Don’t Set Your Struggling Teenager Up For Failure

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 182 · Duration: 00:16:48

Don’t Set Your Struggling Teenager Up For Failure

What do you do when your son gets suspended only 2 weeks after starting his freshman year at school, and when he goes back, finds a new way to get himself suspended? We'll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast,  Don’t Set Your Struggling Teenager Up For Failure.

Today we’re hearing from Gil writing in from New Zealand and Gil writes:

Our son completely disregards rules. His first time in the school at  (grade 9) he got into trouble in his 2nd week for vandalism. He was suspended for 2 weeks, then COVID-19 set in. Back at school this year, in the 3rd week he got in trouble again for smoking. Suspended again, and he can only go back in May.  He shows no remorse, doesn't apologize and when asked why he did what he did he had no answer.  He shows no thought of what the consequences of his actions might be. He just wants to be Mr. Big stuff. He’s known to lie all the time and makes up stories to make himself look good and just does what he wants no matter the consequences.  I have no idea what to do to turn him around.

Now to answer Gil's question:

Thanks for sharing your situation Gil and it sounds like things are set up to continue to go down hill so I’m glad you contacted me and let’s see what we can offer up here. You don’t mention how he does at home, during the quarantine home learning for instance but based on his behavior at school, we can make some assumptions.  Let’s review what you’ve shared;

  1. When he started school, he committed vandalism and was suspended.
  2. When he went back, he smoked and was suspended.
  3. He shows no remorse and he doesn’t apologize.
  4. He can’t or won’t explain his motivation.
  5. He doesn’t seem to care about the consequences of his actions.
  6. He chronically lies in ways to make himself look good.

This is quite a list for a 14 or 15 year-old teenager.   Since he is still on the earlier side of his teen years, there is time to respond to all this and move things in a better direction.  Let’s think about what he’s presenting.

The vandalism indicates he’s angry and then after being suspended, smoking, and again being suspended, sure tells us he doesn’t want to be there.  Suspending him or having him not come to school isn’t addressing his issues at all.  So his current educational environment isn’t going to succeed.  He’s saying he doesn’t want to be there and the school is accommodating that message; sending him home. Unless there is some strategy between home and school that inspires him to want to be there and succeed, we need to think about what’s next.  If you want to see if he can succeed at his current school, you’ll need to meet with school personnel and see if they have a way to make him feel a part of things and be connected to school in a positive way.

Giving him another chance without changing anything to address his issues, is just setting him up to fail.Click To Tweet

A question we need to understand is how much of his acting out behavior is oppositional or represents his active fighting with you; his participation in a Control Battle?  And how much of this represents his lack of healthy identity development and value development?  I’m sure both of those things are present in this situation.  

A teenager his age should have some things they feel good about in themselves. Athletics, music, art, scholastics, or anything that they see as “their thing”.  

Additionally, they should have a grasp on value development even though their value development is going to be basic, in the realm of right and wrong and not nuanced in a complex way.  What I mean by that is for instance, loyalty and honesty are values that many kids see and acknowledge.  But what happens when loyalty and honesty come into conflict with each other. For instance a friend did something wrong to another kid and the police ask them to tell them what they know.  Now we have honesty and loyalty in conflict and it takes judgment to know the right thing to do.  What if a youth lives in a community where the police aren’t trusted and even if a friend did something wrong, a youth believes he will be treated unfairly and harshly versus a community where police and the justice system are more respected.  See what I mean? Values are complex and I’m not sure Gil where your son is in his value development.  If he has no remorse for the things he does wrong and breaks rules simply because he wants what he wants, clearly he has some important work to do in his value development.   He also has work to do in the areas of positive identity development, self-confidence and motivation to do well.  

For us to address these issues at all will require something very important, even vital, he needs is to experience his father as on his side, caring about him and believing in him.  Otherwise, it’s going to be impossible to make gains in the other areas we just talked about.  Gil, I get that you are enormously frustrated with your son and who wouldn’t be in this situation. 

