Category: defiant children

Mothers and Teenage Daughters: a School Counselor’s Story

Mothers and Teenage Daughters: a School Counselor’s Story

This article contributed by Benjamin Dancer.

I’m a high school counselor, which means I work with parents every day. Because I’ve made a career out of my work with adolescents, I see what a parent might be seeing for the first time. This includes a long list of unfortunate life events.

Back when we were teenagers, there wasn’t a massive network of servers positioned strategically across the globe to capture and record, forever, the embarrassment of our adolescent choices.

As a parent, I have a lot of empathy for other parents. It’s not easy, especially when you’re going through something for the first time. My life, on the other hand, is a little bit like Groundhog Day. In a sense, I’ve never left high school. Every school year I see the same things. Different kids, but the same behavior: alcohol, drugs, tobacco, bullying, kids running away from home, pregnancy and something new: sexting.

Take an adolescent boy with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, which by definition means he is incapable of fully contemplating notions such as consequence; take this teenager raging with sex hormones and give him a tiny device that he will carry with him everywhere, a device capable of sending messages instantly to anybody, anywhere in the world, and install a camera in that device. What do you imagine might go wrong?

facebook sextingWhen you and I were adolescents, we were no less reckless, no less idiotic with our choices, no less eager to use our bodies as grownups. The difference is that our stupidity has been forgotten by history. Back when we were teenagers, there wasn’t a massive network of servers positioned strategically across the globe to capture and record, forever, the embarrassment of our adolescent choices.  Sexting changes everything.

Over the last seventeen years in my work of mentoring adolescents and partnering with their parents, I’ve seen a lot of parenting styles. I’ve learned some important strategies in dealing with the situations teenagers present–strategies the average parent doesn’t have the time, through repetition, to learn. I feel confident telling you that there are some really good ideas out there. And some really bad ones, too.

Because I’m a writer, it occurred to me to write it down, what I’ve learned over the years. I’m a parent. I know it just as well as you do. We need a little grace in our lives.

Sexting book coverExcerpt from SEXTING AT SCHOOL:

The police called the sexting child pornography. So I understood Nicole’s concern: she wanted to talk to me about her daughter. Jessica was fourteen and three years younger than her boyfriend. He had been distributing images of Jessica through his phone. Nicole was worried; she was scared, and understandably so.

Jessica still thought she was in love.

“He calls her a bitch,” Nicole told me. “I read the texts. He says horrible things to her.”

“And she still wants to be with him,” I said.

The pain I felt for her was communicated in my voice. As a teacher, I see the scenario every year, but Nicole was experiencing this for the first time. Jessica was her daughter. Not long ago she was her baby. I could only begin to imagine the suffering the situation provoked. Nicole was in no position to hear how common this was.

Why do girls throw themselves at boys who treat them badly?

In Jessica’s circumstance there was a tremendous amount of grief. She had barely processed the loss of her dad. He was killed in an accident over the summer.

“I can’t stop her from being with him. I’ve tried. I took away her phone. I grounded her. She sneaks out of the house. I drop her off at school, and she ditches to be with him.” The mascara was now running beneath Nicole’s cheekbones, “Last night, she told me that she wished it was me who was dead. He was waiting for her out front. I saw her get into his car.”

sexting image“I can’t imagine what that’s like,” I told her. “I’m sorry.”

“Unless I physically restrain her, she will find a way to get back to him.”

I allowed for a long silence, as I thought there might be more Nicole needed to say.


“What did I do? What did I do wrong?”

I didn’t answer her question. And I didn’t dismiss it. I sat with her in it.

* * * * *

My role with Nicole is not all that different from my role with Jessica. It doesn’t matter whether you’re fourteen or forty, what you need is for someone to listen. What you need is for someone to understand.

Jessica and I talked later the same day.

“She went through my phone,” Jessica was angry. “She read my texts.”

I let her know that I understood her frustration.

“She won’t let me leave the house.”

“Why?”

“She’s trying to keep me from him.”

“Have you told her that you love him?”

“Yes.”

“And…?”

“She hates him. She doesn’t want me to see him.”

“Why does she hate him?”

