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Throwing It All Away: When Good Kids Make Bad Choices

by Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
Throwing It All Away: When Good Kids Make Bad Choices

As a family therapist, over the years many parents have come to me and said, “My child has so much going for him, but he’s just throwing his life away. Why is he doing drugs? Why is he dropping out of school? Why is he making terrible choices with his life when he has so much potential?” I’ll never forget the mother who said in exasperation one day, “Sometimes I just want to superglue my daughter to the chair until she gets out of her teen years!”

The good news is that you have the power to influence your child’s decisions by taking control of yourself—and not your teen.

One of the most painful and frustrating things for parents is watching their teens make bad choices and “throw it all away.” Some of these choices include running with the wrong crowd, blowing off homework, dropping out of school, drinking and doing drugs, and engaging in risky behavior.

What can you do if your adolescent is making bad choices? I know many parents who have lost sleep at night, wondering what their responsibilities were. They ask themselves, “Is it my responsibility to fix things? And if it is, exactly what am I supposed to do with a teen who refuses help?” When the pain of watching your child toss opportunities out the window becomes overwhelming, it’s natural to try harder to control them or throw your hands up in despair.

The difficult truth is, you don’t have control over your child’s choices—or the outcome of his or her life. You have a chance to guide him to a better place—that’s what you’re responsible for. The good news is that you have the power to influence your child’s decisions by taking control of yourself—and not your teen. As James Lehman says, “You can lead a horse to water, and while you can’t make him drink, you can make him mighty thirsty.”

Related: Real ways to change your child’s behavior.

How to Draw Clear Boundaries

The idea of drawing clear boundaries can be confusing. I think it’s really about saying, “I’m on your side, I’m on your team, we love you and we care about you. We don’t like the choices you’re making and this is how we are going to stop enabling you.” If you have very strong, clear boundaries that you maintain around what you will and won’t do for your child, that’s different than constantly trying to figure out how to control or change him.

In your relationship, you’ll want to draw those lines and maintain them. You can say, “You can’t live here without following these rules. I’m not handing you money if I suspect you’re doing drugs.” Or “I’m not driving you to that party.” You’re clearly stating what you will do and what you won’t do. It’s the difference between taking charge of yourself versus trying to control your child’s actions.

Remind your child that this is not about punishment or disobedience—it’s about his welfare. You might say, “We love and care about you, that’s why we’re doing this. This is not punishment for breaking a rule. We’re going to do whatever it takes to keep you safe.”

The best part is that you really are controlling what you can control. That’s always the way influence works. “I’m not telling you what to do and I’m not going to scream and yell. I’m simply going to do what I think is best. I’m not going to enable you by giving you rides and money. Those liberties are taken away until you can be responsible for yourself.” So you just close those doors. There is a huge difference between taking your child by the collar and locking him in a room versus taking charge by giving him the appropriate consequences.

Here are five steps to help influence your child to make better life choices.

1. Recognize and acknowledge

First, recognize and acknowledge your own feelings of panic, despair, powerlessness, frustration, and disappointment. All you have to do at this stage is simply acknowledge these emotions. Don’t react by judging yourself or your child. Blaming, yelling, hovering, distancing and becoming very controlling—or whatever ways you typically manage your anxiety—will only cause you to have more pain to manage and will be damaging to your relationship with your teen. It will also make your child wrestle with you instead of wrestling with the choices he needs to make. Don’t hand him the opportunity to avoid responsibility for those key decisions. You don’t want him fighting for his autonomy by doing the exact opposite of what you’d like him to do. Instead, acknowledge your own fears and feelings, and handle them without asking your child to handle them for you. Take walks, listen to music, do yoga, talk to your family or friends, get more involved in your own career—do whatever it takes to avoid over-focusing on your child. Stay in your box—don’t let your anxiety cause you to jump into your child’s box.

