By John Townsend, Ph.D.
Unfortunately, when a teen is going through a difficult season, it never happens in a vacuum. The negative behavior, words and attitudes affect everyone in the home. Two things happen: parents don’t know how to communicate to the family about the situation, and also they don’t know how to communicate about life itself. It’s as if the problem takes over the home.
Here are tips to help restore some sanity and love to your family functioning if you’re facing discord in your home.
Communicating about the teen.
Your spouse and other kids need to know what’s really going on and how they can best cope with the situation. Very young siblings might be easily overwhelmed by information that their emotional state can’t handle. But with older kids, more information is better. Here are some things to do:
• Tell them the nature of the teen’s problem, what you know about its origins and its severity. They probably know a great deal already. But frank discussion will expose the elephant under the rug, so they can become less anxious and feel free to process the information.
• Ask them what they think and how they feel about the situation to get their perspective. Often, a sibling will feel overly loyal and not want to narc on the troubled one. But keep in mind that this can take a toll on them: emotionally, socially and maybe even physically. Encourage them to talk about this.
• Assure your other children that you have a plan and are getting the right sort of help for the troubled teen and anyone else who needs it. They need to know they have parents that they can be secure with. If you don’t have a plan, promise the kids that you are getting one ASAP, and follow through with it.
• Give them suggestions on how to handle their own relationship with the troubled teen. Talk to a psychologist about this. Approaches can range from being loving but firm, to having a listening ear, to avoiding the person, to calling the police. A licensed therapist is the right source for this information.
• Don’t make your other kids the shrinks. Sometimes, a compassionate and empathetic child will also be a good listener, and many parents will turn to him or her as their “rock,” as I’ve heard parents say. That’s a mistake. That kid needs a parent who is their rock, not the other way around. Support the kid, and get your support from other good and stable grown-ups.
Communicating about life.
The “family train” must keep rolling. People have school to attend, homework to get done, jobs to go to and functions to attend. Be intentional about having weekly “family meeting” times (I suggest Sunday evening before the week starts) where you connect, discuss schedules, and have fun. If the troubled teen is disruptive, he or she should not be there. You don’t want the siblings having memories of life stopping for the stable kids, while all the attention went to the troubled kid. This includes making sure social events, games, family dinners and other fun events go on. Put extra energy into asking the other kids about their lives and being totally engaged in what they say and do. Don’t be preoccupied and anxious with them. Save those discussions for your friends and other supportive relationships.
A family can be strong and resilient enough to support the recovery of a troubled teen while continuing to nurture and develop the other children. Best to your parenting!