General Question

linguaphile's avatar

How does a parent convince a teenager that he is making horrible choices?

Asked by linguaphile (14432points) September 29th, 2014

The details: My partner has a 15 year old son—I’ll call him Keith. In the past 9 months, Keith has:

1. stolen my car several times to sneak out at night
2. gotten involved with drugs- starting with pot and alcohol then moving to acid, ‘dipped’ joints, and God knows what else
3. been caught by the police with my car, which was impounded—he got a ticket with 4 charges but the judge reduced it to 1 charge- Keith thought it was amusing
4. stole my car again, even after being caught and disciplined
5. stole his mother’s car and drove 30 miles, unlicensed
6. has had liaisons with at least 9 girls, treating them badly after
7. disappeared for 11 hours, was found by the police at 2AM on his way home from a party

The most upsetting part, for his dad, is how Keith has absolutely no empathy or remorse. Keith lies about his actions—even when he knows the lie is obvious, insulting our intelligence, he will still lie, acting with full conviction that he’s telling the truth. Keith lies so much and so often that it has become a scary norm.

So many of us in the family have had long talks with him- his parents have tried several strategies to get through to Keith. His mom has put him in counseling. Keith told us flat out that he found our frustration and anger amusing and that counseling was a joke. Keith told his dad that we all were being silly and overreacting, and that he will do what he wants when he wants.

His dad has taken away all his electronics, but Keith still finds ways to get on FaceBook to message his friends and make plans. We just realized his PlayStation could access FaceBook.

The last straw—Keith was caught running acid at his school and is being charged with a felony. He’s suspended from school as well.

I’m concerned that he is a sociopath, but he doesn’t meet all the characteristics of a sociopath. Keith’s always been overly entitled, selfish, arrogant, and spoiled, but the dangerous behavior only started in January. For me, it’s frustrating because this kid’s not my creation, but definitely affects me since he lives with us.

My question…. has anyone else had a difficult child, or been that difficult child? What strategies have worked? What won’t work? What suggestions does the collective have?

Thanks, all, in advance.

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53 Answers

rojo's avatar

A month in jail before being bailed out did a good job of straightening out my child.

Cupcake's avatar

Well… he sounds too dangerous to live with (why does he still live with you, exactly?).

He would get a full psychological evaluation and be at the mercy of the court system. I would absolutely not enable this behavior.

I would also go to marriage/family therapy with my husband so that we could figure out how to make good decisions together.

I would realize that my home, my belongings, my marriage and my life are all in jeopardy for having this teenager in my home.

dappled_leaves's avatar

He may be telling you that counselling is a joke, but you don’t really know what goes on in those sessions. Why don’t you try family counselling for the three of you together? It might at least give you some insight into why he’s acting this way, and why it’s happening now.

I’m also confused about how he managed to steal your car more than once. Surely, you keep the keys safe from him now?

linguaphile's avatar

@rojo That might happen when he goes to court for this felony. I’m hoping that is his wake up call.

@Cupcake His parents decided that living with his dad would be better- so he moved in a year ago. I had no idea what was coming, that’s for sure. We aren’t enabling, but at the same time, don’t know what to do next. I’m fully aware that we’re not safe and you can imagine the stress that causes.

@dappled_leaves We didn’t know he was taking our car the first several times, but once we caught him, we hid all the keys. Later, we realized he had hidden a spare copy. Right now, he seems to have gotten bored with taking the cars and has stopped—even so, we have a new hiding place.

Family counseling is a good idea—didn’t really think about that as an option.

canidmajor's avatar

Some cities have programs through the police force or municipal groups that may be able to advise you, or give you some helpful tips. Public high schools may also be a resource for information about Tough Love programs. I get that you may have already explored these options, but I hope some of this is helpful.

I’m so sorry you have to go through this, I hope you guys can find some solution.
Stay safe.