2. Observe

Observe, think and change your contribution to any negative patterns in your relationship. When you’re calmer, you will be able to think more effectively about the best way to guide and lead—and not control—your adolescent. Guiding and leading requires you to change your behaviors as a parent instead of trying to get your adolescent to change his. Step way back and see if you can observe what might be going on. Ask yourself these questions:

  • When did these poor behaviors begin?
  • Were there any triggers?
  • Are there any ways you or your spouse contribute to the problem?
  • Have you felt overly responsible for the choices your child makes?
  • Do you believe that it’s your job to get your kids to make all the right choices?
  • If so, have you been over-functioning for your child by babying her and contributing to her irresponsible ways?
  • Have you provided too many rules or too few?
  • Has your spouse been too hard on your child, while you’ve been too soft? Perhaps both of you have been making lots of noise, but no one has really taken charge.
  • Is your child functioning in reaction to you, for some reason, instead of functioning for him or herself?

It might be time to stop your part of this two-step dance. When you carefully observe your own patterns and tendencies, you can decide if there are any steps in your dance that can change.

Related: Learn better, more effective ways to communicate with your teen today.

3. Don’t take control—take charge

Take charge rather than take control. Again, you do not have control over all of your children’s choices, but you can help influence their decisions. If your teen insists on going out and returning at three in the morning, you cannot lock her in her room every night just because you’d like to. You can’t control her without hurting your relationship. But you can tell her this: “If you return after your curfew, there will be a consequence. You won’t be able to use the car or go out with your friends again this weekend.” In other words, she can make a poor choice, but you will respond to her poor choice by making her feel the painful consequences of that choice. Don’t make it easy for her to continue bad behavior. If she breaks rules, confront her and let her know the rules remain in place. Maintain strong, clear boundaries in a loving and connective and matter of fact way. Be the adult she needs.

I want to make it clear that if your child is doing something unsafe, destructive, abusive or risky, like cutting herself, bullying others, or doing drugs, she has crossed a line. You need to respond immediately with very strong interventions. Because you care for your child and love her, you will not sit passively by. If you have evidence that she is doing drugs, for example, you need to do whatever it takes to intervene. If it requires calling other parents, calling the school or authorities or a crisis team, or getting her into counseling and rehab, you will do that. If what is happening is serious enough, then you may have to risk hurting your relationship with your child in order to keep her safe. 

Related: How to give real consequences that work.

4. Hang in there

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Some kids will have a difficult journey. But no matter what, you should try to hang in there the best you can. You can keep your rules in place even though your teen is constantly breaking them. Always remind him that the rules are for his welfare. He may eventually mature, but there is a chance he will throw a lot away. What ultimately counts is not whether you are able to perfectly control your teenager, but whether you can hang in there through the tough times and come back for more the next day. Accept the reality that there is a good chance that your child may throw many opportunities away despite all your good influence. Ultimately, you will need to grieve the losses and the disappointments of your own hopes and dreams. But hang in with your child and continue to move forward together. To quote James Lehman again, “Parent the child you have—not the child you wish you had.”

5. Enjoy your connection

Enjoy those good moments with your child. Be the adult, maintain your boundaries, be firm and clear about your bottom line and then enjoy your teen. Focus on what is positive between you and don’t define your relationship around the problem. Share your interests, discuss politics or topics outside of your relationship and really get to know your teen. See them through lenses that are not clouded with distrust and negativity. See them for all they are—not just their bad choices.

So first, recognize your emotions so that you don’t react by judging yourself or judging your child. Then step back and try to understand what might be going on—and if there’s any part you might play that you can change. And then, take charge instead of trying to control: start closing the fence. Once you put all of that in place, remember that there’s a whole other part of your child’s personality that you can relate to and enjoy. Make sure to do that. And if all fails—because it can—acknowledge and grieve your disappointments about the lost opportunities for your child. Understand that some kids remain out of control no matter what. It might take maturity for them to make the necessary changes. Don’t give up on your child: he needs you to be a strong presence in his life even if he's making bad choices right now.

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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.


Excellent article!

Comment By : psydoc

Quote "If your teen insists on going out and returning at three in the morning, you cannot lock her in her room every night just because you’d like to. You can’t control her without hurting your relationship. But you can tell her this: “If you return after your curfew, there will be a consequence. You won’t be able to use the car or go out with your friends again this weekend.” In other words, she can make a poor choice, but you will respond to her poor choice by making her feel the painful consequences of that choice." How do you impose this consequence? It seems difficult to impose the consequence of not allowing her to go out again with her friends if that's what you didn't want her to do in the first place and she did. How do you force her to stay home and fulfil the consequence?

