Resources for parenting defiant young teen
May 24, 2016 8:14 AM   Subscribe

My family is in crisis. My son is 13 and in 7th grade. He's generally responsible but lately has been pushing boundaries. He lost his phone (to us) following poor behavior recently. Things have escalated. We have a family therapist, but she's booked up for months, and I am waiting to hear back from her via email. I need to know what my resources are because my family needs help.

My son had some trauma in his younger life (we adopted him), and he's experienced some triggers lately because of a planned trip to his birth country. I think he's feeling pretty out-of-control and is trying hard to regain control.

I can understand all this, but my husband and I are at a loss. Today he was supposed to be home after school at 3:30. He got home at 6:30. Same thing happened a few days last week. He's hardly speaking with us and is refusing to follow family rules.

Tonight we talked to him and he got so angry. He kept repeating, louder and louder, "Get out of my room!" I'm concerned he might runaway (though any of his friends' parents would get in touch with us, and he doesn't have any money right now).

He's never been great at dealing with difficult emotions, and hiding away has always been what he's done. What we're asking -- do your chores, talk to us, eat dinner with us, get home from school on time -- is pretty reasonable, but he's fighting everything so hard. He's lashing out in anger. He's not violent but his anger is cresting.

Until we hear back from our family therapist, what do we do? What do we do if he leaves the house tonight? What if he refuses to go to school tomorrow? What if he goes to school and refuses to come home? What if he won't get in the car to go see our therapist?

I welcome parenting tips as well as recommendations of what resources we might be able to take advantage of right now.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (49 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
If you give us your general geographic area someone might know of nearby resources. what country? What part of that country?

Can you cancel or postpone the trip to his birth country?

If he leaves the house go with him. If he stays home from school can either parent stay home with him? Try to stay calm. Don't yell at him, don't demand explanations -he's probably not capable of giving them. Just be there to reassure him that you love him no matter what.

Does the school have a counselor of some kind? Do you have a good rapport with any of his teachers? Call them!

Does your son have a good relationship with grandparents, aunts and uncles? Or maybe with the parents of some of his friends? Call them!

Reach out now to any and all supportive people in his and/or your life.

Do you have other children?

Tell us more.
posted by mareli at 8:29 AM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

You might want to consider getting him a therapist of his own - someone he knows won't report back to you.

It sounds like you're telling him what he needs to do. Have you asked him about why he doesn't want to do them? I was an angry kid, and nothing on Earth made me angrier than being told to do things and not being given a reason, and not being given a chance to argue my own side. It made me feel completely powerless. It sounds like you get that he's feeling a lack of control, but are you doing anything to help him regain a sense of control?
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:33 AM on May 24, 2016 [58 favorites]

Also - unless there is something you haven't told us, coming home three hours late and refusing to do chores and saying "get out of my room" isn't really on the same level as running away from home. I'm not sure why you're worried about him doing that. Has he threatened to? Can you give us more details (you can email a moderator to add information)? Because the things you've posted here sound like they aren't totally out of the ordinary range of behavior for a kid who is presumably just hitting puberty.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:38 AM on May 24, 2016 [41 favorites]

I agree that it's hard to tell from your details that there's any sort of crisis going on. However, I would suggest that you look for a therapist that can see your son. Additionally, if this stress/behavior is being caused by this planned trip, you should cancel it. If your child experienced trauma in his birth country, he should not be forced to go back there. Especially if he isn't receiving any sort of mental health help right now.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:40 AM on May 24, 2016 [27 favorites]

Does he have a way to get that energy out physically at your house? A punching bag in the basement or garage?
posted by Sublimity at 8:43 AM on May 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you have a family therapist but he/she is backed up for months, then you don't have a family therapist. Look for a more reliable replacement.

What is the rationale for visiting your son's home country? Are there relatives there? Have you or your son maintained contact with them? It sounds like you may want to revisit that decision.
posted by Billiken at 8:47 AM on May 24, 2016 [41 favorites]

1. Get out of his room.
2. Don't worry about school. He is more important than his grades. Take a day off of work, let him take a day off of school, and go somewhere. Just drive. Put in a random podcast that has nothing to do with him or you or the situation. Like Mike Birbiglia's sleepwalking story, and find a random diner, go for a hike, go see the Captain America movie or whatever.
3. Ask him: what can we do to help you? What can we do that will make you feel less cornered, more at ease? (As suggested above, his own person to talk to, not just family therapy. His needs are different than yours.)
4. Tell him: We love you. We respect you. We expect you to do what needs to be done (school, communicate). And we will do what needs to be done (listen to you, adapt to your changing needs).
5. Mean it.

If he is the type, consider a retreat like Inward Bound. It's a change of scene and a chance to connect with other kids who experience the world similarly to the way he does.
posted by headnsouth at 8:51 AM on May 24, 2016 [114 favorites]

A friend with a teenage son was also escalating her punishments for him due to poor grades. The house was full of yelling. The turning point was when she went in and gave him a hug, apologized for the yelling, and had a heart-to-heart talk about expectations and frustrations. Sometimes the built up wall between parent and child needs to temporarily come down in order to see eye-to-eye and just talk.