Pandora's avatar

Get a club for your car steering wheel and put your keys in a safe that he doesn’t have the combination for. I would suggest putting all your valuables in the safe at all time when you don’t have them on your person. Credit cards, money, jewelry or small valuables that are easy for him to sell for drugs.
Get a home security system that alerts you of all the comings and goings. Only you and your husband should know the codes to that as well.
As @rojo suggested, let him stay in jail the next time he breaks the law. He needs to understand there are real consequences for his actions.
Don’t make excuses for his actions.
Make sure there is no real medical concerns. ADHD, or any other mental disorder. It sounds as if he may be self medicating.
Remove all drugs from the home or lock up those that are necessary to have.
If you can afford it, put him in drug rehab.
I also think family counselling may be necessary, to include his mother as well and maybe a step dad if he has one.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@Pandora I agree that stealing money will probably come next.

Prevention would be better than a cure there. Maybe don’t make it too obvious, but be more careful about where you leave cash or things that can be sold for quick cash.

It’s really difficult to guess whether rehab or jail would improve or worsen things. You don’t want him learning tips and tricks from other offenders if he’s eager to see them as his peers.

janbb's avatar

I feel for you is the most I can say. I am still reeling from a relationship with an adult who is potentially a psychopath and it is terribly damaging.

Is it possible that the mother and you two can share custody and that he can spend time in each house so that you have respite times?

I know these aren’t solutions; just some random thoughts.

My kids are relatively sane and were hard enough to raise.

Pandora's avatar

@janbb Jail or rehab could make it worse but doing nothing isn’t going to fix the problem. He sounds like a compulsive liar. He probably is charming to boot and is use to getting his way. If all the adults in his life form a united front and don’t give into his tales or bail him out of his bad behavior, he will see charm will only go so far. They need to draw a line that is clear and he realizes he loses more than he gains. At the least, he is on a severe ego trip and spoiled, at the worst he needs medical intervention and professional help.

Both families need to be united or he will never take anything seriously until it is too late.

jca's avatar

I don’t know if I would be able to deal with the stress you are under. I think I would go the family therapy route, or look into having him committed into some kind of program.

Last but not least, I don’t think I would stay continue living in the household with this person. I would probably move out. That may not be helpful to your relationship with Keith’s dad, but when it starts affecting you legally, financially, mentally and all other ways, I think I would be looking for some peace.

Coloma's avatar

Well…he is either just being a rebellious teen and will come out the other side, ( if he doesn’t end up in jail, kill himself from his reckless behaviors, or become a teenage father 1st ) in about another 10 years, or…he is a sociopath unleashed. All you can really do his let him suffer the consequences of his behaviors, forcing him into counseling won’t work if he cannot see the error of his choices. Sadly I think the only thing you can do is either let him fall and learn from his own mistakes or, turn him over as a ward of the court and have him put in a foster care situation. The high chance of you, as parents, being held liable for his behaviors is high.

I would tell him he had better shape up or you are going to ship him out and where he lands he WILL be forced to adhere to the rules of good conduct. Tough love, he’ll get over it, eventually, or not. You cannot have a kid like this running amok leaving you as sitting ducks to pay the price of his conduct disorder.
I am a firm believer that once kids reach a certain age ( and he is there ) that good parents are no longer responsible if the kid acts out and causes harm.

The best thing you can do is take a firm stand and follow through with the consequences I have mentioned. Tell him you love him but you will NOT put yourselves and the rest of your family at risk and that he has a choice, obey your house rules and knock off the bullshit or, go to a foster home or boys school.
If he was my son I would ship him out to some bad ass wilderness boot camp for troubled boys and let the camp masters whip his little butt into shape.

funkdaddy's avatar

You can’t squeeze him tight enough for it to really hurt (figuratively) and he knows it. That’s not going to change with more threats, he knows you don’t approve and that’s not going to change in his shortened time frame.

There is something he cares about, even if he doesn’t know it, whether it’s life experience he’s searching for, some sort of meaning, acceptance, or just plain old fun. To help him you (collectively) either need to help him find something else important, or show him that those things are more fragile than he thinks.