Comment By : kim

Thank you for this article. Taking control of myself, developing a life for myself, and grieving the disappointments are crucial! It can be challenging, but I am noticing that my difficult teen is starting to come around. It is as if he sees that the world keeps spinning and people can emerge happy from difficult experiences.

Comment By : Petunia

Our 17 year old is a good kid everywhere except at home. When at home verbally and physically abusive behavior takes place when wanting to go somewhere with friends and not wanting to do mutually understood responsibilities. A few months ago before turning 17 years old, I called a police officer (non-emergency number) a few hours after the teen hit and swore at us. No charges were filed, but the police officer explained what would happen after turning 17 years old. Well, it happened 7 months later, the teen physically abused me again. I called the police. They came, asked questions, put handcuffs on the 17 year old, and booked the teen. This was extremely difficult to watch, but I would do it again. We are divided as parents regarding this issue. The teen is getting counseling to control anger (court dictated this). Upon compliance, the record will get erased. THE VERBAL PHYSICAL ABUSE HAS ENDED. I have been using this program for several years now, and we have a plan of what to do when the teen feels out of control, but in this case my teen did not stop their rage.

Comment By : Consistent Mom

This article was written for me and my 17 y.o. son. I will read and re-read it again and again. It will be my pep talk whent times are rough. However, I have the same concern as kim. How can you enforce having a 17 y.o. stay home?

Comment By : Di

This works only if both parents abide by the rules set down.... otherwise, the teen goes right through the middle of the parents and the bad behaviour continues. My teen is now a young adult and I tried everything you have said. Unfortunately, my husband didn't back me up on this and we now have a major problem.... any ideas on how to deal with such a problem would be very helpful!

Comment By : TheFrustratedMom

* To Kim and Di: Thank you for your questions. I interpret this example Kim cited from Debbie Pincus differently. I take it to mean that the child does have permission to go out, but since they were late getting home, the consequence is that they will lose the privilege of having the car and hanging out with friends for the rest of the weekend. That said, many kids do take off without permission and if they’re willing to do that, you can bet that using a consequence of "no going out" is not going to work very well because they will just take off again. What you can do instead is motivate your child to not take off. This can be done by restricting another valued privilege, like the cell phone, until your child follows the rules about going out for 2 days. In other words, the cell phone service is shut off and when your child completes two days of not leaving without permission the phone will be turned on again. It is also important to talk to your child about what her reason is for leaving without permission. Let her know her reason doesn’t justify the behavior, reiterate your rules, and then discuss what she can do differently next time to follow the rules despite how she feels about them. Ultimately, there is no way to force her to stay home. As James Lehman always said, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. But, you can make him thirsty.” The advice I have given here is designed to do just that.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* To ‘TheFrustratedMom’: It certainly can be very challenging and frustrating when you and your spouse are not on the same page. What we recommend in this situation is to start by focusing on what you agree on. Find one common goal between you and your spouse and then come up with a plan on how you will achieve that goal. Work on one thing at a time—hopefully you will realize you and your husband agree a lot more than you think! Here is an article James Lehman wrote about this issue that will give you more information and ideas: Differences in Parenting? How Your Child May Be Using it Against You

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I understand the concept of this type of parenting in this situation and it makes sense, however, what how do you handle a teen who is stressed and having depression and that's the reason she's not at school 40% of the days and doesn't have any social life and doesn't do anything but sleep and sit at home. Our daughter is 16 and slipping deeper into some kind of depression each day. She started having physical ailments this semester - headaches, sore throats, sinus issues, back aches etc. and constantly complianing about having to go to school everyday and complaining about how useless school is and barely able to not break down in tears as she is saying it. She recoginizes that school is causing extreme stress but doesn't understand why everyone else is able to push through the frustration of going and get there everyday and she isn't. My spouse is authoritarian in nature and says it's because we need to go in there and tell her to get out of bed and get to school. In my mind this isn't a productive way to deal with anyone who is obviously depressed. Now my spouse wants to write all the days she has missed on a calendar and post it up where she can see it just so she can see for herself. I feel like he is missing the message here. SHe's not a defiant kid -she's a depressed kid. I instead have been talking to counselors at school and trying to get her to see a private counselor as well. No luck so far but making a little tiny bit of headway. Grades are still ok as long as she can keep getting her makeup work turned in. One more year to go - she is a Junior. She wants to go to college but I have to wonder how she'll handle that pressure. Seems when I talk to her however, that it's the monotony of high school that she can't stand. Every single day the same thing and no end in sight. That's how she describes her feelings to me. College would be different every day and she would have the freedom she longs for. Her brother graduated last year and is going to a local college this semester and so she gets to see him living the good life everyday. It's so hard. Any tips on how to deal with this would be most welcome. I hate that my spouse and I are not totally together on how to handle. He seems to think counseling is a waste of time or something and that it's just a matter of raising our expectations for her and putting our foot down.

