Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: How Can We Save Our Son From Himself?

Marijuana. Sneaking out. Hateful comments. You’re not sure how you ended up here, but your relationship with your teen — along with his future — are hanging by a thread. Here, our Teen Parenting Coach explains how parents can identify the maladaptive patterns that lead to dangerous behavior and move forward in a healthy, productive way.

Q: “Our 17-year-old smokes marijuana, sneaks out at night, and argues about everything. He was recently asked to withdraw from a good school for having marijuana in his school bag. He says he hates his mother and is moving out as soon as he can. This child needs saving from himself. What should we, as the parents, do?”

Rick Lavoie said, “Teens do not want your power — just some of their own.” While true for most adolescents, your son apparently has his own power — and most of yours, too. Limits are like a fence you build around your child to keep him safe. As the child grows, the fence should expand to give him more freedom. At the same time, your fence should not be so strong that your son can’t occasionally climb over it. That is how teens learn. Your fence sounds like it needs some repair.

What this means is taking an honest look at your family’s dynamics to see how your son got so powerful. A family therapist can help you answer this question. All families have unwritten rules that help them function. These rules are rarely expressed, but are adhered to nonetheless. Some are helpful, but others are pathological. For example, one that prohibits discussion of Dad’s drinking may keep his anger in check and save the marriage, but comes at a great cost to Dad’s health and to children who see their father drunk every night.

My mentor, Salvador Minuchin, a founder of the family therapy movement, used to say that a child who has too much power sits on one of his parent’s shoulders. This means that one parent might be undermining the other’s authority by being too permissive. Maybe this is one of the holes in your fence that needs fixing. This pattern often emerges in families of a substance abusing teen — one parent denies that their child has a problem, which gives the teen license to keep drinking and drugging.

Psychological boundaries are another type of unwritten rule. They define family roles and relationships. Boundaries determine things like privacy (knocking on a door before entering), what subjects are OK for discussion (who your son is dating), how involved a parent gets in a child’s homework, and how people speak to each other. A sure sign of weak family boundaries is a child who is frequently disrespectful.

[Self-Test: Oppositional Defiant Disorder in Children and Teens]

Weak parent-child boundaries erode parental authority. One example is the parent who needs to be cool in their child’s eyes. This desire leads them to act less like a parent and more like a friend. The thing is: Kids want their parents to be in charge. They feel more secure when parents provide appropriate structure. I had an adolescent patient who got in lots of trouble. His parents were unable to set effective limits and treated their son more like a peer. He once told me how envious he was of kids whose parents were able to keep them in line.

Once you have identified the maladaptive patterns in your family, they need to be changed. Again, a therapist can help accomplish this task. Then it will be time to tackle your son’s drug problem. A teen who is expelled from school for marijuana possession is probably in pretty deep. Be clear that your son is not allowed to get high at home, or to bring drugs or paraphernalia into the house. Let him know you reserve the right to search his room, confiscate anything you find, and impose a limit. This can start out as grounding, which will not stop your son but may slow him down. However, after a few infractions he will need a drug and alcohol evaluation by a substance-abuse treatment provider. Also limit his access to money he can use to buy drugs.

Although inconsistent limit setting is often behind a child’s oppositional or entitled behavior, other factors can also play a role. Some children have seemed defiant from the beginning. Furthermore, a child who is depressed, struggling in school, or has experienced a trauma (to name a few issues) acts out his feelings through bad behavior rather than using words to express them. This child needs therapy and perhaps a psychiatric evaluation for medication. Some children, however, refuse treatment and are so out of control that they need to be in a full-time therapeutic environment such as a wilderness program or therapeutic boarding school. Unfortunately, these programs are financially out of reach for many families. However, if you have the means, an educational consultant can help you find the right program. Check out the referral page at the Independent Educational Consultants Association website for more information:

This problem was long in the making, so it is going to take some time to sort out. Although your son might put up a good fight before he relinquishes power, ultimately he wants and needs you to be in charge. However, in order to get anywhere you are going to have to take an honest look at yourself and your family. You might have to change before he does.

Do you have a question for ADDitude’s Dear Teen Parenting Coach? Submit your question or challenge here.

The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.