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A 14-year-old’s behavior makes a parent feel like giving up

(María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post; iStock)

Q: My 14-year-old son has begun to set a precedent of lying, drug use and abusive speech toward teachers (primarily female, in my observation). I’m horrified. He just started high school last week. He failed most of his eighth-grade classes because he did almost no work. Last year was abysmal, and I can see this year may not be better. I’ve found evidence that he’s sexually active, though he insists he is not. I have forbidden him and his partner from spending anymore time in his room with his door shut, not just because of his age but because the partner is not even allowed to date. I’ve explained this to my son, the amount of trouble they could end up in and that I’m not into keeping this secret from their guardian (grandparent). Now he spends almost all of his time away from home, which I’d honestly be okay with if I knew he was doing his schoolwork, etc. I enjoy not being a target of his teenage hormones and bad behavior! It’s so nice!

My question is, how can I deal with him nicely and neutrally, while still enforcing boundaries and rules? His behavior has kind of made me start to really dislike him as a person. At this point, I’m assuming he’s always lying to us and up to something devious. And when I’ve given him the benefit of the doubt, I’ve always felt stupid afterward, as most often, he was lying. I’ve talked to him about this and tried to open discussions on all of these topics, but nothing changes. He refuses to see a therapist, even after he’s asked twice for one and I’ve found them. (I think he was just trying to get medication and be done with it, which didn’t happen.) I love him so much, but I don’t like him right now, and I need to save my sanity and hopefully get us all out of this unscathed! He’s my youngest out of three, but the others are much older than him, and I guess I forgot how hard the teen years are (plus I’m so much older now, too). I’ve always been a free-range type parent and honestly wouldn’t focus so much on the bad stuff (except the woman/teacher/me treatment) if he kept up with his responsibilities!

A: Thanks for writing in; you have quite a few challenges with your 14-year-old son. You’ve asked a very important question: “How can I deal with him nicely and neutrally, while still enforcing boundaries and rules?” And I’m going to be honest with you: You are past the place of dealing with him “neutrally.” The lying is not great, the drug use is also not ideal, but the abusive speech toward teachers? Your son is not coming home? We are much, much past the “how hard the teen years are,” and I’m concerned that you’d be okay with some of these behaviors if he “kept up with his responsibilities.”

Our culture is a bit confused when it comes to teens and their behavior. We seem to have a collective misunderstanding that our teens are supposed to lie, abuse alcohol and drugs, and become belligerent. We believe that our teens are meant to push us away and become defiant, disobedient and disrespectful, but this isn’t true. Are teens known to push boundaries, have trouble seeing around the corner and engage in some risky behaviors? Yes, but parents don’t have to accept this fatalistic view of teens, and when we do, we don’t give teens enough credit, while also letting ourselves off the parenting hook. For more of this viewpoint, pick up “Brainstorm” by Dan Siegel.

I don’t know why your son is angry (angry enough to threaten women), but he is headed down a very dangerous path. At 14, it’s not too late to make some big changes. I reached out to John Duffy, a psychologist and author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety.” He specializes in teens, and while some of your son’s behaviors are concerning, there are other behaviors that require immediate attention. “The abusive speech, the drug use, the sexual activity. These are a matter of health and safety, and managing them needs to be nonnegotiable,” Duffy says. This means that even if he cleans his room and throws out the trash, “they won’t get better on their own and are likely to deteriorate quickly.”

It can be difficult to want to help your son when he is so tough to be around, so Duffy recommends thinking of these behaviors “as symptoms of some underlying emotional discomfort your son is suffering, and either not fully aware of, or not sharing with you. With some renewed empathy, you’ll find the energy to act on his behalf.”

Because of your son’s treatment of women, drug use and rampant lying, immediate crisis intervention is needed. Duffy says to get your son to a therapist “to assess the level of care (outpatient therapy, inpatient work, intensive outpatient therapy or day treatment) he needs. So, you need to consider what leverage you have with your son, and be prepared to use it. This may be revoking privileges like curfew or access to WiFi, or your goodwill with him. I know it’s been difficult to get him to see a therapist in the past, and this is tricky for teenagers, especially for boys, many of whom continue to carry the idea that therapy suggests some weakness. So ask him to agree to a limited number of sessions. I usually suggest three. In three hours, a good therapist with experience working with children in his age group should be able to gain buy-in. Talk to the therapist beforehand. Ensure they have experience with your son’s issues, and his resistance to treatment. Then, your job is just to get him in the room.”

I would look at it like this: He is headed down a path of possible violence, jail time or death, and so make it a priority to get him to a (preferably male) therapist who can see him as a young man in pain.

You also should get family counseling. Whatever has led your son to this level of anger needs to be addressed within the entire family, and the support he needs will also need everyone’s cooperation, compassion and attention.

Please do not wait to help your son. He is only 14, and he has the potential to live a happier and more stable life. Get the support you need, stat. Good luck.

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