(headnsouth says it so much more eloquently, though)
posted by jillithd at 9:03 AM on May 24, 2016 [28 favorites]

I worked as a professional mentor at an organization focused on kids facing lots of difficulties. We were trained in a method of communication called "Collaborative Problem Solving." I think this is a fantastic approach for parenting, especially in situations like yours where your son is old enough to really play an active role. It provides some structure to help you and your son get through emotionally charged situations to get to productive communication. There are books available that are nice, but it might be worth asking your family therapist or looking for a new one that specializes in this approach.

If I were to apply CPS to your immediate needs "what if" questions: In a crisis, you want to deescalate while maintaining safety. That might mean allowing him not to go to school if he doesn't want to go, but it would not mean letting him run away. If forcing him to go to school will make him scream or shut down, then communication ceases and no progress can be made, plus you may have actually made things worse.

You need to find a way to uncover his major concerns. If he says I don't want to go to school, and you say he has to go to school, all you have are dueling, incompatible solutions. If you can probe a bit more to find out why he doesn't want to go to school, then you can have productive conversation. Maybe there's a bully, maybe he hates a teacher, maybe he's scared of failure, maybe he's just too tired every morning. You have to invite him to put his concerns on the table first.

Then you can share your concerns. Which can't be solutions like "we want you to go to school" or "you can't fail that class." You have to probe deeper for yourselves too. Maybe its something like "we want you to learn so that you are prepared for a successful life."

Once everyone's concerns are on the table, then you can think together about possible solutions. He gets to have input here. Maybe he will have ideas you can't predict, and you will need to resist the temptation to double down on any preconceived solutions of your own. Maybe solutions will end up incorporating some of the ideas in this thread, like having a punching bag or going on a retreat. But you wont know if those ideas make sense until you can articulate everyone's concerns and consider whether any given solution will address them to everyone's satisfaction.

Eventually, you can work together to build a list of things that you are working on. You plan to back off of some stuff to create energy to work on harder stuff. Maybe, for example, getting to school every day becomes a priority, so you choose to stop harping on whether or not his shirt is tucked in cause that really gets him peeved. Some things, like running away, are never negotiable because of safety, but you can work together to decide where to put energy and where to be flexible.

Working together will actually build his skills as a problem solver and help develop the parts of his brain that need developing right now. It will also make you into a team that works together, rather than cementing a situation where you as a parent are setting and enforcing rules that he may not understand or agree with.

This is not easy to do and requires practice. A network of certified providers can offer support along the way.
posted by cubby at 9:08 AM on May 24, 2016 [50 favorites]

You can try doing some things differently. It's not the norm, but we didnt ask the teen in our house to do chores. It's completely normal to resist a to-do list handed to you by someone else. The world will do that to him soon enough. We only ever asked that her room not be dangerous (no piles on top of other stuff) and not attract bugs or vermin (no food or chip bags). Sometimes a well-place reminder with a natural reason is good "you want a friend to stay over on Friday? Please clean your room before then. Let me know if you want help." That was a key offer - turns out she often didn't know where to start. We suggested - pick up garbage first - put all the clothes that are on the floor into the laundry whether you think they're clean or not, etc. another natural pint in time for a reminder is when she's bored - c'mon, let's go clean your room. Do you want me to keep you company? Or would you rather blast some music and get in the zone on your own.

Fix him his favorite meal. I definitely agree that he could probably use a free day off from school.

We used to (and sometimes still do) say things like "please don't spend ALL night in your room - I need to see your face tonight and know that you're not just up there sinking into a depression. Come down for ice cream at 8:00 and watch X sitcom with us for half an hour, and then you can go sink back into your room."

We always did school drop off and school pick up (even when a bus was available), which was a real bitch since we both work full time and the after school schedule is constantly changing. She found it most convenient, so she didn't notice that it was a built in control.

Say the following to him "No more chores." And watch his face light up. Follow with "I might ask you, in the moment, to help me sometimes, but that's because I'm human, and you're a human, and I sometimes like help bringing the groceries into the house."
posted by vitabellosi at 9:09 AM on May 24, 2016 [27 favorites]

Skip school for a day. Tell him, "Tomorrow no school. Screw it, we're going for a walk in the woods." Let him sleep in, then get up & out around 10-11am. Get drive-thru breakfast and go for a drive together, somewhere nice like an hour away, and then a long quiet walk in nature, and a yummy treat like ice cream. Don't force conversation. Just hang out and have a nice time. Maybe listen to music or a podcast on the way there but allow quieter time on the way back, and a conversation might happen, but don't push it. You two need bonding and comfort, not more needles of dissent. Rebuilding trust and affection takes time, and requires a lot of constant patching and reconnecting. Let the chores and rules relax for a while, then re-add them very gradually.

Another good way to connect is to paint something outside- maybe a dresser for his room or something, whatever colour he wants. Just paint side by side in a nice calm mood without too much talking, it feels good and is restorative for the relationship.

Also: sincerity and humbleness is really powerful. What if you said,
"I really love you and I feel like our relationship has gotten so tense lately. I feel like I've been too hard on you and not listened as much as I should. I want you to know how much I love you as a parent, and also how much I truly like you as a person. I really respect you and I'm interested in your ideas and I want to do better at being there for you. What can I do to help things feel better?" And listen to what he says (maybe check in later in case he has a new idea), and try to drop the grudges and provide what he says he needs without too much compromise. Certainly the "blame" for your problems together is shared, but just taking responsibility for your half is a strong start and sets an amazing example for the kind of adult he can become.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:26 AM on May 24, 2016 [24 favorites]

Honestly, this sounds like plain old teenagehood,not like a child who wants to run away. With teenagers trying to figure out who they are and what they want, you have to communicate and let them know they are wanted. Framing everything based on what YOU want will only make him resist harder. He knows he's his own person, although not a fully formed one.