At this Jessica paused. We had already talked about the pictures. She had told me stories about the boy. The way he had flaunted his sexual conquests. He was in my English class, and I had seen it firsthand: there were countless other girls.

After a long silence, she answered my question, “She thinks he’s not good for me. Is he?”mean boyfriend

It was ground we had already covered. In past conversations Jessica told me that she respects her mom for trying to protect her. I handed Jessica a box of tissues. She wiped the tears and told me, “No. He’s really, really mean.”

I listened to her cry for several minutes. I was thinking about her father. I knew the man well. I liked him. I was thinking about her mother. I was thinking about my own daughter.  It was true for all of us. What we need is empathy.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.  She questioned me with her eyes.

So I answered it, “I’m sorry you’re so alone.”

Jessica’s whole body shook when she sobbed.

* * * * *

no cell phoneThe last time Nicole was in my office she asked me if she should return Jessica’s phone. We had a similar conversation the day she asked me if she should call the police.

“What do you think?”

“I think Jessica needs to figure this out for herself. I’ve tried to protect her, but I can’t. I just can’t protect her from everything.”

“Does that mean you’ll give it back?”

“No. She’s not ready for that.”

“I don’t know the answers to the particulars,” I told Nicole, “but I know this. You’re a good mom. Jessica needs you right now. She needs you to be confident in your role.”

I saw the tears washing through the mascara, gave Nicole the box of tissues, and kept on going.

This is universal: the teenager wants desperately to have her independence, and she is terrified of it.

“Jessica loves you, and she knows that you love her.  Jessica is not aware of the fact that she is conflicted about this. She’s just a kid. As much as she pushes you away, she wants you to be strong, to love her.”

* * * * *

I talked to Jessica again a week later.

“Do you still see him?” I asked.

She was embarrassed, “Yeah.”

“Is he good to you?”

“Sometimes.”

“How about last night?”

She hesitated then said, “Last night he left me in a parking lot. I had to borrow a phone and call my mom to come pick me up.”

“Why’d he leave you?”

“To hook up with someone else.”

“Will you see him again?”

“Probably.”

“I have a vision for you,” I said.

Jessica smiled, like she had heard lines like that from me before.

But that didn’t deter me. I have an advantage over most parents of teenagers: I’ve made a career out of the adolescent. Their behavior can be alarming, infuriating and even demoralizing, but after seventeen years of guiding teenagers as they come of age, I have established proven routines.

I have a pretty good idea of how many repetitions it will take, of how many times I’ll have to say it before Jessica can even make sense of the words, of how many more times I’ll have to repeat it before she begins to adopt the language as her own.

So I told her again, “In my vision of your future, you will love yourself too much to let a boy treat you badly.”

* * * * *

BenjaminDancerThe story above is a composite of a dozen mothers and a dozen daughters I’ve work with over the years. In my FREE e-book, I analyze that narrative–elucidating what I believe to be the important parenting considerations.  

Find out more at: SEXTING AT SCHOOL, a FREE download at Goodreads.com, or if you’re feeling generous, you can buy it for $0.99 at Amazon.com.

About Benjamin Dancer:

Benjamin is a high school counselor at Jefferson County Open School where he has made a career out of mentoring young people as they come of age. He wrote the novels PATRIARCH RUN, IN SIGHT OF THE SUN and FIDELITY. He also writes about parenting and education. You can learn more at:

Website:      BenjaminDancer.com

Facebook:    https://www.facebook.com/benjamin.dancer

Twitter:        @BenjaminDancer1


Like this post or have a comment?  Please give it a rating (above) and share your thoughts. Your comments are helpful for other parents who read Benjamin’s article.  Thank you.

Margaret

Is my teen ‘normal’ crazy or seriously troubled?

Is my teen ‘normal’ crazy or seriously troubled?

girl in rear view mirrorA high percentage of teenagers go through a rebellious or ‘crazy’ phase that is normal for their age and brain development. The difference between normal teen-crazy and truly troubled behavior is when the teenager falls behind his or her peers in critical areas: school, social activity, emotional maturity, self-control or self discipline, risk awareness, self-fulfillment.

