Our Very Normal 17-Year-Old Is Failing


The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 166 · Duration: 00:13:59

Our Very Normal 17-Year-Old Is Failing

What do you do when your very normal 17-year-old starts to fail?

Our Very Normal 17-Year-Old Is FailingToday, we’re hearing from Robert of Des Moines, Iowa. Robert writes:

Our 17-year-old son is in his senior year of high school and is doing worse than ever. He’s always been a normal kid headed to college. While not an exceptional athlete, he participated in sports and had a good group of friends. He is bright but not a straight “A” student like his sister is. We’re aware that our son and his friends used marijuana and drank alcohol at times, but since it seems that most kids do these days, we weren’t too concerned.

Things now are really troubling. We think he’s drinking and smoking a lot, his grades are failing or close to failing, and he has new friends that are not the college bound friend group he’s been a part of. He isn’t following through on his college applications that are due very soon. He’s too old for us to take his phone away but we’re on him all the time. We just want him to do his assignments and finish his college applications. We tell him our concerns and he just tells us not to worry about it. We’re at our wits end and are mystified about what to do? Is there anything we can do to keep him from failing?

Thanks for your question, Robert. Your situation is important and does require strong parental action so let’s take a look at what’s going on because there are a couple of key elements here.

Addressing The Challenges At Hand

First is the way you describe your son, he sounds like a middle of the road kind of kid. He's bright, but not really bright, and athletic, but not a difference-maker. He's in a friend group, but does he have a real friend? This may be more about the limits of what you can write in a question, but it does sound like your son hasn’t developed a strong healthy personal identity. What does he do well at? What is he passionate about? What are his personal characteristics that make him who he is and how does he manifest those characteristics? Sure, he isn’t a stand out athlete or student, but he needs to be a stand out him.

Substance use by teenagers should not be taken lightly. Kids do lots of things we don’t approve of, yes, of course, that’s common. That doesn’t mean we now approve of what we don’t approve of. We address it and deal with it. It sounds like you knew of alcohol and marijuana use, and accepted it as part of his being a teenager, and decided not to firmly address it or set clear limits and accountability to those limits.

At this point, it does indeed sound like your son has a serious substance abuse problem; grades in decline, abandoning college applications, new friends and if you think he’s drinking and smoking a lot, then obviously there is evidence of that. Robert, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that your son is using other drugs as well. They’re out there in abundance, from speed to Xanax to heroin. I would also mention that the marijuana of yesteryear was less than 10% THC content and the marijuana of today is more like 30% and the liquid THC in the vape pens is 90% so its use should not be taken lightly.

And finally Robert, you are wondering what to do. For some reason, you feel he’s too old to take his phone away. I’m not sure where the age for taking a phone away expires but apparently it has in your eyes and you and your wife present as quite helpless. But you’re not and your son needs you not to be. He needs someone to take charge because he isn’t.

Taking Charge With Your Young Adult

So, what does taking charge look like? Robert, it sounds like you are concerned about him doing his assignments and applying to college. Right now I’m concerned about his substance abuse and lack of motivation to do well in school and go to college. If you want him to do well and go to college, and he doesn’t, well that’s a recipe for failure. The person who has the control has to have the motivation. We need to address his lack of motivation and clearly, substance abuse is a primary factor in that. As I alluded to earlier, I think his lack of self-esteem and awareness of his own special characteristics are very important factors as well, but we won’t be able to address those issues while he’s drug and alcohol involved, so we need to start with that.

If you want your teenager to do well and go to college, and they don’t, well that’s a recipe for failure. The person who has the control has to have the motivation.Click To Tweet

Step one is to have your son evaluated by a competent therapist. It has to be someone who can look at the bigger picture of his emotional state and his substance use. The question to answer is what level of treatment is indicated. Weekly outpatient therapy, even with family therapy, is most likely not going to change things enough or quickly enough to change behavior. Even if he is diagnosed with depression in addition to substance abuse, which is likely, therapy and medication won’t be effective if he’s using drugs. Anti-depressant medication should not be used with alcohol or drugs.

Intensive programs that can be effective would be either an intensive outpatient program or an inpatient residential treatment program. In an intensive outpatient program, your son would live at home and go to the program either online or at the location, depending on COVID protocols, and would meet four to six days a week for several hours a day. Some are clearly designed for substance abuse and others for mental health issues, and some for both. There are a wide variety of residential programs for teenagers and young adults including wilderness programs as well as more traditional settings. When choosing a residential program, I always use a licensed placement professional. There are many, many programs that all have their specific approaches and since this is a big decision, you want to make a choice that’s best for your youth. I always use my colleague Dr. Mark Burdick. Mark is a licensed clinical and educational psychologist. I actually had him on my podcast last year where we discussed treatment options for young adults. You can catch that episode here.

Moving Forward With Your Family

Now Robert, regardless of whether your son enters an intensive outpatient program or a residential program, family therapy is desperately needed and in support of that, you and your wife will benefit enormously from my course, Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle. It covers everything in my book by the same name and more. You’ll get a downloadable workbook and instructional videos. Each section has exercises that will deepen your understanding and skills.

Robert, if we were having this conversation a year or so ago or whenever you realized your son was starting to drink and use cannabis, we would be having a very different conversation. Then, yes, you would pull back on privileges and we’d also utilize therapy to find out what’s driving it. What’s going on with your son, who he is, what he feels good about in himself, what to learn about, and how to grow himself. What his passions are and how to pursue them. How as a family you can support his learning and growing and how to be empowered parents. All of that is still vital and needs to be addressed. However, serious substance abuse will have to be addressed before we can get on to conquering the underlying issues.

So, parents and folks working with families and parents, when our teenagers are making bad decisions, and doing things we might consider common such as experiment with marijuana and alcohol, skip school classes, go places they aren’t allowed to go, miss curfew, is it common? Yes! Acceptable? No! We need to address it, but not with a mindset of punishment. We address it to foster learning and growth. In every transgression, there is an opportunity for that learning and growth, that’s why our kids have parents. If we address these things harshly with an abundance of anger or, conversely, avoidance and acceptance, the opportunity for learning and growth will be lost.

When our teens make bad decisions, we need to address it, but not with a mindset of punishment. We address it to foster learning and growth. In every transgression, there is an opportunity for that learning and growth, that’s why our kids have parents.Click To Tweet

If you’d like to sharpen your teen parenting skills, or you’re a therapist working with the parents of teenagers, give my newly released Ending The Parent-Teen Control Battle course a try. Parents will find enormous benefits from the program and therapists can use the course to deepen their work with parents.

A special thanks to Robert for his question. Our very best to your family and your son.

Thanksgiving is coming up and I know for many of us it will be different this year. We might be without the family and friends we normally love to share this holiday with. I know that I myself am carrying sadness about it, but let’s keep the faith that we’ll get this virus under control, and next year our Thanksgiving will be with everyone we want to share it with.

With COVID surging and the election and political discord taking place, our anxiety and emotions are running high so please, please, take care of yourselves. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Your local mental health resources are very much there, mostly using video platforms, and that works just fine, phones work too. Sometimes you can be seen in person as well.

If you're looking for a resource to help keep you productive at home while also helping you become a better parent, I've prepared a free gift just for you. It’s called Parenting Through Your Child's Second 12 Years. I know you’re thinking, "What the heck, 12 more years of parenting?" Adolescence neurologically, socially, emotionally, and often financially goes to around age 24. Yes, parenting your 20-year-olds is different than the teens. Download my gift and read and learn about the different stages of adolescence and critical strategies parents can use to avoid control battles and best support their adolescents’ quest for happy successful independence.

Again, please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.

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