Parenting troubled teens

Parenting | Reassuring Mom and Dad that they are not alone in their struggles
by Jen Hatmaker
Posted 8/23/14, 10:34 am

Teenagers are heading back to school across the country. For some this can be a joyous time, but for those whose kids are in crisis because of self-destructive behavior, it can add yet another layer to an already overwhelming situation for their parents.

If you are a parent of a troubled teen, Jen Hatmaker wants you to know you’re not alone. The Christian author, blogger, pastor’s wife, and star of HGTV’s My Big Family Renovation encourages parents by sharing the story of her friend Amy and her son Landon and how she and her husband face what seems to be an impossible situation by trusting in God and seeking help and support through others who can come alongside them in this struggle.

Hatmaker graciously allowed WORLD to reprint this helpful article, which originally appeared at her website. —Mickey McLean

I wrote earlier this week about enjoying my teens, and before I keep writing, let me say this TO BE SURE: My kids are ordinary and act total fools sometimes. Don’t imagine that we are skipping through the teen years with nary a rebellion, academic catastrophe, or snotty moody fresh mouth. I will not name names to protect the guilty, but we have run-of-the-mill teens that delight and frustrate in equal measure. That is just normal. Parenting teens is hard. So is parenting toddlers and parenting second-graders and parenting middle-schoolers (sometimes I resort to singing hymns to manage my middles: “HAVE THINE OWN WAY, LORD, HAVE THINE OWN WAY. THOU ART THE POTTER, THESE KIDS ARE SO CRAY.”)

Parenting is hard, zero kids/parents are perfect, not every moment is a pleasure ever—in any stage, for any parent, for any kid, in any context in the history of life. Every person who disagrees with the previous sentence is a liar.

However, even though I am naturally an Older Kid Mom (I recall the Baby Years and get the shakes), I also recognize that my kids thus far—and I do mean thus far—have operated somewhat in the middle of the pack. While they aren’t skipping grades and ending world hunger, neither are they struggling with extreme behaviors, so my experience is fairly ordinary. We are in the middle of the bell curve.

But parents, do you know how many teens are in crisis? In the throes of addiction or self-harm or mental illness or depression? MILLIONS. So do the math: that means millions of parents are suffering alongside teens that are self-destructing.

I want to talk today to the parents in the deepest trenches, absolutely battling for their children’s loyalty or health or even their lives. First, you are not alone. Hear that. Parenting troubled teens often involves silent suffering, which can trick you into thinking you are isolated. An easy target for judgment or shame, so many families in crisis struggle alone, afraid or embarrassed or just too exhausted to reach out. Society expects 3-year-olds to act like lunatics, but we don’t know what to do with a teen that cuts or abuses or destroys or hates herself.

Because we are a people who like to blame, so often parents get the side eye: What did you do wrong? What didn’t you do right? What could you have done differently? The truth is, teenagers are whole human beings and they get to choose their steps. So many troubled teens are beloved, they come from good families, they were rocked and read to and cheered for. There is no parenting formula that ensures any child’s path. Families in crisis don’t need a jury of their peers; they need a community of support. A parent can virtually do everything right and their child can still disappear. What’s more, a parent can virtually engage every good intervention, and their child may stay gone.

Then there is the very real reality of mental illness, addiction, emotional disorders, and trauma that many teens are battling. If our child had liver failure, we would go to the ends of the earth for medical care, the best doctors, the strongest intervention, the greatest support network, and all the earth would rally to our side to fight for her wholeness. So many of our teens are physically broken in their minds and hearts, and the magnitude of their hurt completely overwhelms their capacity to overcome on their own, but instead of a chorus of support, their families receive silence or judgment or disappointment which compounds grief and lays a heavy yoke on those who are already suffering.

I want to introduce you to my friend Amy and her son Landon (name changed). This is my dear friend who has struggled mightily for more than 10 years with her teen. And I mean mightily. The grace and courage she exhibits, well, I just don’t even know how to talk about it. I am so proud to be her friend. She agreed to tell a bit of her story. May it be an encouragement to weary and heartbroken parents.

When did Landon begin struggling outside the parameters of “ordinary disobedience”? We first started seeing changes in Landon when he was around 5. That’s when he really started to show some defiance. He became very pessimistic and lacking empathy for others. And worst, no remorse.We started getting calls from teachers about fifth grade. By sixth grade we were called to the principal’s office. Now he is in 11th grade and it’s only gotten harder. His high school principal joked that he needed to put us on speed dial. He’s on probation for the third time. Thankfully, nothing serious—just a lot of really stupid choices that he didn’t get away with. 

