Teen rights vs parent rights when the teen has a mental disorder

Teen rights vs parent rights when the teen has a mental disorder

 If you’re a parent of a troubled teen, how much decision-making power should your child have?

You have parent rights, but the way it’s working now, your teenager making decisions for themselves, and our systems of education and mental health treatment seem to undermine a parent rights and authority. That’s not the intent, of course, but the child experiences others taking their parents’ place as the ones in charge.

screaming teenager

Many parents worry because their teen seems to have too many rights for their own good.

Problem – A teen’s statements to treatment providers are completely confidential after age 14.  Privacy is important, and the therapist needs the young person’s trust to help them with therapy, but some information could be shared with parents on a case-by-case, “need to know” basis.  A parent should be able to partner with the therapist, so they can structure interactions at home that support therapeutic goals.  For example, if the teen talks about dangerous activities with a best friend that the parent doesn’t know about, I think the parent could be coached to appropriately reduce contact with this friend or defuse the dangerous influence they have over the teen.  If a therapist can’t reveal this much, can’t they at least tell a parent what to watch for, what to set boundaries on?  How to respond?

Problem – A teenager has the right to refuse medication or therapy at age 14 (in practice, most providers are reluctant to force treatment at any age).  But if their refusal leads to a serious crisis, I know from experience that most parents have no option but calling 911 or using force to keep themselves and others safe.  Yet force undermines the parent-child relationship, and has led to undeserved charges of child abuse.

Problem – A young person can refuse school attendance even when there are consequences, and the parent can be held liable for neglect.  This is of special concern to a parent who risks losing custody to the state or to a vindictive ex.

Problem – A teenager can commit a crime and their parent(s) can lose custody for being negligent.  Sometimes crime is the only way for a young person to get the help they need, but sometimes this means they descend, step-by-step, into a justice system that presumes bad parents create bad kids.

Parents of troubled teens need greater control over their situation and abundant support to prevent problems faced by their child.  The emotional, physical, and financial costs to family members are too high.  Parent rights can be undermined when others blame them for their child’s behavior.  When the education and health care system focus only on the child’s needs, the parent rights are trampled.

Parent rights

  1. Parents and families have a right to personal safety including the safety of pets, the right decide what is and is not safe, the right to protect themselves, their belongings, and personal space, and the right to enforce safety.
  2. Parents have a right to ensure and sustain their financial, social, and job stability, even when it means periodically putting aside the teen’s needs.
  3. They have the right to create house rules, and demand respect, safety, and shared responsibility.
  4. Parents have the right to enforce rules by reasonable means, and expect them to be followed.
  5. Parents and families members have the right to be human and make mistakes.
  6. Parents and families have the right to take time out for their own wellbeing and self-care.

You know your teen will reach adulthood and independence whether they are ready or not.  They will do what they want, perhaps suffer serious consequences, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  So do something about it now.

What are parent responsibilities?

  • Acceptance:  this is the nature of your child and it’s OK.  They will still be part of the family and get your support.  Your child would function better if they could.
  • Positive attitude:  yours is not a lost child, there are resources out there to help them, and you really do have the energy to find and use these resources.
  • Realistic expectations:  brain disorders are termed “disabilities” for a reason.  You cannot expect their lives to unfold like yours did, or even like others their age.  They will redefine what progress means for them.
  • Support without strings attached:  your teen doesn’t owe you for the life you’ve given them, nor must they pay you back for your extra sacrifices.
  • Take good care of yourself so you can handle your situation.
  • Access and use information on the disorder and it’s treatment regime.
  • Learn and practice an entirely different approach to parenting.

Rights for troubled teens

  • Make progress at their own pace:  someone with a mental disorder will fall behind their peers in many life aspects–if not now than in the future.  They will face life’s challenges, and recovery from them may be much harder than for well people.
  • Choose their own path for learning and working:  a young person struggling with a disorder may not be able to follow a path that seems right for them, or logical or reasonable.  There will be clear reasons why this is so, usually treatment will help.
  • Reasonable family accommodations because of their different needs:  like anyone with a disability, those around them need to make the effort to fit around their limits.
  • The right to respect and support regardless of troubling behaviors or the inconvenience.
  • The right to negotiate for what they want, and to expect earnest efforts towards compromise.
  • The right to choose incentives and consequences that work best for them.
  • An equal say in decisions about them

My previous post, “Youth with mental disorders demand rights!” presents a document created by members or Youth M.O.V.E (Motivating Others through Voices of Experience), a peer-to-peer organization for teens and young adults http://youthmove.us.  This is a good place to start.

A majority of troubled young people are capable of being accountable
when they have the right support and treatment.

Responsibilities for troubled teens

Everyone, regardless of their medical and mental health situation, should do what they can to take responsibility for their health treatment.

“In a health care system that protects [the rights of the mentally ill], it is reasonable to expect [them] to assume reasonable responsibilities.  Greater involvement in their health increases the likelihood of recovery.”  Responsibilities include:

  1. Take responsibility for maximizing healthy habits, such as exercising, not smoking, and eating a healthy diet.
  2. Become involved in decisions and plans regarding themselves and work cooperatively.
  3. Work collaboratively with parents, health care providers, in developing and carrying out agreed-upon treatment plans.
  4. Disclose relevant information and clearly communicate wants and needs.
  5. Show respect for literally everyone else (family, students, friends, neighbors, teachers, health care providers).
  6. Become knowledgeable about their condition and symptoms, and the tools/skills for managing symptoms.
  7. Make a good-faith effort to take responsibility for managing their symptoms and reducing the impacts on your and others’ lives.
  8. Ask for help from someone they trust when they are not doing well.

Teenagers today want two things.  Allow as much as appropriate:

  1. Freedom
  2. A say in what happens to them

Look at the future from their perspective. Young people in the mental health system face life needs and challenges different from peers. They often don’t reach 18 without experiencing significant setbacks due to their disorders.  They have missed opportunities for the education and life skills needed for adulthood, and lack of youthful achievements that boost confidence and self-esteem. Teens and young adults with disorders may have to manage these the rest of their lives!  Once age 18 is reached, supports they’ve depended on are abruptly dropped.  They are exported to an adult system where they must start from scratch to establish a new support network that will assist them towards an independent life.  Your job is to change from parent to mentor as these new supports are developed.


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