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SANDY BANKS

Troubled Kids and Bewildered Parents

May 11, 1999|SANDY BANKS

I am still reeling from the torrent of pain unleashed among readers of my column last week, about a father who is afraid of--and for--his teenage daughter.

The girl has been expelled from school, arrested and kicked out of her home. And police, school officials and mental health authorities have been unable or unwilling to help her family rein her in.

"She's deeply troubled, and she's a violent child. . . . I want her locked up," her father said.

In the last week, I have heard from therapists, teachers, police officers and once-troubled teens. And from parents--some still locked in battle with wayward children, and others who endured, and survived, extraordinary adolescent tumult.

Many credited boarding schools--and military schools, wilderness camps, mountain retreats preaching self-discovery, austere religious programs with strict moral codes--with turning their kids around. Others touted various medical treatments, from medication to meditation, cognitive behavior therapy to EEG biofeedback.

And one book--psychologist Stanton E. Samenow's "Before It's Too Late: Why Some Kids Get Into Trouble and What Parents Can Do About It"--was cited by several parents and therapists for its insight into troubled children and its common-sense advice for parents.

"Most parents don't know what it's like to have a teenager from hell," e-mailed one mother. "But if that is your lot in life, it is your responsibility to go the limit. At no point does a parent have the right to give up and say, 'I've done all I can.'

"When I look now at my sweet son, about to graduate from high school, it is hard to remember that I was ever afraid of him."

*

There were those who chastised me for letting the father in my column off the hook.

"Behind every troubled child I've seen lies a dysfunctional home," one therapist proclaimed.

Others, whose families had been ruptured by adolescent upheaval, begged to differ.

"How was our daughter raised? Lovingly, by involved parents," wrote a woman who said her child began displaying "antisocial tendencies"--hurting playmates and family pets--at age 2.

"We went to church, Scouts, Indian princesses, baseball leagues. She was helped with her homework every night, had a loving extended family."

Still, she began using drugs and having sex before she reached her teens and ran away from home so often that she finally was declared "incorrigible" by county officials.

"The pediatrician kept telling us she would grow out of it," the mother recalled.

Now her daughter is 20, with two children of her own. "She still tries to manipulate, but I hold her accountable and I hold her to the truth."

Yet she said she is still afraid of her daughter. "I believe she is capable of anything."

Like many parents who contacted me, she credited a support group called ToughLove with helping her family to survive.

But the journey to recovery is inevitably long and hard, and requires unstinting parental devotion.

"It was a painful and exhausting process, and often I was ready to give in," e-mailed one woman, whose son was skipping school and running away, and whose daughter was into the Gothic scene. "Knowing that it would only get worse kept me going."

Later this woman became a ToughLove group leader and was dismayed to realize that many parents--like the father I wrote about--expect someone else to fix their mistakes, to make their teenager's problems go away.

"When I greeted newcomers at our weekly meetings, more often than not, parents would ask, 'Is this where I drop off my kid?'

"I'd say, 'No, this is where you learn to take control of your home and change your parenting, to help your child to change.' And most of them would leave, saying it was too much trouble."

*

There are, it is clear, no simple solutions, no one-size-fits-all remedies. And no universal definition of success when it comes to troubled teens.

One mother considers the battle over when her former wild child makes the dean's list at Georgetown University. Another is just grateful for every day that passes without a call from police.

And even when their children cross into adulthood, the pain and self-doubt remain for parents reeling from years of blame.

"I'm sick and tired of hearing from people who claim 'It's the guns' or 'It's the parents' or the video games or whatever," wrote a mother who is estranged from her 19-year-old daughter "after seven years of hell on Earth.

"The fact is there are kids who make bad choices. There are kids who are mentally ill. . . . We're talking about near-adult people who can no longer be sent to their rooms for a timeout.

"The real crime is the way our society looks at families with troubled kids. It's not always 'nature or nurture.' Sometimes it's just a choice."

Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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