Also, dear god, get out of his room. Respecting a place of rest and retreat is really important. I was a kid that had my room turned into a place of trauma and fighting, and it tanked my physical health/sleep cycle for many years. Everyone needs a private space,respect that.

I'd also suggest getting him a therapist of his own, and if you can afford it, a therapist of your own. Not the same therapist for everyone. This way you're all learning better communication and coping skills without the weird entangled problems a single family therapist can create.

Honestly, the reason most kids lash out is because they are feeling so much pressure(school,home,peers,self esteem) and they haven't gained the tools to handle it or cope with that stress. Don't add any more stress if you aren't also going to help him relieve that stress with fun, fufilling things that he likes.
posted by InkDrinker at 9:27 AM on May 24, 2016 [14 favorites]

I can't recommend this book enough: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk. On preview -- it's about the same techniques that cubby's post discusses but goes into more detail about how to implement them.
posted by phoenixy at 9:29 AM on May 24, 2016 [10 favorites]

Give him some control over some things. Which two days a week would you like to come home late from school? Which of these chores would you like to do? Pick two out of these five. What would you like to have for supper this week? Would you like to do your homework before supper or after supper? And if he's yelling over and over to get out of his room, then maybe get out of his room. Making him angrier is not going to make him less angry. You want to talk *with* him, not talk at him.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 9:37 AM on May 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

I was about to recommend the book phoenixy just did.
posted by salvia at 9:39 AM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Has he ever had any training, guidance, or mentoring in how to deal with feelings*? You seem to expect him to know how, and he doesn't seem to know how, which would make your expectations unreasonable.

*This is generally not what happens in therapy. It should be, but it's usually not. Going to therapy does not automatically equal getting anything out of it, especially not-fully-formed humans who aren't really old enough for navel-gazing. They need to be taught tools in an interactive manner rather than be put through the interrogative style "talk therapy" he's probably experienced so far. Maybe talk to an occupational therapist instead, and yes, also ask around for recommendations for a good teen-boy-friendly dojo or krav maga studio or boxing gym. Testosterone is a hell of a drug.

It's probably time to introduce him to self-care, or the good old Mental Health Day. If you possibly can take the day off yourself and he doesn't have a big test or something, take him out of school at least tomorrow. Let him sleep however long his body wants to sleep, fill him with food, take him to the movies. Ask him if he wants to cancel the trip (you should cancel the trip regardless of his answer, but let him have a say, tell him he doesn't even have to tell you why if he doesn't want to, but offer to answer any questions/concerns he has if he's uncertain).

I've heard really good things about the book phoenixy recommends, but I think for the couple of days it'll take you to read it, the primary thing you need to do with your son is de-escalate. Get out of his room when he's melting down, allow him some dignity. Consider not triggering him to the point of despair with a hugely emotionally-loaded trip (what if he thinks you're taking him back? what if he's terrified and heartbroken and preparing himself to go on without you, or that he'll be mocked/shunned/rejected for no longer belonging there? what if he believes those things even though they don't make sense and nothing he or you can say will make it better?) when he's at his absolute worst as a man-shaped bag of boy feelings?

If he hasn't hurt anyone or tried to set anything on fire, you're nowhere near crisis. You're in teenager-with-some-legitimate-shit-in-his-past. He may run away, lots of kids do for a couple of hours or a night, mostly trying to run away from the intensity of their feelings. Hand him some tools for dealing with them - that's mostly what kids need. Tools and advocacy and some carefully-curated agency so they can get the hang of it.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:42 AM on May 24, 2016 [7 favorites]

Do check out the 'early teen' section on

This post is kind of hard to understand because it sounds like a bit of over-reaction to a bit of teenager stuff that is well within the bounds of normal. Also like you're all geared up for a power struggle where you don't need to have a power struggle. "Get out of my room" -- okay -- why not say "Sure, can we continue this conversation in the kitchen?" He came home at what? You took his phone, he can't text a heads-up that he'll be home later than usual, which would be a reasonable thing to ask.

It seems counter-intuitive but one good way to get a kid to be more responsible is to give them more responsibility. Remember it takes at least two people to have a fight -- be the one who chooses to not fight.

Along with the How to Talk book, the same authors have a book called Liberated Parents, Liberated Children: Your Guide to a Happier Family which is an excellent read.
posted by kmennie at 9:43 AM on May 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

Seconding that he should have control over _something_. His room seems like one possibility, although I understand if it makes you nervous. He does need some kind of personal space, for sure.
posted by amtho at 9:47 AM on May 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

All of the above advice is great, because it will help you move from the mindset of parenting a child to parenting a teen. He's 13 and he needs autonomy and privacy. "Get out of my room!" is a perfectly reasonable request.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:49 AM on May 24, 2016 [18 favorites]

He sounds like a caged animal right now and his desire for autonomy sounds entirely healthy and appropriate to me. Especially given how brutally repressive schools are, both institutionally and socially. Being made to perform emotionally on a schedule at home only adds to the pressure, and the only solution is to blank out completely or lash out with anger. Or disappear. It's a healthy thing to take time for oneself, in between school and home when both are full of pressure. That's the sort of thing I would encourage. There have to be limits of course, he can't just disappear all night, but this is a boundary that should be negotiated, rather than imposed.