Normally I’d say it’s a horrible idea, but jail might really crystalize things for him. Being treated like a criminal makes you wish to be seen as a human being again. He’s a minor and it wouldn’t be a permanent mark. You (again collectively) need to help him screw up small and see the consequences when the real world doesn’t care as much as his family and friends. It needs to happen before he really screws up.

janbb's avatar

@Pandora I don’t think your last comment should have been directed at me; I didn’t say anything about tactics.

Pandora's avatar

@janbb Sorry it wasn’t really. It like just having a conversation in a room. It was more directed to the OP. The first sentence was directed to you.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@janbb No, I’m sure she was responding to me.

Buttonstc's avatar

it’s clear that professional help is needed here. Since he is still living with his father, I’m going to assume he is underage.

The absolute best would be a therapeutic residential environment or wilderness camp where he won’t be able to pull his crap. But in addition to structure, the people who run the time-tested programs are professionals who can determine if psychopathology exists or if he just needs therapy.

Keep in mind that once he is 18, you lose a lot of leverage, legally speaking, since you cannot force him to go. Then the only recourse is jail and cross your fingers and hope that does it.

If it were my kid, he would be sent straight to wilderness camp through Aspen education center. They’ve been doing this for 30 years and are not some fly by night abusive type of place. They are thoroughly reputable and have made a world of difference in countless lives.

Here are a couple of reputable ones for starters. There are also others which you can find.

Yale Parenting center:

Pandora's avatar

Oh, my, @janbb You are right. It wasn’t you. @dappled_leaves , it was directed to you.
I quickly read the comments and got the names mixed up

dappled_leaves's avatar

@Pandora No worries, it happens. :)

Dutchess_III's avatar

I am SO sorry this is happening to you.

It sounds serious enough that you might consider a bootcamp for troubled teens.

I also agree with @rojo. He’ll get a arrested soon and I’d leave his ass in jail for a month.

jca's avatar

But in the meantime, he steals your car and you are ultimately responsible if anything happens. I’d look into getting him put into foster care.

rojo's avatar

FWIW my son did the boot camp thing prior to the jail, several times, to no avail. BUT other kids seem to get the message and straighten up.

gorillapaws's avatar

This kid sounds like he’s in a lot of pain and doesn’t know how to handle it. I suspect some of this has to do with feelings about the divorce (I’m assuming that’s the case given your details), or being pushed from one parent to the other. I would look for the best counselor/therapist who specializes in troubled teens that you can find.

This is a much bigger issue than treating the symptoms of the problem. He’s acting out because there is something much deeper at play.

seekingwolf's avatar

Call the police and see if they can hold him without bail until trial. I don’t know how it works but he’s underage and you make a case a about him reeking havoc at home, well, it may work. It’s a win win, you get peace at home and he’s in jail and hopefully learning his lesson.

JLeslie's avatar

Drug addict behavior. If I am right then you won’t be able to talk sense into him until he stops doing drugs, so that has to be the first order of business. Not an easy task.

A few options: Try some therapy with a counselor who is familiar with adolescent treatment and chemical abuse. Or, walk him over to the behavioral hospital nearby and have them drug test him. I hope your insurance will pay for some treatment. Another choice send off to some sort of borading school. It doesn’t have to be a crazy strict one, just get him away from his local environment and away from his loser friends. No matter what emohasize you are worried about him and all you want to do is help him. If he denies doing drugs give him the option to take a drug test and be ready with one.

KNOWITALL's avatar

DEfinately rehab, inpatient. I would not allow him to live there otherwise. You know he could kill you on acid right?

Dutchess_III's avatar

There are lots of drugs that can lead to murder.

hearkat's avatar

I’m a believer in tough-love. The kid needs a reality check before there are far more serious consequences. I certainly would not tolerate that behavior in my home and would not allow my son to disrespect me, my partner, nor our property.