Comment By : EllenJ

* To EllenJ: It sounds like you very concerned for your daughter and that you recognize that she needs more than “tough love” right now. Raising your expectations might only cause your daughter to feel more overwhelmed. With someone who is depressed it is best to break responsibilities down into simple, more manageable tasks or steps. We commend you for trying to get your daughter into a counselor and suggest that you continue to work on that. In the meantime, take your daughter to her physician to be evaluated and rule out any possible medical causes for the depression you are seeing. Try to be positive with your daughter, offer daily incentives for her to go to school, and encourage her to participate in normal activities around the home. Also, there is no problem with going into her room in the morning and ITALICS calmly ITALICS saying, “You might be feeling down again, but you still have to go to school today. Get out of bed.” You wouldn’t want to hear abusive language from your daughter, so we certainly don’t want to role model that, and it sounds like you understand that. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.
When Your Child’s World Collapses: Kids & Depression Part I
Is Your Child Depressed? 6 Ways to Help Them Cope: Kids & Depression Part II

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Have an 18 y.o son who didn't end up graduating today because he skipped so many classes. It was non-stop stress this year, and inspite of warning his choices had consequences, we really got nowhere. Today, as all his friends posted graduation photos on Facebook....I saw it hit him. I had a pretty sad teen tonight. It is so hard to drill that actions have reactions...good or bad. I finally saw a glimmer of hope tonight. It was heart breaking to see this coming, but perhaps sometimes they need to have something this big to "get" it. Our son has had a year of earning and losing privileges. It was the hardest year of my life, and the stress has just wiped our entire family out. I am thankful to have this site to know we are not alone. My son can be wonderful, and we don't have substance abuse issues. ODD or something like it isn't something they tell you about when you are shopping for nursery items. Our other children are really good kids, so I try very hard to make sure my oldest knows that ALL of our children are blessings and that we love him equally, but, that ever hard sometimes. Thanks for the articles. It really does help.

Comment By : Hopeful

I am the single mom in FL of a 15 y.o. son who is bent on self-destruction. As I read this article, it seemed written just for me. He is hanging with the wrong crowd, skipping school, getting suspended and smoking pot--he is driving me crazy. As a teacher at the school he is enrolled in, it makes it that much more painful because I am a great teacher, but it seems that my parenting skills are lacking. I have called the cops on him(one time he lit-up a joint in the tub & the sheriff's took him from there) and just the other day, as soon as he got to school, he got high, got caught and is suspended. I really worry about him being home alone. I have taken away his phone, the computer and have locked the TV--I have tried to calmly talk to him when he is in a "good mood" but he is so full of anger that it is a waste of time. There is a big possibility that he will not pass 10th grade and that will be a devastating blow which I think will push him to completely drop out of school. I have taken him to therapists and psychiatrists and he was diagnosed with manic depression, but at this point he is refusing to take his meds, because as he states "I don't need them. I feel fine without them." I have tried to get him into an in-patient therapy, but believe it or not, even as the parent of a MINOR, I have no rights to seek a program for him that is involuntary on his part, and the only one that I could find that I could have him court ordered to attend has 4 beds(unbelievable) and they have a waiting list. So, I am stuck with him pretty much blowing off everything and doing whatever he wants until, as I have been told by intervention specialists, therapists, school resource officers, he has to get "bad enough" to get in the system to get the help he needs. The sad part is, that I keep calling the cops, if he does something illegal, I call the sheriff's office, he gets arrested(that means going to the juvi center for a couple of hours and then I get to go pick him up), and it starts all over again. If anyone has some ideas on how to f=get my son the help he needs before he "gets bad enough", I would greatly appreciate it, because it is like watching him fall off a cliff in slow motion and your rope is not long enough to get to him.