At a bare minimum, a normal teen, no matter how troublesome, will be able to do the following:

  • Attend school and do some school work if they want to;
  • Have and keep a friend or friends their own age who also attend school;
  • Develop a maturity level roughly the same as his or her peers;
  • Exercise self-control when he or she wants to;
  • Demonstrate basic survival instincts, risk awareness, and avoid doing harm to themselves, others, or property.
  • Enjoy activities that interest them.

boy in baseball capIt is normal for many teens to be inconsistent, irrational, insensitive to others, self-centered, and childish.  Screaming or swearing is normal–regard this the same as a toddler temper tantrum.  Outlandish imagination and ideas are normal in the adolescent phase too. These are behaviors that crazy teens grow out of unless something else is holding them back.  What you’d call troubled behavior, the kind that necessitates mental health treatment, is a matter of degree.

So how do you tell the difference?

Look for pervasive patterns of social and behavioral problems that stand out against their peers, patterns which persist or occur in different settings Look back at how long these patterns have been occurring.  Are the ‘crazy’ patterns repeating themselves, or did they start suddenly?

screaming boySigns of abnormal behavior

A sudden change in behavior.

  • An abrupt change in friends and interests, and loss of interest in things your teenager used to enjoy.  This might indicate the onset of a serious mental illness or drug use or both.
  • Unusual ideas, or obsessive beliefs, or unrealistic plans, see:  “Unsettling: what psychosis looks like in children and young people.”
  • Others have concerns about your child.  (e.g., your child’s friend comes forward, their teacher calls, other parents keep their children from your child, or someone checks to see if you’re aware of the nature of his or her behaviors).

Unsafe behaviors (“Unsafe” means there’s a danger of harm to themselves or others, property loss or damage, running away, seeking experiences with significant risk (or easily lured into them), abusing substances, and physical or emotional abuse of others.)

  • If a troubled teenager does something unsafe to themselves or others, it is not an accident, but something impulsive, intentional, and planned.
  • They have a history of intentional unsafe activities.
  • They have or seek the means to do unsafe activities.
  • They talk about or threaten unsafe behavior.


How psychologists measure the severity of a child’s behavior 

“Normal” is defined with textual descriptions of behaviors, and these are placed on a spectrum from normal to abnormal (or “severe emotional disturbance” – SED).  Below are a few examples of a range of behaviors in different settings.  These descriptions are generalizations and should not be used to predict your child’s treatment needs, but they do offer insight into severity and the need for mental health treatment.

School behaviors

Not serious – This child has occasional problems with a teacher or classmate that are eventually worked out, and usually don’t happen again.

Mildly serious – This child often disobeys school rules but doesn’t harm anyone or property.  Compared to their classmates, they are troublesome or concerning, but not unusually badly behaved. They are intelligent, but don’t work hard enough or focus enough to have better grades. They could use help from a school counselor, teachers, and possibly a therapist for themselves or the family.

Serious – This child disobeys rules repeatedly, or skips school, or is known to disobey rules outside of school.  They stand out in the crowd as having chronic behavior problems compared to other students and their grades are poor even if they’re very intelligent.  This child needs mental health or substance abuse treatment.

Very serious – This child cannot be in school or they are dangerous in school.  They cannot follow rules or function, even in a special classroom, or they may threaten or hurt others or damage property.  It is feared they will have a difficult future, perhaps ending up in jail or having lifetime problems.  If they cooperate, this child requires intensive mental health and or substance abuse treatment.

Home behaviors

boy looking right

Not serious – This child is well-behaved most of the time but has occasional problems, which are usually worked out.

Mildly serious – This child has to be watched and reminded often, and needs pushing to follow rules or do chores or homework.  They don’t seem to learn their lessons and are endlessly frustrating.  They can be defiant or manipulative, but their actions aren’t serious enough to merit intensive treatment, though a school counselor or private counselor would be very beneficial.

Serious – This child cannot follow rules, even reasonable ones.  They can’t explain or take no responsibility for their behavior, which can include damage to the home or property, or harm to themselves or others.  They need mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment.

Very serious – The stress caused by this child means the family cannot manage normally at home even if they work together.  Running away, damaging property, threats of suicide or violence to others, and other behaviors require daily sacrifices from all.  Police are commonly called.  This child needs intense psychiatric treatment and/or substance abuse treatment, and likely residential treatment.

