Parenting a Rebellious Teenager
February 10, 2004 7:00 AM   Subscribe

A co-worker and friend of mine is a single mother of three (girls of 6 and 11, son of 14). The boy is becoming more and more hostile and defiant by the day, and even ran away for several hours this past weekend. He's bright and creative, but seems to reserve his anger for the home. I'm fairly certain drugs/alcohol are not involved. Mom is at wit's end. I don't have kids myself so I feel unqualified giving advice. Anyone here who's been in the same situation? Any recommendations on how to go about beginning to try working this out? Counseling?
posted by sharksandwich to Human Relations (20 answers total)
He's a teenager. What do you expect? His mum could try to find out what's bugging him. If he'll tell her, she should probably count herself lucky, not that she will likely be able to do anything about it. It's called adolescence. Just wait a few years and he'll have got it out of his system.
posted by cbrody at 7:14 AM on February 10, 2004

So many forget that before the 20th century, 14 year olds were often out on their own. Since you cannot begin to describe his home situation in 4 lines, all I can suggest is start giving him some space and latitude. She certainly does not want to keep a young man with raging hormones confined to the house when she has an 11 year old daughter.
posted by mischief at 7:37 AM on February 10, 2004

Sounds like it might be a job for Big Brothers.
posted by dglynn at 7:38 AM on February 10, 2004

Sorry, cbrody, that's not enough.

Going by the limited information, I'd say I was a lot like this kid. What I wanted more than anything was independence. More control over my life. I looked into moving out of the house to live on my own before finishing high school. I felt ready to tackle the world, whether it was true or not. Instead, I had the same rules that I had had when I was ten or five. They just didn't work for me anymore.

Now, looking back as an adult, I'd say the following would have made me easier to deal with. In general, these ideas amount offering him new, more flexible rules and situations. Don't make the boy ask, and don't explain. Just give them to him.

"Whaddya say we go to Wal-Mart parking lot after hours and I teach you how to drive? No car is in the works, but I thought you might want to know how."

"I see a lot of kids hanging out at the mall/skate park/public pool. If you want, I can drop you off there and come get you later."

"There are some pretty cool shows on cable on Saturday night. If you keep the volume down so as not to wake your sisters, you can watch them as late as you want, if you want."

"If you want to be able to lock your bedroom door, I don't have a problem with that, just as long as you and I both have a key."

"Your sisters love you, but I know they can be a hassle. Why don't you and I dump them on grandma next Friday and go watch a couple of movies in a row?"

"Here's a cell phone for you. This is for when you are out until midnight--your new curfew--so we can talk to each other if we have to."
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:41 AM on February 10, 2004

Excellent post Mo Nickels. I was in the exact same position (single mom, two sisters and all) and agree 100%. Instead, I got the counselling (family counselling) and hated the whole fucking thing, which just made everything worse.
posted by dobbs at 7:47 AM on February 10, 2004

I should add: Above all, give him chances to screw up, which are also opportunities to earn trust. Treat him like he moved in yesterday: everything is new, everything is up for negotation, and boundaries are yet to be set.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:47 AM on February 10, 2004

Get advice from a trusted professional.
posted by mecran01 at 8:05 AM on February 10, 2004

My single mom raised my bro and I and she had to learn that he didn't want to talk about his feelings or tell her "what he was thinking". I have a feeling that my bro would have benefitted from having a Big Brother, which is something your friend should really look into. Older male family friends are no good at this age because, as my brother said, they might have ratted him out to our mom if he'd said anything about his troubles.

Family counseling is no good because he'll be forced into talking about his feelings in front of his sisters and his mom, which he'll hate. If he's remotely smart, he'll just lie and say whatever everyone wants to hear. It's what my brother did.

I completely agree with Mo Nickels. Kid needs some rewards for being grown up, he needs some serious adult responsibilities, and he needs some trust.

(and if you're gonna pick your kid up at the skate park, set a meeting place somewhere nearby instead - no kid wants to get picked up in front of his friends. Much better to get picked up a few blocks away out of sight of the cool older kids!)
posted by some chick at 8:39 AM on February 10, 2004

Mo has the right idea. Cbrody was coming from the right direction to.

He ran away for a few hours? Huh? THIS is NOT "running away". This is "Taking a breather" and may possibly be described as mature, reasonable behavior.

I wonder about the need for serious rules for all, to keep the bathroom from over-flowing with girl crap? Just guessing on that possibility.

Most of all, to the mother: Spend time, don't lose him.