Comment By : feelinghelpless

* To ‘feelinghelpless’: Your situation is a challenging one. It’s so hard when you’re being empowered, reaching out for help, and you just keep bumping into walls. When kids are involved with drugs, we always see that as a sign that local support is going to be a necessary piece of the solution to the behavior problems. If you haven’t already looked into some substance abuse treatment, we suggest doing that next. Considering that your son has a diagnosis of manic depression, he might benefit from evaluation by a professional in a dual-diagnosis program (a program that treats substance abuse issues and mental health issues simultaneously). If you keep running into the same wall—the one that says you can’t enter your son into treatment against his own will—keep going, keep looking for more supports. Some states have prevention programs through the Department of Juvenile Justice known as Children or Families in Need of Services (CINS/FINS). This might be something to talk to the school resource officer or your local law enforcement team about. You can also search for additional local services by calling 211. 211 is an information and referral service that is available in more than 80% of your state. You can access the service by dialing 2-1-1 from your phone or by visiting and entering your zip code to find the website for your local 211 provider. In summary, keep doing what you’re doing and hang in there. You are doing a great job. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too, in this process. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

My 16 year old teen is great everywhere but school. I am at a loss as to what to do to change this behaviour. My husband and I have tried different schools and different approaches to this issue. I have done what the article has suggested and I still find that I am unable to get him to go to class. I was wondering if there was something else that I can do. He currently sits with a grade 9 education and I would like to see him graduate. I know tha he will not be a scholar but I would like a diploma at least. Help!!! Thanks Kym

Comment By : Kym

* Hi ‘Kym’: It can be frustrating when you feel you have tried everything, and your son still isn’t changing his behavior. Debbie Pincus talks a lot about the concept of “boxes”; that is, what is your responsibility and what is your son’s responsibility. Ultimately, it is your son’s responsibility to go to class, and you can hold him accountable if he is not. For example, you might let him know that if he attends class that day, he can have his cell phone after school hours; if he doesn’t, then that privilege is suspended for that day. I am attaching other articles by Debbie that you might find helpful: Unmotivated Child? 6 Ways to Get Your Child Going, Calm Parenting: Stop Letting Your Child's Behavior Make You Crazy. Good luck to you and your family as you work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

This article really helped organize my thoughts into manageable pieces to help me with my son. He is only 13 but is already showing signs of being a very difficult teenager. That seems fitting since he's been a difficult child as well. He has a lot of diagnoses, but basically he has the cognitive ability of a 20 year old and the social-emotional capacity of a 10 year old. All of this is in the body of a 13 year old, raging with hormones. He understands and can articulate so much but emotionally he just doesn't respond to consequences. He just doesn't CARE! He never, ever thinks to himself "I better not do this or mom and dad will do x,y or z" Instead, he just throws himself off the cliff. We've tried medication, therapy, interventions of every kind. The rough part is that he is often able to outsmart the therapists. He has a brilliant mind and a good heart and so much potential, but his oppositional antics at school and his violent outbursts (verbal, not physical) will really hold him back. Talk about throwing it all away! I don't care if he's number one in his class or even on the honor roll, but I do want to see him taking more interest in treating people with respect and realizing that interpersonal relationships are at least as important as intelligence. Unfortunately, that seems to be a lesson only time and experience can allow.

Comment By : Eileen

I have a 17yr.old son.he is sensitive,talented..Very kind young man.Marajuana has a huge hold on him..I am doing everything I can for him.Counciling,communication with him,we are starting a new therapist for substance abuse.He has taken money from me,lied and his mood can be angry.It is sad to see him likethis.I am exhuasted,and when he is out..I worry.His dad and I are divorced,since 6yrs.ago.I want to trust my son,but I can't right now.His Brother who is just a year younger,is worried as well.My sons argue alot,our house is not a happy one @ this point.

Comment By : singlemom

I have a daughter who just turned 20 this past October. She is currently expecting her first baby this summer. She is not with the father of the baby anymore and he doesn't know about the baby either. My problem is that my daughter is a smart girl but she just gets caught up in bad situations and me as a mother always finds myself helping or protecting her from them. My question is how long do I continue to protect her from the choices that she makes and then later have her make them again? Do I tell her that maybe she and the father of the baby need to work things out?