Relationship behaviors

somber boyNot serious – The child has and keeps friends their own age, and has healthy friendships with people of different ages, such as with a grandparent or younger neighbor.

Mildly serious – This child may seem extra immature.  They will argue, tease, bully or harass others, and most schoolmates avoid them. They are quick to have temper tantrums and childish responses to stress that always require extra attention from parents and caregivers.

Serious – The child has no friends their age, or risky friends, and can be manipulative or threatening. They can have violent tendencies, poor judgment, and take dangerous risks with themselves and others.  They don’t care about others’ feelings, or may readily harm others physically or emotionally.  This child needs therapy and psychiatric mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment.

Very serious – The child’s behavior is so aggressive verbally or physically that they are almost always overwhelming to be around.  The behaviors are repeated and deliberate, and can lead to verbal or physical violence against others or themselves.  This child needs intensive psychiatric and/or substance abuse treatment.

Pay attention to your gut feelings.

If you’ve been searching for answers and selected this article to read, your suspicions are probably true.  Trust your intuition. Most parents have good insight into their child.  If you’re looking for ways to “fix” or change your child, there just aren’t any easy methods or medications or therapies to do this except over time.  Treatment means multiple life changes in addition to medication and therapy, and these can include help for insomnia, a change in diet, treatment for digestive system problems, and household changes to reduce stress.

Mental illness is serious and recovery is a long slow process.  It is  understandable if you want them to recover quickly–your stress can be intolerable.  Avoid pushing for recovery because it will only stress your child and lead you to disappointment.  Instead, cooperate with professionals (teachers, treatment providers), and prepare yourself for a parenting marathon.  What’s the best way to prepare?  Work hard on your own mental health and wellbeing.  Lower your expectations for steady progress.  This advice and wisdom from other parents may help you face this daunting task.

boy in plaid shirtEarly treatment, while your troubled teenager is young, can prevent a lifetime of problems.  Find a professional who will take time to get to know your child and you and the situation, and who will listen to what you have to say–a teacher, doctor, therapist, psychiatrist or other mental health practitioner.

–Margaret

Your comments are encouraged.  Your story helps others who read this article.


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“You’re under arrest!”: Crime and Troubled Teens

“You’re under arrest!”: Crime and Troubled Teens

You’ve tried everything. Now you watch helplessly as your troubled teenager starts down a path leading to jail, and you wait for that call from the police. There’s been a crime. It finally happened like you thought it would.  But this bad news can be good news. This may be the point when things start to turn around.

“Experts estimate that from 40 percent to 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system suffer from some form of mental health disorder or an illness – anything from ADHD to full-blown psychosis. About 15 percent to 25 percent have mental illnesses “severe enough to significantly impair their ability to function.”” (see “Mentally ill minors put in juvenile hall” at end of this post)

Juvenile crime is considered as serious as adult crime, and juvenile “detention” is just like jail for adults. Yet there is one critical distinction between teenage and adult justice: teens are given a second chance for a clean record and an education.  If your jurisdiction is enlightened, they will get treatment for mental illness or addictions. An adult criminal record is forever a barrier and an embarrassment. It comes up when a former convict applies for a job, a loan, a college degree, military service, a rental, or even a volunteer opportunity.

The juvenile justice system is only partially punitive because society recognizes that the teenage brain is the problem that causes much crime, whether or not they have a mental disorder or addiction.  Enlightened juvenile court judges want their rulings to be “rehabilitative” or “restorative” justice. Enlightened agency directors understand the need for additional support services for learning disabilities, addiction, mental illness, and vocational training.

In the system, teen criminals (“adjudicated youth”) are required to participate in consequences and treatment; it’s a “carrot and stick” approach.

  • The carrot:  The teens attend school and receive training for vocations such as car repair or catering.  They participate in positive character-building activities such as training dogs for adoption, building and maintaining hiking trails, or constructing homes for Habitat for Humanity.
  • The stick: Teens have a complete lack of freedom, whether in detention or out on probation, intensive monitoring (including random urinalysis), immediate consequences for behavior violations, and physical labor to pay back victims (community work programs).