I would probably try to start with family therapy to work out a strategy for handling this together, with individual counseling for all family members, as well. It would be helpful to get the mother and other family members all on the same page. Consistency is key, as is showing the kid that y’all care enough about him to go to this effort. If he is non-compliant, then a short-term residential rehab would be my next step.

gorillapaws's avatar

@hearkat I’m a huge disbeliever in tough love. I saw tough love lead my best friend into a downward spiral that lead to him dying of an overdose at the age of 20. I’m not saying people should enable destructive behavior.

I completely agree with the suggestion of family therapy though. It needs to be a really phenomenal therapist though. I think a lot of them see a kid who isn’t interested in helping himself so they just kind of give up and go through the motions. He needs someone who can connect with him and get him to open up on a deep level.

JLeslie's avatar

@gorillapaws That’s what is so tricky with teens and even 20 year olds. If they are miserable they are a pain in the ass, and if they are doing drugs of course we want them to stop. Making them do things they don’t want to do can cause them to want to die. But, being on drugs will kill them too. Being on drugs makes the whole thing so much more impossible than typical teenage angst and depression.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

From beginning to end, reading your description, I kept wondering, ”What did the parents do/not do for/to this kid?” Then you said it, “he’s spoiled”. For a kid who is already showing a lack of empathy, no consideration for his actions or what he deems are laughable consequences, the last thing you want to do is give him anything to “play with”. After that kind of behavior, why did he even still have a PlayStation to use? What else is he still allowed access to for fun that he absolutely should not be?

After helping to raise a foster child with severe emotional problems for over three years now, my gut reaction is that most (if not all) of his behavior is stemming from some kind of trauma. To your knowledge has he experienced any kind of physical trauma? Emotional trauma? Both? Anything at all? Many times, children with these kind of issues act out because they simply don’t feel cared about and they will do anything to get the attention they crave and need.

If not, as you indicated, he may just be spoiled rotten – which wouldn’t be his fault. I agree with whoever said that family counseling is an extremely good idea. I also suggest getting his biological mother on board to see the same family counselor; every adult in his life needs to be on the same page and to work as a cohesive unit if you actually want to help him.

snowberry's avatar

@linguaphile However you deal with this thing, be sure you DOCUMENT everything you’ve done with him, every trip to the doctor, every call to a therapist, 911 calls, every call to/from the school, all of it. You’ll need to save every scrap of paper you get from these people, and when appropriate actually get a transcript/police report, etc If you give them a date, the police can go back and collect the various 911 calls and police reports. He’s going to be going in front of a judge and if you want the judge to think well of you (believe me, you’d better), you must be able to prove on paper everything you’ve done to help him straighten out.

I hope you have time to prepare. I don’t know how fast a felony is pushed through the system. Regardless, get him in counseling now, and try be able to show the judge a thick stack of paperwork to prove you’re a good parent.

hearkat's avatar

@gorillapaws – I use the term loosely as a concept of allowing people to learn from the consequences of their actions. I vaguely recall that there was a Tough Love school-of-thought when I was a teen; but I don’t know any specifics, such as whether there was a leader of the movement or a specific protocol for handling situations. I learned my personal philosophy through my marriage to an addict, my experience raising my son with behavior problems, and another long-term-relationship I was in with an unstable person.

My ex died sixteen years ago today of liver failure at the age of 39. The years when I enabled him only prolonged his life, but neither I nor our son could save him – he had to save himself. Some people just can’t be saved. My son and I have been through: his dad’s death, DYFS, cops, emergency rooms, courthouses,suicide attempts, psych wards, drugs and alcohol, car and motorcycle accidents, etc. My ‘tough love’ concept is about preserving the sanity and dignity of those involved with the troubled person. Just because someone we care about has mental illness and/or addiction doesn’t mean we have to go down that rabbit hole with them. I do still believe in loving the person, but being clear about not tolerating destructive behavior, and having clear boundaries and consistent enforcement of them.

