Care and Feeding

At the End of My Rope

Advice for a mom who feels she can no longer influence an out-of-control teenager.

Sad mom looking off into the distance
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a single parent with a 15-year-old only child. Over the summer, my son was kicked out of sleep-away camp for bullying and acting racist. He was grounded when he got home and assigned a chore equal in value to the cost of camp. He understands why his behavior was seen as racist and felt badly about that, though generally he was pretty defiant about the situation. During the time that he was grounded, he ran away. He was found at a friend’s house a couple of hours later, and I did call the police to report this.

Yes, he’s been in therapy for months. If anything, things are worse. I’ve been testing him for drugs on a weekly basis for over a year. He peed dirty a couple of weeks ago for marijuana. When there were consequences, he wasn’t happy, and he threatened to run away. The next week, I told him he could not hang out in a nonchaperoned place. Directly after school, he shut off location services on his phone and went to hang out in our little downtown, exactly what he was told not to do. He said he would only come home if I agreed to let him leave again. I said no—he was grounded for the evening since he didn’t have permission to hang out after school. After I brought him home from a friend’s house, he walked the mile or two back to that kid’s house. Since I knew he was safe, I just let it go.

He was gone until Sunday night, when I was concerned that if I didn’t call the police, and he was truant on Monday, I might end up in trouble with DFS. He was brought home in cuffs. He seemed contrite that night, but the next morning, when I asked him to take a drug test, he put water in it. I was concerned that he may have experimented with other drugs during that weekend, which, based on what I’ve heard from other kids his age, was epic. According to him, it was the time of his life. He ran away again that night. Police brought him home.

If he’s grounded, he just does what he wants. When he’s defiant, he’s mean, manipulative, and rude. He will lie about the location of my own nose to me. When he does act contrite, it’s short-lived, and the monster quickly returns. How am I supposed to parent a kid who doesn’t respect me at all? How do I enforce rules if he just ignores them and their consequences? We’re going to family counseling now, and I’m trying to get him into a drug-prevention program at his school.

I love my son. It’s really hard to lately. What can I do?

—Frustrated Mom

Dear FM,

First of all, you have my deepest sympathies. We live in a society that really loves blaming mothers. So let me first take a moment to say: Any readers who can’t wait to offer their opinion on how this is all the mother’s fault should shut the hell up.

You already understand that the situation is bad. But what you may not fully understand is this: You can’t parent your way out of this, even if you think you parented your way into this (and who knows if you did or didn’t). Your son is in a bad state. Part of that has to do with the fact that he’s a teenager, which means that his ability to understand reality is simply not fully developed. His capacity to recognize consequences, for example, just isn’t there. He thinks he’s making decisions based on one set of potential outcomes, but he is completely ignorant of an entirely worse set of potential outcomes. And even when he is made aware of danger, he forgets it instantly when he is confronted with an opportunity for what he thinks is pleasure.

However, it also sounds as if he is dealing with even more specific and serious issues, issues of emotional health and, I’m guessing, addiction. One of the things people forget about alcoholic or addictive behavior is that it has little to do with the drugs people use or don’t use. It’s better to think of it as a mental state that drives people to prioritize drug and alcohol use over everything, even over things they wish they could prioritize. In this way it can be as shitty for them as it is for the people who love them, even though sympathy can be hard to muster because one of the things they simply cannot prioritize is caring for another person. Addicts are selfish and hurtful, even when they don’t want to be. These moments where your son feels contrition suggest to me that he would like to be conducting his life differently than he is but that he is wrestling with something greater and more powerful than his will to be good.

Which is why you can’t help. What he is wrestling with is more powerful than him right now and is more powerful than your influence. This is a “secure your oxygen mask first” situation if I ever heard one. You must do this or else he will drag you into the abyss with him.

You need to begin looking for other places for him to be. I know that 15 feels young to put him out of the house, but he is in an extreme state right now, and your attempts to parent, discipline, plead, cajole, and manipulate him into good behavior are not doing anyone any good. If he is ready to live with a friend, good luck to them and their family. (Prince was living in his best friend’s basement by the time he was 15, and he seemed to be able to get his life together.) If he needs to go to a residential treatment facility, good for him. If he winds up in a two-year youth corrective facility at the behest of the state or county, that is less than ideal, but I’ve seen plenty of people get sober once they get locked up too. Either way, I think it’s time you surrender and admit defeat.