When a police officer calls to say your son or daughter has been arrested, use this as an opportunity to help your kid. It’s a perfect teachable moment. Not only do you have their attention, you can hand the problem over to the Law to enforce their behavior and treat their disorders or addictions. Your son or daughter cannot refuse—when held or convicted on criminal charges, your child has no rights to anything except humane treatment and an appearance before a judge. You are off the hook. You can step back and relax… and be the Good Guy for once.

How to work with the juvenile justice system:

  • Be an active partner with the court. Cooperate fully with the judge, court counselor or therapist, and any attorney, case worker, or probation officer involved.
  • Show up for everything:  visitation, family therapy, court hearings, and parenting classes even if you don’t think you need them.
  • Stand shoulder-to-shoulder with staff.  If your teen has a probation officer, do what they tell you, even if it means tattling on your kid.
  • Be cooperative with staff, and they will work harder for you and your son or daughter. Support the programs required for your teen, and support your teen when they struggle. Your involvement will someday impress on your child that you’re on their side and care.
  • Change your ways.  If you’ve been too harsh with your teen in the past, go easy on them now and let him or her see your good side. If you’ve been too easy on them or too protective, demonstrate backbone. Show you know what’s best for them and that you will remain in charge once they are released.
  • Stick with your child.  If your teenager becomes a Frequent Flyer in the system, it doesn’t mean they are lost.  Remember, they have that uncontrollable teenaged brain and need more time and lessons for it to reach maturity.

Once they come home on probation you need to set strict limits on their activities, and work with the probation officer or social worker to enforce them. These are harsh at first, but should be negotiated later when behavior improves, with consultation with the juvenile justice staff.

Remove risks:

  • Don’t allow them to stay out late ever. Set an early curfew, and report them to their probation officer if they are late.  When they get angry about this, explain that you are bound by the law and that they should discuss their concerns with the officer.
  • Not negotiable: ban drugs and alcohol, especially marijuana. (“Marijuana is uniquely dangerous for troubled teens”.)  Hide prescription drugs and alcohol if you use them. You have the right to search their room and belongings.  If pertinent, hide weapons, matches, or other means of harm to themselves or others.
  • Stop or limit contact with risky friends. This may mean monitoring visits, monitoring cell phone use and internet access, or blocking access entirely if used for crime.
  • Limit access to money to prevent drug/alcohol purchases or escape plans. Get receipts if necessary.
  • Reduce free time. Busy them with as many activities as you can–a job is the ideal.
  • Build your own network of other concerned parents to track your kid… in other words, to spy on them.  Besides other parents, I even contacted businesses where my teen was known to hang out, such as a mall and cafe.  See  “Gang up on your kids: Parent networks for tracking at-risk children.”

Three Goals:
     1)   stay at home
     2)  stay in school
3)  stay out of trouble

Three House Rules:
     1)  continue mental health treatment
     2)  no violence when upset
     3)  clean body, clean clothes

Build their esteem as you would for any troubled child. Guide them to their strengths. Give your teenager something to do that they good at, and allow them ample opportunity to shine. More at  The good things about bad kids.

Extreme measures. I know of three cases where parents took drastic steps to help their son or daughter stay out of trouble, and these worked!

True story – a single father was worried about his son’s gang involvement, especially since the son was still on probation for a crime, and additional charges would draw lengthy prison time. Dad sold the family home and bought another one in a neighborhood ‘run’ by an opposing gang. The son was terrified to leave the house except for his new school, a long way from his gang brothers. This son graduated high school and left the area for college… alive, uninjured, and with a clean record.

True story – After a couple of years trying to keep their daughter out of trouble, parents started looking for work in a smaller town.  They wanted to find a safer place with fewer risks and more eyes. After she completed her mandated one year probation, the family moved.  She was upset to leave her friends, but they were the problem friends. Her crime sprees ended.

True story – a single mother was on the edge of sanity and financial ruin trying to manage the world her son created.  While visiting a juvenile justice counselor with her son, the counselor made an off-hand comment about handing him over to foster care so that she could get her job back and sleep at night.  With a heavy heart, she went forward and obtained a “voluntary placement” for him (temporary state custody), and he went to a foster home.  After two years, he was ready to come home and she was ready and empowered to support him.

