over a year because we do not support him using. He has stolen money from us even though he has access to as much money as he needs for regular everyday things. He closes himself in his room 95% of the time and only comes out to eat and often tries to take food back to his room. He hates talking or communicating with any adults. He is a handsome kid but has never been on a date or shown any interest in going on date. He seems to struggle most when there is any conflict or stress. He gets overly angry very quickly and does not think rationally. His anger has had negative affects on other people, including his family, teammates, and friends. He has a lot of friends and he’s very popular. He will often go to other friend’s houses or parties and enjoys himself. When we offer our home for him and his friends to hangout, he refuses to ever bring anyone over our house. We have a nice home and his siblings often bring friends over and have a great time. Me, my wife, and his older brother have all agree to get help and are seeking it now. It's so hard to figure out why he has problems when he has been blessed with such an ideal life. He has all the love, safety, and support he needs yet struggles so much. Very frustrated!
Thanks for your question Rob and I’m glad you’ve written in to us. Let’s take a look here. There obviously are more unanswered than answered questions, but there are some important clues you’ve offered that I can respond to and hopefully be helpful.
Rob, you say this decline has gone on for two years and you’re still trying to get a handle on it. And you report that your son started using marijuana products and nicotine at the start of his decline. You also mention that you can’t understand why he’s as negative as he is given that he has an idyllic life, that he’s a talented athlete, handsome, popular with friends, it’s inexplicable to you. His anger affects everyone in the family and even his friends and teammates. And finally, his older brother and he are at odds with each other and there is chronic stress between them that leads to verbal and borders on physical fights. You also are frustrated that he tells you he doesn’t have a problem and has no need for counseling.
Obviously Rob, there is more going on than meets the eye, why would a popular, talented kid like this go into decline, steal, use drugs, use anger and hostility to get his way, and give up on what appears to be a promising and advantaged future?
Lack of Accountability
I’m not sure how you’ve been trying to address the problems with your son over the period of his decline and drug usage, but the situation now is that he acts like he has the power to do what he likes and you serve as a bed and breakfast. He even takes his meals and goes to his room. So there is no effective accountability to his parents. With no accountability, you as parents aren’t in a position to address issues with him. Yes his behavior is not good for the family but mostly we’re looking at a young man with some serious problems that aren’t being addressed. An inability or lack of desire to manage his emotions, stealing, drug abuse, unwillingness to engage with adults and giving up on his future indicates something is very, very wrong. But what is it?
Well for one thing, he is rejecting his identity as a collegiate athlete. Why would he do that? Isn’t that a dream for most high school athletes? There is most likely something significant that we don’t understand that going on with your son. Was there a trauma that we don’t know about? Does he have some issue with his identity that he can’t or doesn’t want to face? Did his older brother always harbor resentment from his birth and treat him badly? We don’t know the answers to these questions but we do know that as long as he’s abusing drugs and not getting serious therapeutic help, we aren’t going to know. Your son needs intensive treatment. Could drugs alone be dragging him this far down? Well, if he’s been using regularly for 2 years, that’s 2 years of lost social emotional development. If you know about his marijuana use, there could easily be drugs he’s using that you don’t know about. I invite you to listen to an earlier podcast titled The Truth about Youth and Marijuana Today where I interviewed Amy Rose of Recovery Happens. She explains just how powerful and debilitating marijuana and vaping nicotine can be for youth today.
Setting Effective Limits
So the number one thing you need to focus on is getting your son into a serious therapeutic treatment program with a strong substance abuse component.
Right now, you seem to not have any way to get him to cooperate with anything, let alone go to an intensive treatment program. Rob, that’s a parenting issue. If you are clear about your limits, standards, and expectations, and you are connected with an advocate for your son so that he feels your love and support; he knows that you care deeply about him and whatever is going on for him, and you aren’t going to take no for an answer, then he will follow your lead.