You have exhausted your options and you must turn it all over. I know this can be a terrifying and painful proposition when speaking of a person you once carried in your arms, but it is time to be as honest with yourself as you must be with him. You need to start thinking about how you can get your life and space back. In some states the emancipation process can begin as soon as 14; in most cases it is 16. While he is too young for you to legally put him on the street today, 16 is right around the corner, and even now there are options like the ones above—or like choosing to further involve DFS and getting a caseworker assigned to help you determine, after a thorough investigation, if the best interests of your kid would be served by your voluntarily relinquishing your parental rights. [Update, Oct. 10, 2018: A reader wrote in to specifically suggest consulting a parental-custody attorney, which I think is a good call.]

His future is out of your hands now, and the good news is that you aren’t the only factor that determines the outcome of his life. There is a whole world out there and there is a whole world within him as well. Good luck. My heart is with you.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband has totally unrealistic expectations for our toddler. This comes up every time she starts picking up a new skill. The first time he tried to feed her solid food he got flustered and upset and said, “She’s not doing it right.” This attitude has come up again and again. Learning to walk, the first time we handed her a fork, potty training … if she doesn’t immediately grasp a concept the second it’s introduced, there’s something wrong with her (according to him). At this point this is demonstrably crazy. She’s picked up lots of new skills! In her own time! With help and guidance from us! Like every other kid!

I’m at a frickin’ loss. It’s been three years, he’s in therapy, we talk about it, but it’s not getting better. I think objectively he knows he’s being unreasonable, but he can’t stop, and his constant complaining and negativity about her abilities are really wearing on me. How can I get through to him? How can I protect her from his attitude? He has no empathy for her—all of his frustrations are her fault, according to him—and I hate it.

—Trying Patience

Dear TP,

I don’t have a great deal of wisdom to offer because your primary problem is that your husband is being an asshole to your daughter. Perhaps that’s harsh, but that’s definitely what I’m getting here. He most assuredly has anger issues and needs mental health support; if the arrangement you have for that isn’t working, then I might suggest getting a new therapist.

If your husband is this way with a toddler, what will he be like with a little kid learning to ride a bike, an elementary school kid learning how to do fractions, or a teenager learning how to hold down a summer job and make it home by curfew? I can think of few things more guaranteed to damage a child than a parent who is constantly reminding them that they are not good enough. Do not allow any room for this. You must protect her, even if that way of protection means making it so that she does not spend that much time with her father who is, at best, an emotional liability. I do not issue the suggestion of leaving a spouse lightly, but in your case it’s something to start thinking about.

One of the most important rules of dealing with impossible people whom we love or are otherwise bound to is “Don’t make threats that you do not intend to keep.” So, you need to decide if you are willing to separate from this man in order to protect your daughter. And if the answer is yes, then you need to tell him in plain language that if he doesn’t seriously deal with this bullshit, you are most assuredly leaving and filing for divorce on grounds of emotional abuse. And if you don’t see changes that are satisfying to you, then you follow through. It is very tough. And very painful. And very terrifying. But your child’s father is not good for her. Do not spend her childhood hoping that this will get better on its own.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday and was a big deal in my family growing up. My mother-in-law has always bought costumes for my niece and nephews, presumably because their parents aren’t too into Halloween. I was looking forward to choosing my 1-year-old son’s costume, but my mother-in-law already bought him one. This is a really nice gesture but puts a bit of a damper on my fun. I’m going to suck it up and work with it this year; any suggestions on how to politely decline a very sweet, caring, and passive-aggressive mother-in-law next year?

—Devil in Disguise

Dear DiD,

The good news is you have plenty of time to get this right. The fact that your kid is 1 means that it honestly doesn’t matter what they wear for Halloween. I mean, you’ll take pictures in the costume and then what? I know it’s cute, but unless the in-laws have tried to dress your kid up as Hitler, you’re right that it’s not worth getting into this year.

Next year, however, the approach is simple. Listen closely and mark your calendar. On Sept. 15, 2019, you will send a text to your mother-in-law with the following words: “Hey! Halloween’s going to be so great this year! We’re dressing little Vexiffany as beloved character actor Dabney Coleman. Won’t that be fun?!” The point is that you will let her know that you are deciding on costumes, she is not, and if she has a problem with that she can just have a problem with it. She will very likely get the message. If, however, she comes back with “Oh, but I was thinking Vex would go as Norman Fell this year,” you can say, “Nope, we’re going with Coleman. Let us know if you happen to come across any mustaches when you’re picking out costumes for the other kids.”

Finally, remember that this is a very short-lived problem. I’ll give it three more years before your kid and his or her tantrums put both you and your mother-in-law out of the costume-picking business. So try not to take this too seriously. You will have much bigger parenting fish to fry.