This was why in this instance, I recommended family therapy as a first step, so every one can learn coping and communication strategies. When teens act out it is often because of emotional issues that need to be addressed, and since those emotional issues often relate to actions of family members, the whole family should be involved in the resolution of those issues. Often, it is a matter of the kid seeing that the family cares enough to be committed to working out these issues that helps break down some of the walls.

Perhaps some Tough Love proponents would say to send the kid to jail for stealing the cars, but I am more about taking a mental health approach, so I guess I shouldn’t use that phrase. I apologize for any misunderstanding.

jca's avatar

And the thing about teens is you can drag them to therapy but they may refuse to participate, which means a lot of time and effort wasted for nothing. Nobody can make them talk…..

rojo's avatar

@jca, Which brings to mind when the middle school tested my son for depression. When he came out I asked him how it went; he said fine. I asked him what they asked; he said a bunch of stupid questions. I asked he what he said in way of answers; he said “I told them what they wanted to hear”.

A day or so later I told the school psychologist this. His response was to metaphorically stroke his chin and say “Hmmmmmmmmmm”. My impression was he had already make his mind up as to a diagnosis and was not going to allow any additional facts to muddle things up.

Kids are not stupid, they know more than we give them credit for. They are just unprepared for dealing with their emotions in a rational, mature manner.

JLeslie's avatar

@rojo They aren’t stupid, but many of them are extremely off in their estimation of how they will be perceived and responded to if they tell the truth. They tend to assume adults will over react, be angry, controlling, and be punishing. When often adults will just be concerned, frightened, and in the end want to help. Some parents are more punishing than others, but take them out of the equation, and still kids are afraid their parents will be mad or won’t understand when it isn’t the case. Teens also feel emotions very intensely because of their stage of brain development.

Response moderated (Unhelpful)
SQUEEKY2's avatar

Now for your question, some people have to learn from their mistakes, and he doesn’t seem to care who he hurts, so he may never learn and that is quite sad, hope he grows up before he kills himself or someone else.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@SQUEEKY2 It is a horrible thing to go through.

SQUEEKY2's avatar

@Dutchess_III No doubt at all and wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but again it only strengthens my views and beliefs as to why we chose not to have any off spring.
I do hope the asker finds the answer she is looking for.

linguaphile's avatar

Hi every-jelly! Thank you all for your thoughts, responses, and support. This discussion has been enlightening for me. I shared your suggestions with Keith’s dad. He’s at wit’s end, and the suggestions were helpful.

I’m not the parent, just Keith’s dad’s wife, so I can only be his support system. I don’t have any final decisions beyond what I decide to do for myself. I love my husband/partner—when I first moved in with him, he didn’t have any kids living with him. Clearly, I had no idea this was part of the package. I’m not at the point yet where I’m willing to lose my relationship over this but am uncomfortably aware of that possibility.

I agree with @DrasticDreamer, I do think something did happen to Keith. As the ‘outside person,’ I have been able to figure out quite a bit and suspect that something happened to him about 2 years ago—he hasn’t been willing to talk, though.

His dad and I both know that when Keith goes up before the judge for drugs, the results will be out of our hands. If he spends time in jail, I hope that is what it takes for him to wake up and take life more seriously.

I agree with the suggestions that all the parents need to be on the same page—Keith’s dad and I are definitely on the same page, and we talked about family counseling last night. He’s going to contact his insurance company and check into options.

However, Keith’s two moms both have not really been comfortable with me in the picture and make that clear to Keith. Just today, his mom blew up because I was supervising him during his suspension from school. They live across the country, so I know they want to be more hands-on, and empathize with them—I don’t intend to be Keith’s third mom, he’s 15 after all, but I do have a role as someone who expects certain behaviors in her own home. They’re not supportive of that, but Keith’s dad definitely is. We decided to focus on what the 2 of us can do here.

Keith moved to live with his dad completely on his own accord—he wanted to live with us and said several times that we are calm and more stable. His dad has wanted for Keith to live with him for years, so this was something they both wanted. If that’s true, why act like this, then? That’s why I agree that something must have been building up in him for a while.