14, I hear, is very difficult. I wouldn't know, my folks blew it and I went from 13 to 21 in a single summer (then spent 2 years hiding the fact).
posted by Goofyy at 8:51 AM on February 10, 2004

I agree with Mo. Definately give him some freedom. I'd say still, don't give him TOO much freedom. He doesn't want a friend, he wants a mom, someone who will still give him rules and structure. He just wants a little less structure.

It's like being an adolescent cat. He's ready to begin exploring the neighborhood one house at a time, but it would be bad to kick him out entirely and force him to explore. He still needs a safe place to return to, so he can take time to process what he's found and get up the courage to go out again.

However, you may want to take this advice with a little grain of salt. I'm female, and this is one of the aspects where there may be some gender differences.
posted by stoneegg21 at 8:59 AM on February 10, 2004

how does the mother speak about her other kids ?
posted by sgt.serenity at 9:14 AM on February 10, 2004

The mom needs to learn to negotiate. Jane Bluestein has some excellent resources regarding boundaries, negotiation, and structure.

They need to negotiate mutually-acceptable, rock-solid boundaries. He'll be happier than a pig in poop once he knows what's going on.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:21 AM on February 10, 2004

Also, mom needs to learn how to communicate with boys. They're typically not at all like girls. Typically, boys respond best when approached indirectly: when the talk is about hypotheticals, analogies, comparisons -- things that keep them from having to expose themselves emotionally, putting their self-image and feelings at risk.

It's tricky to talk about the big issues without talking about the child himself, but it can be done and it will be effective. The boy wants a leader and a role model, not a shaper and molder.

She should look for men in this boys life who can fulfill that role. It may be his teacher, a friend's parent, someone at a sports club. She should take this fellow out to coffee and express her parenting mores, and encourage this fellow to step up to the plate as much as he's comfortable to do.

Also, the kid should be in a structured physical activity of some sort. Soccer, swimming, even skateboarding: as long as there is a structure -- even a peer-group structure with no adult guidance -- he'll be more comfortable. If he chooses a peer-group structure, she'll have to place a lot of trust in her parenting: if she's raised him well, he'll be okay.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:27 AM on February 10, 2004

Admittedly I answered the way I did to get the ball rolling and to provoke some more considered responses. Mo and fff get my votes as voices of reason and experience - give him some freedom and room to grow.

Every relationship is different of course but my gut feeling is that bringing in counselors is more likely to worsen than improve the relationship. To me it seems like an tacit admission that the parent(s) can't cope on their own, and I think it could mean a loss of respect from the son. That said, the kid will eventually realise (if he hasn't already) that his parents are somewhat less than the perfect beings he may have imagined as a child.
posted by cbrody at 9:33 AM on February 10, 2004

I'd think his behavior is perfectly normal given that he's the only guy in the house, probably commands very little of his busy mom's time (not her fault, but the truth), has to deal with two sisters at two of the more annoying ages, all while going through the first uncomfortable throes of adolescence. He doesn't need professional help, he's just a teenager in a crazy world.

The posts above are wisdom itself. As someone who will have -teen atached to her age for mere two more months, I can say that potentially losing my parents trust/faith in me was a far far worse fate to contemplate than any punishment they might inflict. Both Mo Nickels, some chick, and fff have said all I could say perfectly.

I do heartily second the recommendation to get him a Big Brother or other solid male figure in his life. She may be the world's very best mom, and there still will always always be things any normal teenage boy would rather have a guy to talk to or ask about (eventually he might come to her for advice on girls, but probably not for years).
posted by nelleish at 9:39 AM on February 10, 2004

I'd have to concur with just about everything else above... and I'd like to add my two cents worth. I was a good kid, so this may not work... but here goes: all four of my siblings and I spent the better part of our adolescence trying to escape a bad home situation — my oldest brother got into scouting and computer clubs, my oldest sister did drama and two foreign exchanges, my other sister ran away (and as some of you will recall, eventually died on the streets at the hands of the Green River killer). For me, I had church activities (I was the only member at home, so going to church was getting away), debate, scouting... and running around downtown.

At any rate, I did very well in school, and my mom was smart enough to see that cutting school was an option for me... so about once a month — as long as I wasn't skipping a test or a class presentation — I got mom's go-ahead to skip... mostly I just jumped a bus and headed downtown for a day of exploring. This was great for me: I felt all independent, I felt a little rebellious, my mom was a hero, and I didn't need other outlets.

Depending on your friend's situation, this may be an option... as long as the boy takes a cell phone along and all that. Of course, in today's world, it may not be as safe as it was for me in the 80s. If that's the case, maybe your friend could survey his friends and find a responsible one for him to ditch with — clearing it with the other's parents, of course.