But, let me tell you, seeing your child in an orange jumpsuit handcuffed is HARD. Just typing that makes me cry. Seeing him in pain because of his choices is so hard as a parent to watch. But we have given him the necessary tools, guidance, and resources to make the right choices. We have had to step back and let the natural consequences play out. 

And, if you want a dose of humble pie—go sit in the waiting room at Gardner Betts Juvenile Center waiting for your child’s probation officer while every other person that walks by knows your name! Very humbling. I look at the other moms in the waiting room (we all look like we need to go to the spa). We give each other the I-can-relate-exhausted-look. No matter what part of town we live in, how much money we have in the bank, we are on the same battlefield: fighting for our kids.

What have his teen years been like? What have you been through? To say his teen years have been difficult is a major understatement. We have cried buckets of tears through these years. We have screamed at God. Pleaded to God. … This was NOT what I envisioned our family of six would look like. We never wanted to spend these teen years concerned about suicide, going to court hearings, spending hours at counselors, having random visits from parole officers. And we are still right in the trenches. Still pray every morning that Landon makes it through the day without getting arrested, killed, or hurting someone else. 

I pray fervently that I would be a vessel of God’s love. I need His love to pour through me to Landon because my human self doesn’t feel it. I don’t expect a lot of parents to understand how you couldn’t feel love for your child. This was something 10 years ago I would’ve thought only horrible HORRIBLE parents could say. The first time I realized I didn’t feel love for Landon I felt like I was defective or sick or just plain cold-hearted. The first time I actually said that out loud to another seasoned mom who had raised a child like Landon and she said, “I know exactly how you’re feeling. I felt the same way,” I LOST it. Cried so hard. Just knowing that I wasn’t alone and wasn’t a horrible person was HUGE. 

That’s what I hope comes from being transparent about our struggles. For those parents out there who are having a hard time—you aren’t alone! I know there are going to be lots of parents out there who will judge me for this post. We’ve had relatives judge us. Please don’t judge us (or do, I really don’t care). We ARE good parents. You have no idea what it’s been like.

Let me give you a glimpse into my life parenting Landon: 

  • He has told me he loves me probably 10 times in the past 10 years and probably half of those were in birthday cards. 
  • He has probably hugged me back 10 times in 10 years—note I hug him A LOT, but it’s comparable to hugging a wooden board. 
  • This year, he didn’t say A WORD to me on Mother’s Day. But, that didn’t keep me from speaking to him.
  • I am 99 percent sure that if he is talking to me in a normal tone of voice it’s because he wants something. This is reality with him. 

I want to love AND LIKE my child. I want this so badly. I’m claiming that someday I will naturally again. But right now, thankfully God is providing.

What have you learned? How has parenting Landon affected how you parent your other three? We have learned through several years of counseling, that there is only so much we can do and that it is not our fault. This was HUGE for me because I kept thinking we were doing something wrong: wrong parenting technique, not praying hard enough, not spending enough time with him, not having the means to take him to the perfect treatment center, etc. I blamed myself—and my husband—for so long for all the choices Landon was making. I thought his behavior was a reflection of our parenting. And I was embarrassed! My husband was the family pastor at our church! We were supposed to have it all together and be a role model for other families.

Stop! Y’all—that is the enemy talking! Stop believing it. Get out of the church or community that makes you feel like a failure because your child is “misbehaving.” Get plugged into a support group or church with real people living real lives. It’s SO freeing.

Landon has three younger siblings. Thankfully they are all doing really well. We don’t tell them everything that’s going on with Landon, just that he has made poor choices and we still need to love him. They are smart though and know most of what’s going on. Through all this we emphasize how important communication with each other is. We want our kids to be able to come to us with anything. We want them to know we’re not going to freak out and that we will love them through ANYTHING. We get the opportunity to prove that with Landon. Our actions definitely speak louder than words, and others are watching.

What would you tell another parent who is in the midst of heartache with her struggling child? Get help. Get support. Don’t try to do this alone. We have been to family counseling with our children, and marriage counseling. This was huge. Get a third party in there to help. Godly counsel has saved our marriage! If you’re married, keep your marriage top priority! You and your spouse need to be a team. The enemy will see this as a way to ruin your marriage, and it will if you don’t put time and effort into making your marriage strong. Make sure your teenager knows that you and your spouse are on the same team and in agreement. When talking to our kids about parenting decisions, my husband and I try to always say, “We decided, we think it’s best, our thoughts are. …” It also makes me feel like it has more weight or power. If you’re a single parent—I can’t imagine. I would seek out a team of strong, loving peeps to back you, support you, and help. 