Instead, Rob, you’ve felt helpless and while you have done some things such as go in his room and confiscate his drugs, you haven’t set effective limits. You’ve allowed yourself to get caught up in your exasperation with him and your confusion about why he’s rejecting such an “idyllic life." Rob, he hasn’t felt and he doesn’t feel his life is idyllic. He doesn’t know how he fits in, how to be himself in a self-valuing way. He’s in pain. He may not be saying that, but he sure as hell is showing that. It feels to him like he doesn’t fit in the family and related to that, he doesn’t have a vision for himself being happy and successful in society.
Here is the message and the tone you need to use with him. I’ll call your son Mitch.
Rob: Mitch, I’m very concerned that you are as alienated in the family as you are, that you’re continuing to use marijuana and I’m not sure what else you may be using, and I’m very concerned that you are throwing away opportunities for next year without a clear vision of you what’s next in your life.
I’m very concerned that at this point, I don’t know how to help you. You are an amazingly talented young man, and I love and care about you without conditions. But I don’t know what’s eating you, what your issues are that you’re dealing with, what your issues are with me and Mom. I just don’t know.
It is clear that you need help and that’s what Mom and I will focus on now, getting you the help you need and getting us the help we need to reclaim a healthy relationship together. I’m done fighting with you. I’m done being angry and upset with you. The only thing that matters now is you and us figuring this out, you getting the help and support you need to reclaim your healthy self, and Mom and I to better understand and know how to support you. I’ve contacted Dr. Jones and he’s going to meet with us and recommend a behavioral health treatment program for us.
Matt: I don’t need help, you and Mom and my crappy brother are the ones who need help.
Rob: I’m sure you’re right about us needing help and I intend for us to get it, but clearly you do as well. Even if your problems are my fault, you still need and deserve help. You’re a great young man and it’s way past time that we stop fighting and get you the help you need and deserve.
Rob that’s the theme and tone you are going to need to use. It’s the theme and tone you’ve needed to use for a long time. There is no reason for you to have been as helpless has you’ve felt. It’s one thing to feel helpless, that’s understandable. Yet there are always actions you can take and if you can’t think of any effective actions to take, talk to an expert. Not every therapist is an expert on everything. For a situation such as yours Rob, you need a therapist who has two skills, one skill is to know how to address issues and garner resources for a substance abusing teenager and young adult. The other skill is to be able to help you understand your sense of helplessness and shift into an action oriented modality.
So listeners, parents, therapists, and folks who work with teenagers and their families, even though a teenager’s behavior seems inexplicable and unalterable, don’t be fooled. They are in trouble and they need their parents’ help. Parents are never as helpless as they feel. It’s just that their normal ways of seeing things and dealing with things aren’t right for a specific situation; their way of seeing and responding to the problem is maintaining it, not helping resolve it. With new insight and support, parents can get out of their comfort zone to help their teenager or young adult get out of theirs.Even though a teenager’s behavior seems inexplicable and unalterable, don’t be fooled. They are in trouble and they need their parents’ help.Click To Tweet
Thanks for tuning in today everyone, and special thanks to Rob for sharing his situation with us.
During this very challenging time for our respective countries, and in our communities and families, many folks will experience feelings and situations that are overwhelming and I want to encourage you all to reach out to your mental health community. Many individual therapists and community mental health centers are providing services by phone and video platforms. If you’d like a consultation with me, give me a call or email and we can set up a meeting in a Zoom meeting room.
I want you all to know that I’m with you, and care deeply about what you and your family are going through. I think this is hardest on single parent families. Several two parent families I’ve talked with are experiencing the stay at home order as a blessing, not withstanding the terrible ravages of the virus. But they’re bonding more closely with their children, not feeling stressed by their work schedules or school schedules. They are even getting more “Me Time” as there is another parent to cover them.
Single parent families often have less financial resources and have that stress while trying to care for their children and without backup. They lack “Me Time” and are at higher risk of burning out. I hope all you single parents are reaching out and getting at least emotional support from friends and family and perhaps even from the therapeutic community. Here’s one idea, schedule short “Me Time” periods where everyone does things independently with no bugging each other or a parent for, say 20 minutes, or whatever is age appropriate for kids. Then you can use that little interval to practice meditation, breathing, or talk with a friend on the phone. No laundry or vacuum or other choose, but something that offers you something back.
Please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.
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