A note of caution:  You may have seen ads for outdoor programs or “boot camps” for at-risk teens. Some of these programs are extremely inappropriate for troubled youth, even traumatizing. Or some may not allow teens with a criminal history. Get advice about therapeutic programs for your at-risk teenager from a counselor or social worker, not just from the program itself.  Your teen’s providers often know which ones are appropriate.

The people in the Juvenile Justice System

In my personal experience, 99% of employees in juvenile justice are there because they care about teens, they like teens and “get it” about them, and they believe in the power of what they do. My co-workers have many success stories among their cases. Some former delinquents come back to work for the juvenile justice system and use their hard-won experience to help the next generation.  Ironically, it’s the one job where a criminal record helps!

If you are concerned about what your child will experience in the juvenile justice system, just call and ask.  You may be surprised.

Challenges, risks, and potentially serious problems

  • A troubled young person in detention or incarceration is exposed to others with criminal behavior. They may bully or be bullied or both.  They may meet fellow inmates to sell drugs to when they get out, or learn who can supply them with drugs. Depression is common, and presents as anger or self-destructive behavior, such as getting in trouble on purpose.
  • Not all juvenile departments provide mental health treatment, or treatment is inadequate.  And sadly, there are still places where staff and citizens don’t believe in the mental health “excuse” for bad behavior.  You may need to be an assertive advocate for treatment.  Work with your child’s public defender, who is provided by the court, and give them evidence of mental health problems in  medical records.  Your child will need to sign a waiver for the attorney to have the records.
  • Some states have Mandatory Minimums–pray it’s not yours. Certain crimes lead to long prison sentences regardless of the circumstances of the crime or the mental illness of your child. My state of Oregon will incarcerate anyone over age 15 for seven years if they commit one of these crimes. This made sense to the voters who put it into law, but the reality is a worst-case scenario for how NOT to rehabilitate youth.  No one I’ve ever met in our state, from judges to prosecuting attorneys to sheriffs to probation officers, thinks it’s a good idea–the outcomes have been horrible for reasons too lengthy to go into here.
  • Each county and state has a different culture and attitude towards juvenile delinquents. Some are exceptionally harsh, or they neglect the kids’ legitimate needs; some are reluctant to treat kids like individuals with different needs and strengths; some get that right balance of punishment and rehabilitation. It depends on the judges, the county, and the state. Each is different.

Is your child at risk from criminal involvement or charged in a crime?  Please comment so other parents who read it can learn from your experience.  Thank you.

How am I doing?  Please rate this article above, thank you.

–Margaret


Mentally ill minors put in juvenile hall (excerpt)
Daily Bulletin, Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino, June 12, 2010

“Juvenile halls have become catch-all basins for severely mentally ill youth.  Designed as secure holding facilities for minors who are going through the court system, juvenile detention centers now double as a default placement option for youth diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.   “There is no place for them in [our system],” said a county juvenile court judge in California.  “We can’t just arrest our way out of the problem. Juvenile hall is not a place to house mentally ill.”

Why teens run, and what you can do about it

Why teens run, and what you can do about it

It’s an emotional shock when your teen runs away the first time. Your feelings are complex:  anger at his or her rebelliousness; fear for his or her safety; shame that you may be called a “bad” parent or that your behavior caused your child to run.  Runaway teens also have complex reasons for running, and they may or may not be the parents’ fault.

Why they run

Basic teenage development All teens go through a stage where they define themselves as unique, and start demanding two things: 1. freedom; 2. a say in their life.  These are necessary and important for maturity—some do it gracefully and some don’t.  Even teens with a mental illness will go through this normal phase.

Rebellion Most rebellious teens do not run away because they may have better survival instincts.  If a teen is emotionally behind their peers, using drugs or alcohol, and part of a risky crowd that encourages them and undermines their parents’ authority, it’s likely they’ll run.

Mental disorders Mental health problems magnify any or all negative aspects of rebellion and immaturity.  They also disrupt a teen’s thought patterns and cause irrational ideas and fantasies.  They have a high likelihood of running.