Also, consider that his traumatic past means that he presumably never got to feel the unconditional love that parents are supposed to provide. That is a pretty deep void to be carrying around. I wonder if part of his acting out is to see whether your love for him will disappear when he stops being good enough, or whether you love him unconditionally even if he's a fuckup who can't do anything right. So, I'd ask you to imagine what happens if he can't meet your conditions. What if he's too angry from school to come home right away and be a functioning human. What if he's so buried in pain that he could only sit in angry silence at the dinner table. What if his failure to relate piles on top of the pain and stabs him in the chest continually so that a conversation feels like literal torture and he shrinks away from it. How do you respond if he does not meet your conditions? Is your love unconditional? He may need you to prove it.
posted by anybodys at 9:49 AM on May 24, 2016 [32 favorites]

anybodys nailed it. I've worked with many many young adults with varying backgrounds and this is very typical for a teenager, but especially an adopted teenager. He probably feels worthless, like trash, unwanted in terms of his relationship with his birth parents, and going back to his home country is going to exacerbate that in a big way. Be there for him, show him you love him. He needs you to prove that you want him.

DO NOT send him to a treatment center. I don't care how nice the website is or how responsible the administration seems, I've never worked at one that didn't neglect it's clients, provide inadequate staffing (or support to their staff), or fully take care of their needs.
posted by Marinara at 10:26 AM on May 24, 2016 [20 favorites]

Think about what are the things that are emergencies, and what are not. It is not an emergency if your son misses a day or two of school. It is not an emergency if he doesn't do his chores or is rude to you. It is not an emergency if he doesn't eat dinner with you. It is not an emergency if he doesn't want to talk about his feelings with you right now when he's upset, or if he wants to be alone in his own room at times when you'd prefer he be talking to you. It is an emergency if you don't know where he is for an extended period of time and have reason to worry that he's in trouble or hurt or in danger. And it is an emergency if your son is having such strong negative feelings about a planned vacation that it is affecting his mental health.

Unless he is legally mandated to go on the trip for some reason, cancel or postpone it. He's clearly not ready to go, and it's making things worse. Focus on the things that matter: you need to know where he is enough to protect his safety, and you need to get help for his mental health needs. If your family therapist can't be reached in an emergency, you need a new therapist. And I agree that your son should have someone to talk to who is just for him, whom he knows isn't going to tell you what he says. Because if he wants to say he hates you or is mad at you or resents you or whatever, he needs to have a safe space to do that.

And I 100% agree with Marinara about inpatient treatment. Do not send your son away if you have literally any other alternative available. I work with children who spend a lot of time in inpatient treatment. It is my belief that being a missing person is safer for most kids than being in a lot of these "treatment" facilities, and there is no way to know from the marketing materials what they're going to do to the kids behind closed doors. But I also don't think you're anywhere near at the point of considering that. A lot of what your son is going through is normal growing pains, and some of it is pain and trauma. But he's not doing anything bad or that would place him in danger; he's just misbehaving a little because he doesn't know how else to deal with the fact that he's in pain. Find some help to address the pain, and the behavior will follow.
posted by decathecting at 10:41 AM on May 24, 2016 [8 favorites]

Dude. He's 13. Get out of his room and let him masturbate in peace.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:46 AM on May 24, 2016 [19 favorites]

Also, punishments are probably counterproductive right now. By taking away his cell phone, you've taken away his means of communicating with his peers, which isolates him further. That's likely going to make him more upset and angry, and will increase his feelings of panic and make him more likely to do things like go to friends' houses or refuse to talk to you. Your son doesn't need consequences for his actions, because he's not misbehaving on purpose. He's trying to deal with feelings of panic and pain and anger and fear, and all of the other things you describe are symptoms of that. Punishing him for his feelings, or for his reactions to his feelings, is going to make things worse. So if it were me, I'd give him back his phone and tell him that you want him to have it so that he can talk to his friends and also so that he'll have a way to get in touch with you if he needs to call you for help or to talk. And I'd consider which other rules you've imposed on him that might be making him feel more upset, exacerbating the spiral of negative feelings, and consider which ones of those are necessary to his health and safety vs. which ones can be suspended or relaxed until he feels more safe.

I know it seems counterintuitive to relax rules for a kid who is breaking rules. But again, he's not breaking rules to get away with something. He's breaking rules because he's having feelings that he doesn't know how to deal with, and so the rules may be contributing to making things worse. He's in a cycle now of restrictions and punishments that make him feel worse that cause him to act out, resulting in more punishments, and you need to break that cycle. Letting him know that you're willing to reconsider the rules that aren't working for him is an important part of breaking that cycle.
posted by decathecting at 10:47 AM on May 24, 2016 [22 favorites]

I wrote a long, detailed response to this, retelling our middle kid's rough years (which are not yet resolved, but have been on a very wonderful upswing as he's gotten toward the upper end of his teens). But a lot gets lost in details, and sometimes it's helpful to hear an unvarnished message. So, my message, from our family's experience:

Let your kid fail on his own. Worry less about figuring it out for them in advance, when your role can be the that of one to whom they turn to for help resolving the crises they find themselves in.

