Cue the Mom Guilt
When your baby is born, you look into their eyes, stroke their soft skin, and smell the new baby smell. You think about what activities you’ll do together when they’re older and what they might want to be when they grow up. An engineer? A teacher? A doctor? You always dream of a perfect life for your new child.
They get older and become busy toddlers going from mess to mess while you try to follow and keep some level of cleanliness in your house. You cuddle your way through the tantrums while they figure out how to act in this big world. You set limits and boundaries that are fairly easy to abide by since toddler is still little.
Skip ahead a few years and you’re that parent waving goodbye as your child steps onto the bus for the first time. While you do still have limits and boundaries set at home, bit by bit you begin to lose control of your previous child as they jump into a world where they are in charge of their own decisions. You’re there to coax them and give them the tools to make good decisions but it’s ultimately up to them which way that’ll go.
Then they become preteens and teens and they are bombarded with social media, peer pressure, and advertisements while dealing with their own raging hormones. The boundaries you set makes them feel safe, comfortable, and be a place to hid when they blame you rather than tell their friends that they don’t want to do something. These same boundaries that they want and need also become a focal point of rebellion as they test the waters to see how secure the boundaries really are. However, your teen is their own person and these carefully crafted boundaries don’t always protect from bad decisions.
Let the Judgements Begin…
What’s the first thing that you think of when you hear of a teen who’s gotten into trouble? Where are the parents? Or maybe don’t you know that bad kids come from bad parents? How about that kid wouldn’t have done it if they had been better disciplined… well if they were my kid… I’m sure you can finish that sentence.
When my son was caught with drugs at school, my first thought was to quickly think back to the many years leading up to this point and where I could have gone wrong. Sitting at the police station while he was finger printed, my mind was racing. Obviously, it must have been something I did or didn’t do that caused him to break the law. Being a single mom, I’m sure people on the outside were questioning my parenting skills or situation but I was lucky that the outside was polite enough to keep comments to themselves.
Though there are instances where parenting play a factor in teen bad decision making, most parents set reasonable boundaries and give their teen all the tools possible to make positive life decisions. With these tools in hand, it’s up to the teen to decide what friends to hang around with, what activities to participate in, and how to deal with peer pressure.
Let Go of the Mom Guilt
People are quick to forget that teen brain’s are wired differently than adult brains and are primed to take risks and act on impulse and that no matter how well the teen was “parented,” a parent cannot control every single aspect of a teen’s life. Bad decisions happen. Some bad decisions lead to minor risky behaviours such as drinking at a party while other bad decisions lead up to more dangerous risky behaviour such as taking drugs. However, as the parent, it’s so easy to forget about this. You want to protect your teen, shelter them from the consequences, and want to find on what this bad decision can be blamed. For a parent, you look directly at yourself. You think “obviously it was me” and “I could have done more, right?”
There are many many resources out there about how to help a “troubled” teen who has made bad decisions. You read about how to react, how to talk about trust, how to maintain perspective, and discuss the future. What doesn’t get discussed is what the parent may be going through… but they’re adults, right? Shouldn’t they just be able to deal with things and move on?
Parent mental health is just as important as the child’s. You see this everywhere, “a healthy parent grows a healthy child.” Though we hear and know about it, we often forget about the emotional toll on a parent when a child is making bad decisions leading to risky behaviour. After my son was arrested, I had anxiety over what was going to happen to him, what he would do next, how to keep him on a more positive path, or what could I have done differently. There were many sleepless nights where I couldn’t hold back the worry over his future. My anxiety became consuming and my work and parenting suffered as a result. I had been given all the resources to help my son, but nothing for me. Parent mental health is often forgotten as the child’s behaviour is the focus. Try googling “parent mental health after a teen is arrested” — zero hits!
Tools for the Parent — a Much Needed Focus!
Blaming yourself is natural but not helpful for you or your teen. It’s easy to play the blame game. It’s the go-to when something goes wrong. When a teen has made a bad decision and engaged in risky behaviour, they need your support now more than ever. Though they know there are consequences for behaviour, they are getting a taste of what results in the big outside world. It’s scary for them. I’m not saying that you should condone your teen’s behaviour but that you should look at the whole situation and position yourself as a positive resource of support. Self blame will only drive your emotions deeper and build a wall between you and your teen.
Be open to family therapy. No one is perfect. Although you may have done your upmost best to provide your child with the best parenting and encourage all the right skills for positive decision making, there’s always somethings to learn. A family therapist can help coach you through new skills to deal issues that may have had influence in the decision such as anxiety, anger, or frustration. The family therapist is there to validate both your and your teen’s emotional experience.
Talk to a mental health professional about your own emotions. There’s no shame in saying that you need help. It’s a tough job being a parent and it’s even tougher when you’re going through an emotional time. As a family therapist will help give tools for your family to use, a therapist for yourself will help you navigate your feelings while you deal with your teen’s consequences and give you the tools to better cope. A therapist can help guide you through self blame and how to better manage these negative thoughts. They’ll teach you how to manage stress and deal with anxiety (useful tools even without stressors!) You also become an example for your teen and it may persuade them to seek any needed help for themselves.
Seek out the company of other parents who are struggling with their teen’s risky behaviour. The saying goes that there’s strength in numbers and this very true for a parent struggling with how they feel themselves about the behaviour. Other parents may have advice on how to navigate the unsteady teen years and tell you that it will get better. They may give you names of people for you or your teen to talk to or tell you how to navigate the judicial system if the decision lead to an arrest. These parents will also be able to be that should and tell you it will get better. This wasn’t your fault. It was a learning experience for your teen. This was just a bump.
Most importantly — do your best to stay calm. Whether it’s a school meeting or an interview at a police station, it’s important to stay calm and focus on what needs to be done. Trust me, I know tempting it is to want to yell at your teen and ask them what the heck the they were thinking. While sitting at the school waiting for the police to arrive, there were so many times that I had to take a deep breath and be in the moment, rather than say or do something I would later regret. I did not want to add “regret” to the already increasing pile of negative emotions. Staying calm will help you walk though the self blame, open yourself to family therapy and therapy for yourself, and embrace the company of others who’ve been through it all. It’s not easy… but, hey, when has parenting a teen every been easy?