Family stress This is the biggest reason: “65% of youth reported running away because of family conflict.”* Think about what’s going on at home that a teenager can’t handle (they are not as strong as they act).  Is there non-stop fighting between members?  Are they being nagged or constantly criticized, and not shown support or love?  Like all children, teens still deserve support and love.  Are they being bullied, or physically or sexually abused?  *National Runaway Switchboard at 1-800-RUNAWAY

What you might observe that foretells running

  • Changes in behaviors or normal patterns mean something is wrong.
  • Teens who suddenly stop eating or begin to overeat, sleep all day or never sleep, spend all their time with friends, or never want to leave their room.  Sudden mood swings mean teens are unsettled and restless, and they’re not coping well with stress.
  • Outward rebellious behavior is often the start of trouble, but not always.  Inward rebellion is also a problem, such as depression and isolating from their family.
  • Falling grades, truancy, school behavior, and breaking house rules are all symptoms that your child is having problems.
  • Disclosure of intentions to run away.  Some teens will hint that they want to run away and some will outright threaten their family with running.
  • Expressing fantasies that they will ‘divorce’ their family.  Teens often believe they can be legally emancipated before age 18, skip high school and get a GED* and a job, and be free.  A juvenile court judge told me otherwise!  The legal test for emancipation is very restrictive.  *General Educational Development exam–a less valuable substitute for a high school diploma.
  • Accumulation of money and possessions. To survive, runaway teens need resources. Some prepare for their run by saving any money they receive.  They might keep a bag or backpack of clothes and food in the closet to make a quick escape.
  • Risky friends have a very powerful influence on the decision to run away.  Relationships like these almost always include substance abuse.  The risky associates include adults who undermine the parents, and who coach teens how to get away from home. They provide them with cigarettes and drugs, and possibly take advantage of them.
  • Full time access to unmonitored and unrestricted communication, and easy access to transportation, especially a car or an at-risk acquaintance with a car.

What to do if you suspect your teen might run away

“Clearly and calmly let your teen know you are concerned about them, and that their behavior makes you afraid they might run away from home. Invite them to talk with you or someone else about what is troubling them and be supportive of finding positive ways of dealing with their stress.”

Let them know you don’t want them to run away and you’re committed to helping the family work things out, and let them know you are concerned about their safety.

If your teen is intent on running away, give them the phone number of the National Runaway Switchboard* so that they can find safe options while out on their own.”  This does not mean you approve.  A good analogy is informing your kids about contraceptives even though you don’t want them to have sex.  *1-800-RUNAWAY

Give them some facts: Your teen should know the laws, and they should know about youth shelters.  This may help them recognize that you are concerned for their safety… just like you told them.

– – – – – – – – – –

Are you thinking about running away?

Are you worried about staying with a friend and getting your friend or their parents into trouble? Does it matter if you’re reported as a runaway or not? Deciding on whether or not to run away and where to go can be difficult. Here’s what you should know:

  • In most states it is not illegal to run away.
  • If you leave home without permission or stay away longer than you’re supposed to, and you are under the age of 18, your parents can file you as a runaway with the police.
  • If the police find you, you will be taken home or to police headquarters, and your parents will be called to pick you up.
  • If you are staying at a friend’s house or somewhere your parents didn’t give you permission to be, they can face possibly legal consequences.
  • If you are filed as a runaway, your parents can press charges against those allowing you stay with them or abiding you.
  • If you go to a youth shelter, generally they have to contact your parents within a certain amount of time to obtain consent for your stay.  Often, you are allowed to stay only 72 hours (3 days) before you must return home.  This gives you and your parents time to cool off.
  • If you are staying with a friend, in most cases the police are only allowed to do a courtesy check; which means they are not allowed to search your friend’s home without a warrant.
  • It is always best to check with your local non-emergency police hotline or legal aid when it comes to specifics because the law varies.

Hopefully the information listed here answered some of the questions you may have had. If not, you can give us a call and we can help.  1-800-RUNAWAY

(Parent: list the names and addresses of local youth shelters here—not adult shelters)

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Get to know their friends and their friends’ parents.  If anyone who knows them is concerned about your child’s safety, they may help you if there’s a problem.  Other parents can keep an eye out for your child as well as their own.