That might sound harsh, but we went down a very indulgent path when our little dude started hitting this wall. We look back on that indulgent path like a glaring error on our behalf. I say error because we tried to resolve his problems, and his feelings, and he, like most kids, knows this and can get habituated to it. Kids can and will manipulate your willingness to do the work of keeping them out of trouble, whether they're always aware of it or not.

So sometimes that means you're in the tough place of establishing consequences of actions in advance, then following through and enforcing those consequences (e.g. you'll be grounded for a week if you're not home by 4 pm, and grounded means x,y,z; you stayed out past 4 pm, so you are now grounded, and that means x,y,z).

Feel free to PM. These situations are never easy, but you'll get through them.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:50 AM on May 24, 2016 [6 favorites]

Also, look into trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy for your son. It's one of the few therapies that has evidence-based results for children and adolescents with histories of trauma or abuse. Try to find a therapist for him trained in that modality. That therapist should also be able to give you some parenting advice.
posted by decathecting at 10:53 AM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I taught freshman and there's a guide to how to handle teens, basically the hormones make them wacky so to figure out what emotional age they are, subtract 10 from their actual age and that's what you're dealing with. Think about it, he's acting like a three year old. Which is about right.

De-Escalate. Apologize to him for yelling, and do take a mental-health day, the both of you, to decompress. Do something fun and don't probe him for answers or anything like that. If he's a danger to someone, that's different, but being moody, upset and unable to verbalize why, is the definition of being 13.

Give him a little more slack, don't jump on his shit just because he's not toeing the line.

I might say something like, "It's been pretty tense here lately and I'm sorry if I'm pushing you when it's not warranted. I worry about you and it comes out in yelling. I trust you and to show that, we're giving you your phone back. I think we could use some fun time. Let's play hooky tomorrow. We'll sleep in, get some lunch, see a movie and forget about day-to-day bullshit for awhile. How does that sound? We love you so much and we hate seeing you so miserable. May we hug you?"

I'll point out that so much of this could be sleep deprivation. Teens are night owls and if they have to wake up early they get REALLY out of whack. A day off will be fantastic for everyone.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:53 AM on May 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

nthing to avoid treatment centers. It's also not a "treatment center" crisis if he doesn't graduate high school, or if his room smells bad, or if there are rats living under your house for the next ten years.

All of those are better than what is all-too-likely to happen to a defiant/problem/underachieving kid in a treatment center. In addition, you have his just feeling that you have given up. Unfortunately, I speak from personal knowledge.

Treatment centers are for if someone's life is in danger.

I'm not saying that this situation isn't serious, just that your ideas of "serious", formed from your own upbringing, might be a little conservative.

That said, I hope you don't get disheartened from everyone seeming to pile on to you. It's wonderful that you're paying attention to your son. Parenting is hard.
posted by amtho at 11:03 AM on May 24, 2016 [12 favorites]

Two things stood out to me: he "had some trauma in his younger life" and there's an upcoming trip planned to his birth country....

Maybe, just maybe, this combo is majorly stressing him out: does he in fact really want to go there, a place he probably does not view with rose-colored glasses? Maybe he just can't articulate why and how much he doesn't want to go --- thirteen years old is confusing enough for anyone, let alone a shy-ish kid who can't figure out how to explain how he feels. (He might even fear you're only taking him to birth-country to leave him there.)
posted by easily confused at 11:09 AM on May 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

I keep thinking about this... your question talked a lot about what he's doing and what he might do. You mentioned his feelings, which is important.

I'd try to give him the space to deal with his feelings. Those sound overwhelming. If he'll talk to you, listen. If he can't talk right now, maybe reinforce, constantly, that you take his feelings and his thoughts seriously. Show that you value those over his chores or schoolwork.

He might lose some academic time to dealing with this stuff. Show him, and tell him, that that's OK. If you lose your $3000 airline deposit or whatever, that's not as important as making sure that he's going to be OK. Show him, tell him, reinforce this.
posted by amtho at 11:26 AM on May 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

My son had some trauma in his younger life (we adopted him), and he's experienced some triggers lately because of a planned trip to his birth country. I think he's feeling pretty out-of-control and is trying hard to regain control.
I'm concerned he might runaway (though any of his friends' parents would get in touch with us, and he doesn't have any money right now).

As others have mentioned, getting home from school three hours late is a far cry from running away.

I wonder if there is something else that is making you concerned he might run away that you didn't describe very well in the question.

It seems like you are saying he's feeling out of control due to the trip to his birth country. If he fears something really bad will happen there -- like some of the news stories that turn up about adoptive parents trying to return their kids or leave them at fire stations in states with amnesty, etc. -- it would be understandable if he did something pretty extreme to avoid that. Or maybe he's worried that someone there would take him away from you.

If a kid is scared enough about what might happen (whether or not you feel their fears are reasonable), they absolutely can and many have run away at his age, and run away from friends who might tell their parents where they are, even with no money. If a kid is scared enough, doing some pretty unpleasant things to survive on the streets can seem like a better plan.