We sought out prayer warriors to come alongside us and pray with us in this battle. Doesn’t matter if it’s another couple that’s older or younger, just someone you can trust and know that they will do battle with you. I have a friend (my cousin) I call and vent to at least once a week. I don’t know how she puts up with it! But she listens and doesn’t judge and that’s all I need. (I do have to remind myself that I need to go first and foremost to God with my venting. The more I allow myself to be turned to God through these struggles the more peace and wisdom I am given).

Get respite. You need a break. Dealing with a troubled teen is SO exhausting. SO stressful. It can deplete you if you let it. See if there’s a trusted family member or friend who can take your teen for the week or the summer. You never know unless you ask. We ended up sending Landon to Youth Reach Houston, a home for troubled boys. Totally 100 percent free. I can’t speak highly enough about this ministry. They are raising godly men there. Anyways, we had six months of respite. Not only did my husband and I need it, but our other children needed it too.

You can’t just give up. Never give up on your child. Even if you’re using tough love. That’s NOT giving up. Tough love is TOUGH on the parents, but sometimes it’s the best thing you can do for your child.

Look at your child as being lost. Not simply rebellious. Not horrible. Not defective. Just lost and needs to find his way. You, as his parent are there to help guide him, instruct, AND nurture. 

You have no idea everything your child has experienced. You may not know why he is behaving the way he is.There might be something that happened to him when you weren’t there to cause him to act the way he does. I remind myself of this often when I lack grace, love, and compassion for him. 

Teenagers need us more than ever. More than the toddler years. Don’t think that just because they’re independent and can do everything on their own, that they don’t need you or want to spend time with you.And don’t expect them to admit it. Ours never has. Try sneaking it in, like when you pick them up from school and say you’re going to stop and grab a bite to eat. Pick a restaurant he likes. Ask questions! Act truly interested and listen.

My husband and I went to a weekend retreat for parents at Heartlight Ministries, a residential treatment center for troubled teens—HIGHLY recommend!—and we got to “interview” a few of the residents who had been there for several months. We asked them if they truly wanted to spend time with their parents and ALL of them without a second’s hesitation said yes! Now, granted they had been away from their parents for a long time, but STILL! If there is at least an ounce of desire from your teen to spend time with you, take it!

If you start having issues with your teen or see warning signs from him—don’t ignore it! Don’t have a “he’ll grow out of it attitude.” Keep your eye on it. Get help if it gets worst.

Make sure your teen knows NOTHING can separate him from God’s love and that no matter what your child does, you will love him. Don’t base your relationship with your teen on what he is or isn’t doing. This is HARD.

What are your hopes for Landon and his future? I am claiming that Landon will make a turn, that the light will turn on and he will desire the things of the Lord. I hope this comes soon. I hope I get to see it in my lifetime. I hope that he will use the struggles that God allowed to help others. I envision him one day counseling kids. He is SOOOO good with kids. Kids bring out the best in Landon. And, Lord he is going to have such an amazing story and testimony!

* * *

Oh my word. THE WISDOM. Thank you, dear friend. I love you and am so proud of you. Thank you for speaking so much permission and strength into weary hearts today. You are a marvel.

I love you, parents who are grieving. Let us come alongside you. Please talk truthfully to us and ask for help and love and nearness. I asked another precious friend whose teen is so lost what helps most from others and she said, “Kindness.” Tell us specifically how we can help. Teach us how to love well in the midst of struggle. Receive grace—from your people, from God—it is exactly the thing that has always saved us.

God is not done with your child. It is never too late. No one is ever too far-gone. Many a prodigal comes home in two years, five years, 15 years. And may he find open arms, hearts that have been long awaiting his blessed return. And even if he doesn’t, may you rest in God’s grace and sovereignty and realize some homecomings are in this life and some are after it. You have loved well and labored mightily regardless. Well done, good and faithful servant.

Some great resources for parenting troubled kids

Brokenhearted parents, you are seen and loved. Can you add any resources in the comments (with links) that have helped you and your family? Or parents who’ve made it to the other side, we crave your hope and leadership today. —J.H.

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