But let’s ask, why would your son lie to make himself sound cool or otherwise act as you put it, like  “big stuff”. It’s because he doesn’t feel worthy, he doesn’t feel good about himself, he doesn’t feel successful or believe in his ability to be successful in a healthy way.  So he’s choosing unhealthy ways to feel worthy.  It doesn’t really work because he knows it’s a show, at least at some level he knows that.  So what are we going to do to help him?  Help him get on a healthy path forward so that he improves in all these areas as he moves towards his young adulthood.  

So like I said, he needs to know that you’re on his side and will help him.  

Gil, he should not go back to that school unless you and the school have a plan to help him be successful there.  If we can’t arrange that, we need a plan B, an alternative environment where he can get the support and guidance he needs to feel like he belongs and can succeed.  There needs to be some adults present who understand struggling teenagers and can bring empathy and connection as well as structure and support for success.  I’m imagining a learning environment where at least some of the learning is hands-on, like building things, or making things.  It will be easier for your son to feel successful and be motivated to be successful if he can experience tangible success. 

Gil let’s say that after talking with the school, they offer a more hands on helpful approach with your son and you’d like to give it a try.  Here’s how you might handle it.

It needs to start with a positive communication with your son that demonstrates your commitment to him and to a positive connection with him.Click To Tweet

It would need to sound something like this and I’ll call your son Bobby:

“Bobby, clearly you are not happy with the idea of going to this school.  You’ve managed to get yourself sent away from it twice already so I hear you loud and clear.  I’ve spoken with the school, and they’d like to work with you and still have you go there.  They have some ideas they think you will like and will work for you if you want them to".

"Bobby, I don’t want to set you up for failure but we don’t have a lot of school options.  How about if we go to school together and see what they’re thinking about and see if it’s something you can commit to.  You don’t have to do something wrong and be suspended if you don’t want to go there.  We can just talk about it and decide how to handle it together.

'I’m your father and I’m on your side, and by your side to support you and listen to you. Let’s work on things together and you do your very best to listen to me and work with me as well.”Click To Tweet

Now let’s say the school doesn’t offer any resources and sending him back looks like setting him up for failure.  Let’s not do that.  You’ll need to look for an alternative.

Then the message is, 

“Bobby, let’s not set you up for failure.   You’ve gotten yourself suspended twice so it’s clear you don’t want to go to this school.  Let’s look for an alternative that motivates you.  I want you to know that we can talk about these things and you don’t have to fail to show me what you don’t want, we can just talk.  Failure is no fun so let’s work together so you can find success.  You’re worth it.”

In the US, I don’t see these kids, kids that are struggling like your son is Gil, very well resourced.  Usually, they get pushed out of their school and sent to a much less academically rich environment, sometimes with supportive staff, but without a strong curriculum.  I wish we would invest much more heavily in these struggling youth.  That way, they’d grow up with much stronger values, self esteem, and pathways to personal and vocational success.  In addition to the humanistic value in helping these kids feel happier with life and themselves, the investment would pay off economically as well. We’d avoid the cost of future law enforcement involvement and other adult failure costs and gain from their healthy engagement in the economy, their communities and raising the next generation of youth. But regardless of how good the options are, no teenager is going to apply themselves, if they don’t feel supported and cared about.  That’s why Gil, building a healthy connection with your son and establishing yourself as his advocate is so vital to doing a critical course correction towards his success. 

So parents of struggling teens, and folks who work with them, let’s not set these kids up for failure.  Success will take just two little things;

  1. The belief that parents and other adults know them and care about them, and
  2. A curriculum rich environment that interests them, challenges them, and offers them the experience of success.

Thanks for tuning in today listeners, I really enjoyed talking with you and special thanks to you Gil for sharing your challenging situation. 

Right now here in the US and in the UK and likely other places, we’re getting vaccinated and we’re feeling optimistic, like we can get our lives back in the near future. If we can hang in there a while longer, it looks like we can get vaccinated and be able to have our lives back in 2021. But let’s quit the race before we cross the finish line. We’re close so this would be a silly time to give up. Let’s mask up, socially distance and reduce all the risks we can.

This is still a very stressful time, and there’s a lot of burnout in families, in fact the longevity of this has taken a huge toll and the longer it goes the worse it gets, but like I say there is an end in sight so in the meantime, please, please, take care of yourselves.  

You need it, you deserve it, and you’re worth it. Bye for now.

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