Taking away his phone probably isn't helping -- imagine you are being taken to a place you don't want to go, far from home, and not entirely sure you'll ever see your home again -- then the person making you go to this place takes away your means of communication -- you'd probably feel pretty scared.

Not to mention, if you run away from home and change your mind, a phone is an incredibly useful thing to have.

I don't understand why you'd take him to his birth country if he is feeling triggered by it. If you just want him to "experience the culture", he can go later. Cancel the trip. Yes, you may feel that you've "wasted money" on prepaid stuff, but what good is it to have spent money on something that everyone will feel terrible about? Consider it a valuable lesson in respecting your son's feelings.
posted by yohko at 12:25 PM on May 24, 2016 [12 favorites]

When my daughter was 14, the situation was so rough, I took her to a psychiatrist, thinking there might be a serious problem.
I learnt a lot, and it was all humble food.

First of all, the doctor said, your daughter is good, there is nothing wrong with her, but you need to adapt to her needs.

Next, the school is just bad. You need to move her like she wants to move. This was a biggie because her school was a top-ranking private school, and her dad was on the board.

Third, she wants you (i.e. me) specifically to be there, and you need to change your priorities. (Divorced Dad was working part-time and I thought that covered our needs).

There are details in this I can't post on the webs, but I assure you this was all well-founded. And it changed our lives. Since I'm a single parent and child-support is non-existent, we became a lot poorer when I cut down on work.
Happily, we found a public school where her special needs were met, so at least I saved money on that.
Both my kids describe the years we managed on low wages and lots of time together as good times, in spite of the lack of basically everything.
They are both more self-reliant than most in their age-group, but that is hardly a bad thing.

The doctor basically told me to make my daughter the expert of her own life. The doctor is now pensioned, but she was the most eminent pediatric psychiatrist in the city, and perhaps in the country. I'm mentioning this, because to be honest, if she weren't, I might not have listened. I did, and my baby grew up to be a strong and wise woman.
posted by mumimor at 1:00 PM on May 24, 2016 [26 favorites]

Lots of really great advice here. I just wanted to chime in to say, the trip to his birth country is not necessarily a bad idea just because he's (apparently) having big feelings about it. He is likely re-engaging with some of those feelings about not being unconditionally loved by his birth family, and testing the boundaries at home to see if you will give him that love (not meaning you have to give him unadulterated permissiveness, but he needs to see that you won't abandon him even if he's "bad," and the only way he knows to figure that out is by testing it). See if you can disengage from the disciplinary push-and-pull (as discussed at length above) enough for him to express how he's really feeling about it/what feels right to him at this point. If he wants to go, or thinks it's important for him to do, even if it's hard, then it's likely going to be useful. Hard and complicated, yes, but also a good way to process lots of those traumatic feelings (with support before, during and after, from you, an individual therapist, and a family therapist). We don't have to avoid things just because they're hard, and he should get to say in whether this feels like the right time for him. Good luck to all of you.
posted by reksb at 1:39 PM on May 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm surprised nobody has yet to suggest call his school and talk to the psychologist there. You are most definitely not the first parent who's called with this problem.

And unless you already had an existing plan where he knew the consequence for X was losing his phone, don't take his phone away any more. It's their literal lifeline.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 1:42 PM on May 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

DO NOT send him to a treatment center. I don't care how nice the website is or how responsible the administration seems, I've never worked at one that didn't neglect it's clients, provide inadequate staffing (or support to their staff), or fully take care of their needs.

Came in here just to say this. This thread is not the place to post ridiculous horror stories or tales of disappointment/mild fuckeduppedness... But yea, i haven't heard ONE positive story from those places. And every adult i've talked to who went to one was still mad about it years later, and it built a nice stone wall of resentment between them and their parents.

All i will say is my friends younger brother who was acting similarly ran away from one after having a shitty time there, and ended up in trouble with the law. After that, he kind of just kept getting in trouble with the law for minor teenage crap but every time they'd look him up they'd see priors and pick him up, instead of just kids-will-be-kids-ing it like they did with most of my friends in their teens.

But seriously, no good stories. All of them ended in sadness or just nothing positive.

And that's not to even get in to... what bad behavior? Why not let him do what he wants in his own room?
posted by emptythought at 2:17 PM on May 24, 2016 [6 favorites]

Why did you take away his phone? Unless it was used for something illegal I do my think taking away teen's smartphones is a good idea. For one thing, "phone" is a misnomer as they are so much more (status symbol, communication device, information source,etc). Especially if you are concerned he may run away you want him to be able to easily contact you (have you even SEEN a pay phone lately?).

So, my suggestion would be to start with an apology and returns his phone.
posted by saucysault at 2:32 PM on May 24, 2016 [9 favorites]

My son is much younger, so caveat know-nothing-tor. But after doing a lot of research into my son's mental models, I learned that punishments like taking things away from him don't actually affect him at all. And he is quite the opposite of my other children in terms of how he acts under pressure. He works really hard to punish Mom & Dad, and he doesn't like doing it, but he just naturally does it when he's under strain. He comes off as the most awful rebel you could imagine. (BTW he is a Meyers-Briggs ISTP)

What does work with him is:

- Asking him to display his strengths / gifts (he gets really involved and usually starts explaining what he's trying to accomplish). My son naturally pushes his body so hard he's got calluses all over his hands at a young age. So I ask him if it's really true he can do pull-ups on the cross bar in his closet, for example. Throwing in a bit of incredulity helps.