The strange thing about Keith is that he is very well behaved at home on a daily basis—but when he has a choice to ‘impress his friends’ or ‘do the right thing,’ that’s when he makes the worst decisions and is gone.

Keith’s dad and I just scheduled him for testing—it’s worth finding out if there are some other biological/cognitive issues involved to eliminate any nonexistent factors.

I know my thoughts are disjointed—thanks for bearing with me! :) Again, much gratitude from me.

Dutchess_III's avatar

For being “disjointed” those were some awesome thoughts!

The fact that he’s OK at home is really, really heartening. That’s a good sign.

He doesn’t want to talk to you, but I bet he’ll talk to a counselor.

janbb's avatar

@linguaphile What “two” other Moms does he have?

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@linguaphile I’m really glad counseling is on the table. Can you keep us updated? I’m interested to know if there’s any progress.

linguaphile's avatar

Hello every-jelly… here’s an update.

After Keith’s 3-day suspension, he went back to school. His mom called the school to check on his progress that day and the school counselor told her that Keith had come back to an unprecedented rock star status. The kids were cheering for him, and he had a trending hashtag on Twitter. That made us realize he hadn’t helped with the school’s investigation at all. The counselor admitted that the school had a drug problem. Oh great. We realized that the school climate would be a serious deterrent to whatever we decided to do with Keith, and the last thing he needed was to have a fan-base. It was horrible. By that afternoon, he had already upset the dean again when he left an area after being told to stay there.

For the weekend, I went out of town to my mom’s. Keith’s dad decided that the guys would stay behind, hoping the dad-son time would be a benefit, but by Saturday night, Keith snuck out again. That was the absolute last straw for both of Keith’s parents.

By Tuesday afternoon, Keith was gone—they sent him to an intensive wilderness therapy program. I’m all for it and am impressed with the program—he’ll be there for at least 2 months.

Now, we have to make sure that his after-care maintains what he learns at the program.

Now I can sleep at night. Thank you all for your support!

JLeslie's avatar

Wow. That’s some update. Let us know how it all progresses. Is the kid allowed to talk to his parents during the 2 months?

linguaphile's avatar

@JLeslie There won’t be any direct contact, only letter writing and only between family members. His parents are encouraged to wait until he contacts them before writing. I like this program because all of us- his parents, his mom’s former partner and myself- are all expected to do homework, to respond to a set of questions and keep up with his progress online as well.

Keith himself has zero access to technology, but is given writing materials and is required to journal everyday.

Buttonstc's avatar

That’s terrific news. Hopefully this will be a turning point for him.

In addition to taking kids completely away from their druggie friends’ influence, the group therapy, journaling, and counseling is designed for kids to really get in touch with themselves and think about what they want out of life.

Plus the rigors of the entire experience usually serves to increase their self esteem and let’s them experience what true hard-earned success feels like.

Hopefully they realize that they can deal with life and whatever it throws at them without needing to escape with drugs.

The fact that this program also requires participation and homework from the adults involved in his life points to a quality program run by professionals who really know what they’re doing.

Just for curiosity, how did he react when this was first proposed?

Presumably, his parents still held the trump card, assuming he’s still underage, and whether he went willingly or not, he’s still there.

I really hope for you, his parents and him that this will be a turnaround for him. It’s certainly a lot more hopeful an alternative than jail.

janbb's avatar

Sounds good. Hope it works out well.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Staying tuned and hoping for the very best.

linguaphile's avatar

@Buttonstc Yes, he’s underage and we all still hold the trump card. It’s definitely wilderness therapy… if he tried to leave, he would have to channel John Muir, and the closest town is over 60 miles in one specific direction.

He didn’t know he was going—we drove to meet the interventionist, met briefly, but then Keith went completely willingly. He even looked like he agreed to this.

Today’s tough. Even with him being such an ass, he’s missed at home.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Gosh. I seriously ache for you @linguaphile.

snowberry's avatar

@linguaphile We did the same thing for our son. It was expensive, but a good move.

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