Statistics indicate that most children stay in the same general area that they live in. Some go only as far as a friend or relative.  You must know where and be able to communicate with the responsible adults.

Get to know the at-risk youth

and adults that your teen associates with. “At-risk kids hang out together, they know each other’s stories (true or not), protect each other, and keep parents out of the loop.  What if parents got together too, shared stories, and supported each other?  Everyone has the same goal of protecting their child.  Kids’ unsafe plans and activities are no match for the many eyes and ears (and cleverness and wisdom) of all their parents combined.”  Gang up on your kids: Parent networks for tracking at-risk children

If your teen is staying at a friends’, this may be helpful.  You might negotiate with the parent for a friendly arrangement for ‘shelter’ until things calm down.  If you cannot communicate with this parent, they may be guilty of custodial interference.  This is illegal and should be reported to the police.  More often than known, some parents actively encourage other parents’ children to leave home, as well as provide them with alcohol and drugs.

What to do if they run

Notify the police and file a missing persons report.  If your teen has a mental disorder, bring this up on the call and be specific (he needs to take medications, she has a history of assaulting others, he has threatened suicide, she might be out of control and unable to respond if you shout at her…).

Are you worried that your police report will go on your child’s record?  Don’t.  Even if your child is charged and convicted as a juvenile, his or her record can be expunged (erased) at age 18 with good behavior.

The National Runaway Switchboard at 1-800-RUNAWAY operates a 24-hour confidential hotline for teens and their families. Leave a message with them for your child, www.nrscrisisline.org. They also provides bus tickets to get kids back home to their families

Spread the word among friends and your child’s friends that you reported your child, and ask them to ask your child to call or give a message to you if they see them.  Also spread the word that protecting a runaway is a crime.

Track.  “Friend” your child on Facebook, or find someone who can and will report to you.  Set your computer up to track and store web search history and email.  Search their room.  Get their cell phone contacts if possible, track their GPS location by cell phone, and get every address and phone number of every friend.  All of this is legal.

Investigate.  This is not a situation where you respect your teen’s privacy.  Besides tracking their activities above, drive around and look for them.  Be sure they and their friends see you because then the risky friends will avoid your child.

Check in with your child’s teachers or counselor for any information that might be useful.

Take care of yourself and your other children. This is a difficult time and you don’t have to deal with it alone. Turn to people you know and trust for support. The NRS is available 24 hours every day and offers information and support for parents too.

Ask yourself the hard questions:  Is life at home that bad?  Is there abuse (emotional or physical)?  What changes am I willing to make to reduce my child’s stress at home or at school.

Good news from statistics

  • 85% parents reported that the issues that led the youth to run away were somewhat, mostly, or completely resolved within a month.
  • Most parents reported that their youth used alcohol or other substances less once they returned (68%).
  • Most reported they engaged in physical fights less (64%).
  • Most reported they broke the law less (66%).
  • Of those who ran once, 75% did not leave home again.

Creative things other parents did that worked

True story.  A father made business cards to give to everyone who was ever in contact with his 15-year-old daughter.  It had her photo, contact information, and the message that he and her mother loved (name) and wanted to ensure her safety and appropriate behavior.  He made a point of personally visiting with her friend parents where daughter went.  She hated her dad for this, but never ran again, and every time she visited a friend, the parents always reminded her to call her own parents and report her whereabouts

True story.  Two 13-year-old girlfriends decided it would be fun to run away and party.  During the week they went missing, their frantic mothers collaborated on a ‘full court press’ to notify others and get their daughters back safe and sound.  They printed flyers with photos of their daughters, their phone numbers, and offered a $25 reward, no questions asked.  These were given to the police, posted at school, at youth shelters downtown, and at business hangouts the girls were known to frequent (a mall, a fast food place, a big box retailer).  Both girls were eventually returned safe and sound, and they were really angry.  Apparently, street kids and risky adults spurned the girls because of the flyers, for fear of attracting the attention of law enforcement.

–Margaret

 

Do you have a runaway story?  Please comment on what worked to return your child, or what didn’t work.  Thank you.