- Offering him a quick reward if he does X. I always keep some incentive around the house. If I'm desperate, I go grab it and dangle it in front of his face. The family iPad, a small curiosity or toy I keep in reserve, some candy, etc.

- When he's at his angriest he is craving affection. So calming down and begging him for a nice hug, then watching some TV together has worked VERY well with him. Sometimes saying "don't smile at me" and making him chuckle while he tries to hide it, then saying "I love you" and asking a casual question will completely defuse an argument.

Still getting the hang of it, but I thought I'd share, since it is basically the opposite of how our other kids operate, and we've had a heck of a time knowing what to do when he just loses it and starts raging.

Also he needs time to adjust to changes. Sudden demands require sugar-coated words, and warning ahead of time. "Two minutes left on the TV!" "One minute left on the TV!"

It still baffles me how little he cares about things we take away from him--like he'll literally forget it's gone, no matter how much he used it before. But that's just how he is, so that punishment just won't work anymore.
posted by circular at 2:59 PM on May 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

A quote I came across, perhaps here, that helped me identify some feelings about similar experiences of my own: "If I can't get positive reinforcement, I'll take negative."
posted by rhizome at 4:23 PM on May 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh hey I just had a thought. Is he a different race than most of his school peers? That is HARD. And if your family makeup includes transracial adoption he's also a different race than his parents and maybe his siblings, which is even harder. Try to find other kids the same race and age as him (and if he was transracially adopted find some transracially adopted peers, ideally at least of the same basic ethnicity) and find a way for them to hang out, unsupervised, and become actual friends.

I know a few people who grew up in transracial adopted families without any peers of similar backstories, and ye gods adolescence was a shitshow for them- behavioural problems and depression abounded. Identity-finding is hard enough when you resemble your friends. Kids need true peers. Help him find some!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:16 PM on May 24, 2016

Loads of good advice above. I will just throw out a few thoughts based on things I experienced as a parent of two teens years ago (i.e., learned on the job, sometimes later than needed).

- bad news: the universe of possible catastrophes is large,
- good news: the things you do not know how to handle as a parent is large but many just look like catastrophes and are really just opportunities for the whole family to come closer together.

Modern society is less tolerant of the individual, which instills anxiety and anger (this from a child of the 60s who raised his teens in the 90s). Ever hear about the tombstone "Born a human, died a doctor"?

Finally, subtracting out the anxiety (on both your side and your teen's) it's really all about decision making. Teens don't want to make decisions (they want to keep all options open and don't see the impossibility of that yet), but they don't want other people making decisions for them (they want to be "free"). It's a transitional period. You probably are not going to be able to have Socratic dialog with him, but you can try to share your thoughts with him honestly. FWIW.
posted by forthright at 7:28 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, kids just sometimes make bad choices. They aren't goods ay seeing consequences so things that obviously look like bad to adults is simply "I thought xyz would happen instead"

But you don't know if you don't ask. Why did he stay out till 6:30? That's not terribly late. It could have been a study group, or it was somebody's birthday and they wanted to blow money at an arcade or something else random.

Sometimes kids choose bad things for good reasons- like selling drugs. Many kids do it to economically help out their family, get money for things that seem important such as clothes or shoes and be feel a part of a team. None of those those reasons are bad (in fact we want kids to work together, become self sufficient and help) but they get misguided and then everyone keeps beating them down. And no one bothers to ask why until it is way to late. If you know what his motivations are you can problem solve and direct him towards better options and work on his critical thinking.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:53 PM on May 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Sounds like great parenting advice above to me, just wanted to add another voice saying "cancel the trip".

(Why are you going, in any case? Is this a holiday, and is he reading his [probably valid] feelings and experience into it, or is something else planned there, e.g. involving his birth family? Longshot question but any chance you're considering adopting another child from his country? That in itself could cause upset, I imagine. Maybe for a few reasons. Update us!)
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:40 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Lots of good advice here already, but this really struck me:

Tonight we talked to him and he got so angry. He kept repeating, louder and louder, "Get out of my room!"

Maybe from your perspective you were calmly attempting conversation, but from his perspective it was a confrontation by both of you in his room. If he can't "run away" to that one room in the house, it's not terribly surprising he's been getting home three hours late. And yeah, I'm sure it's hella frustrating if he won't join you in a neutral space for conversation, but from a safety standpoint, wouldn't you rather he be under your roof during what you describe as a crisis? Please just give him that space.

I would say to cancel the trip, BUT there might be part of him that's curious and wants to go (conflicting feelings are common enough in adults, and he's barely a teenager), in which case canceling could feel like more punishment (i.e., "You seemed agitated, so you don't get a say in the matter."). Could you tell him that if he's anxious about going as planned, you'll postpone until he feels it's the right time? If he definitely doesn't want to go, he needs to tell you by [date], and it won't come up again until he wants to pursue it.
posted by whoiam at 9:10 PM on May 24, 2016 [7 favorites]

Like others, I am a bit confused at how seriously you view coming home a couple hours late is. If that impacts the family though, for example the dog didn't get walked, the table not set for dinner etc. then I think that's a reasonable angle to explain your concerns - the impact to the family unit when he goes AWOL, in addition to causing you to worry (which a text would have prevented).
posted by walkinginsunshine at 3:22 AM on May 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

The best way to keep a kid from running away is to provide them with a safe space inside your home. Get out of his room and absolutely do not force tough conversation on him in his room. I absolutely hated the kind of roadtrips people are suggesting because I felt trapped with just my parent and wanted to be anywhere but near them so you might need to build up a rapport by doing things he actually likes first.