Just an idea.

Another idea might be to look into a foreign exchange... giving the boy something to look forward to a year or so down the road, that he needs to be _responsible_ enough to handle — nothing works better than a carrot!
posted by silusGROK at 10:10 AM on February 10, 2004

I was blessed with parents that understood that they shouldn't make rules just for the sake of having rules. When I outgrew a rule, they did away with it, rather than passionately defending it with the "because I said so!" reasoning.

I think Mo Nickels' suggestions were great. Let the kids know that you're not just a death-dealing rule machine.
posted by oissubke at 10:51 AM on February 10, 2004

YES on getting a male figure into his life. And I do mean "in." The nature of the male figure is less important than his being there reliably. If he's not, Snoop Dog and Jean Claude Van Damme et al will always be there for him.

Whether drugs/sex/etc are involved or not, at this stage in a boy's life you face the risk of being excluded if you try to exert too much control. It's better to lose immediate battles over how this kid wants to spend his time, than to drive him elsewhere, where you'll have zero influence (eg: the running away).

Also important to consider is that rebelling against Mom may be exactly the right thing for him, and there isn't anything you can do about it. You can limit the fallout, try to keep yourself in the picture. But you may not be able to change the game entirely to one of loving cooperation, or even mutual respect.

It has to suck, but it won't last forever, and what better way to engender gratitude and love (in the long term) than just being understanding about what it's like to be 14? It's an emotional car wreck that mom's hand-wringing and headaches can't be compared to.

FYI, by the time I was 16 I'd driven 140mph, been brought home by the cops, made my own beer, bought pot on the street, partied with strippers, had an LSD sleepover, and vomited my way home once or twice. As bad as that sounds, my parents couldn't have stopped me, short of putting me in a boarding school. I know this because one of the friends I did this all with simply snuck out his window every night and avoided his parents entirely. The others usually had overnight permission, but lied about what was going on. Their parents had no control AND no knowledge. What's more dangerous than that?

My parents, on the other hand, let me bring girls home, but taught me about safe sex. They let me make beer, but only let me and my friends drink it if we were stayed inside and slept over. The alternative, of course, was driving into town and shoulder-tapping some stranger. I didn't get in any real trouble the time the cops brought us home, because my folks wanted me to know I could always call, from wherever I was, and get their help when I needed it.

I don't know if I will do everything the way they did, but I will say that I never drove drunk and crashed, got anyone pregnant, ODed and died, or caught a venereal disease. My parents were, at least, in the loop of my life at all times, and today I consider them both excellent friends. Perhaps they made some bad calls and were too permissive. But how much control can you really have?

The window-sneaker, who'd been living in a different world than his parents for some time anyway, was kicked out at 18 and moved in with his meth dealer. God knows if he ever pulled his head up, went to college, or if he still talks to mom and dad at all. Anyway, once he got into the hard drugs, I drifted away from him. Maybe my parents had some influence over that choice, indirectly. I wouldn't have had the gall to ask them to let us have a meth party at home, after all. His parents had no involvement in anything, period. Which is worse?

It's a gauntlet, no two ways about it. Rigidity will get you nowhere, except to a place where you can feel morally intact when your kid dies in a car wreck, because you didn't approve of his drinking. Unfortunately, your kid is also dead, because he wouldn't dare call you for a ride. My sympathies to anyone trying to navigate this. My only advice is to stay as involved with the kid as possible, even if that means compromising a lot of the rules.
posted by scarabic at 1:12 PM on February 10, 2004

I am surprised no one has asked about the kid's dad.
posted by beth at 5:42 PM on February 16, 2004

Having grown up as the only male in an all-female household that included 3 younger sisters, I can assure you that running away for a few hours is no big deal at all - sometimes you just have to get away and, if permission is not forthcoming, "running away" seems like the only option. I strongly second the need for a male figure in the boy's life and I missed this a great deal growing up - it doesn't really matter who it is, as long as he is old enough to be seen as an authority on whatever the boy wants to ask about and someone that he can trust not to blab anything to his mother (unless he is at risk of real harm). No matter what, he will not be likely to discuss his life with his mother and he needs someone. If the father is not around (like so many scumbag fathers), someone who can fill that role is needed, particularly if someone can be found that shares some interests with the boy. Counselling is not a good idea unless things get a lot worse, as this will just send the message that there is something wrong with him (I know, this goes against what all the "experts" spout these days, but tough).

Most importantly, let him be a boy and grow into a man, instead of trying to force him to become the "perfect son".
posted by dg at 6:46 PM on February 16, 2004

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