He's communicating his needs to you - get out of his room! don't force him to do things for arbitrary reasons (like chores build work ethic or whatever)! give him room to make choices or he'll make whatever choices he has access to (like coming home late) - but you're not quite listening. Stop approaching this from the perspective that the parent is always right and start approaching this from the perspective that the parent's role is to support the kid. Sometimes supporting them means actually letting them break the rules because the rules are less important than the kid's well-being. The more you choose his well-being over arbitrary crap, the more he'll trust you, and the more he'll come to you before he's hit level 10 of panic. A lot of the times the weird behaviour makes complete sense in the kid's mind because they have so few other options available (my sister spent a few months living in her closet because her bedroom had frosted glass doors and my mother kept obsessively checking on her which made her feel watched, my mother thought this was deviant and weird instead of realizing it was a direct response to what she was doing).

It sounds like you're seeing more crisis than there actually is. I wonder why this is and I would suggest you get your own therapist to help you deal with these feelings. You might benefit from connecting with adults who were adopted as kids in order to hear their advice, and connecting with other adoptive parents in order to get some reassurance.

Listen, your kid is going to be fine. Ease up, let him have some control of his life, let go of your ideals for his behaviour and his progress, let go of what you feel his behaviour says about your parenting skills or fitness or whatever, let him be his own person and get to know him on that level instead of trying to stuff him into the good behaviour box even harder. He doesn't need to be perfect and neither do you. Your role is not to force him into compliance, your role is to support him (emotionally, materially) as he finds his way. Your goals are aligned, not conflicting, and the sooner you reframe things that way the sooner things will get easier.
posted by buteo at 6:29 AM on May 25, 2016 [11 favorites]

My kids ramped up in acting out and stress before visits to their birth country, and then relaxed and were much more stable afterwards. We have open adoptions and therapy is part of the whole process because basically while being a regular teenager is sometimes tough, toss in adoption, early trauma and international transracial stuff, you have a lot for any kid to process during the storm of hormonal puberty. You need a child/teen therapist with experience in adoption, preferably international issues.

It's also super common for adopted kids (esp. ones that are transracial) to be driven by anxiety and fear to present as Good Children and be very very compliant and suffocate their negative emotions. As they grow up and get more independent and confident in their own identity, they start to stand up for themselves and as parents used to The Quiet Good Child, it can be very frightening to see what feels like defiance and a personality change, but is actually your child being honest and stronger.

Does he have good peer relationships? Friends matter so much at this age. If you took his phone away, how is he keeping in touch with them? Can he still text and instagram on a laptop? You may inadvertently be isolating him even more and making him way more stressed out.

Give him 'positive' consequences if you can instead - he need to make dinner, he needs to clean the gutters, he has to walk the dog etc - rather than take things away. And the consequence for missing curfew should be logical - a shorter curfew for a week or hey, he stressed you guys out for hours, so he needs to do the dinner dishes while you chill on the couch. Negotiate until you come up with a consequence that both of you agree on, don't "lay down the law".

And all this is easier to say than do so take lots of time to bond with him and build up good memories and feelings to give you the patience to get through the tough times of parenting a teen. Talk to other parents of teenagers to get a realistic idea of what they behave like within your culture and community. Talk to other adoptive parents and read/listen to adult & teen adoptees. Most of all, listen to him!
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:04 AM on May 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

I am so sorry you are going through this.

One thing that stands out to me is that you say: I think he's feeling pretty out-of-control and is trying hard to regain control.

But then you say: Tonight we talked to him and he got so angry. He kept repeating, louder and louder, "Get out of my room!"

If you are seeing him struggle with control of his life might it not be better to give him some space that he actually can control? Feeling out of control and trapped at the same time is a terrible feeling. Especially for someone so young. It might help him feel more empowered and give him a sense of agency in his life. Which will be a much better place to move forward from.

This is a time when kids need their own space, as they slowly develop their own sense of identity away from what the parents see in them. It might go a long way to help facilitate that.
posted by Vaike at 2:19 PM on May 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Have you tried asking him what he wants, rather than telling him what he needs to do?
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:38 PM on May 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm wondering whose idea the trip to his birth country was. It doesn't sound like it was his. In my experience with cross-country/cross-cultural adoptees, going to a birth country is an extraordinary thing and a very very hard ask even for an adult that chose to, is prepared, is equipped.

Forcing them never, will never, end well. They have to choose for themselves, and usually they go alone or with friends or other adoptees. Not their adopted parents, and for good reason.

Consider why you're going. Read up on the difficulties of international adoptees.

If the thought 'for his own good/education/benefit' pops up at all, cancel the trip. If you can think that? He didn't choose, and this is something you are doing to him, and you need to stop.
posted by E. Whitehall at 6:00 PM on May 26, 2016

« Older How to make our first trip to Toronto, and Bala...   |   "Classical" music? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.