Comment By : concernedparent

* To ‘concernedparent’: This is a really tough situation. There seems to be a part of you that thinks it will be beneficial for your daughter and your grandchild to have the father in their lives. Ultimately, what you say to your daughter is up to you. Keep in mind that your daughter will make her own choices and she may need you to let her make her own mistakes in order to learn some valuable (though hard) lessons. Debbie Pincus, in her article about adult children, recommends that when you have an adult child you shift your role from that of a manager to that of a consultant. She encourages parents to take care of themselves when they are struggling with the kinds of choices their children are making. After all, the only thing you really can control is yourself and how you interact with your daughter as she continues to struggle and grow. Here’s an article by Debbie, which I think will be very helpful to you: Adult Children Living at Home? How to Manage without Going Crazy. We wish you and your family luck as you work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

where do I start...My 16 year old daughter is sneaking out of school at lunch to smoke pot. I also just found out that she sent racy pics to a boy on line. She is a good hearted kid but she's tearing our family apart with the choices she's making. We've tried grounding her, reasoning with her and counselling, obviously since she is still behaving the same way none of these options are working. Her biological dad left several years ago and wants nothing to do with her which she likes to blame some of her behaviour on. Her step dad and I have over compensated in the past making sure she has always had everything she ever needed and more. She just can't seem to understand that her actions affect those around as well. I honestly am at a loss as to what to do next. Any help would be appreciated.

Comment By : worried mom

* To ‘worried mom’: It sounds like your daughter has been engaging in some pretty risky behaviors lately. It’s also helpful to keep in mind that teenagers view the world in a very different way than adults—they tend to be pretty egocentric and their sense of empathy for others is not yet fully developed. That said, a good place to start here might be with the substance use. Whenever children are involved with using drugs, it can really cause their problem solving skills to break down, leading to an increase in poor decision-making in other areas. We recommend that you check in with someone in your local area for support through this. Here are some links to help you find that: & You might also want to check out these articles here on EP:
My Child Is Using Drugs or Drinking Alcohol—What Should I Do?
Risky Teen Behavior: Can You Trust Your Child Again?
We know this is a confusing time and we wish you luck as you work through it. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I just brought my 18 yo college freshman home from school for good. He failed both fall and winter quarters. He didn't follow through with seeing advisors, counselors, or tutors; never did laundry; and would only return email and messages if I put a reference to $$$ in them. He did, however, learn about the party scene. We have thrown away 2 quarters of college tuition and he has nothing to show for it. This is a smart, talented kid. His affect is flat and all he wants to do is compose music on the computer. I am taking him for a psychiatric eval to rule out Adult ADHD and depression. I am not convinced that he thinks there is anything wrong to fix. I won't send him away to school again, unless he can show that he is mature enough to be there for the education. I really feel the grief of this loss, I was so proud and happy to be able to send him to the school he wanted to go to. Now, I have to parent this "other" child, that I don't really like that much right now.

Comment By : lookingforthelight

My experience is just about identical to that of lookingforthelight. He is 20 now, has been back at home for a year, at community college. His grades are poor, he seems to have no idea what he even MAY want to do with his life, only composes music on the computer, a few video games...we are at our wits' end. Please help--advice needed badly.

Comment By : Tired and worried

* Dear “Tired and worried”: Thank you for taking the time to share your story and reaching out for support. It can be extremely frustrating when you spend 18 years raising your son and teaching him the skills he will need as an adult only to have him turn around and come back home after trying to live on his own for a year. We speak to many parents in similar situations on the Parental Support Line. What we generally recommend to parents is to focus on establishing firm expectations and boundaries and focusing on what you can control. In his three part article series on adult children living at home, James Lehman suggests parents develop a living agreement with their adult children. This is basically a contract in which you outline what the expectations will be for your son to continue living in your home and what the consequences will be if he doesn’t meet those expectations. The first article in the series is Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part I. There are many great ideas and suggestions James makes in these articles that could be of definite help in your situation. We wish you and your family luck as you work through this frustrating issue. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

I'm the child and now I'm 57 and mom died last June, but I can definitely see differences in how my mom and dad have handled things and your idea of making rules and consequences definite and hanging in there and parents not freaking but being consistent. I tend to connect my $30K video store salary with alchohol abuse on the part of my folks and a pretty liberal lifestyle and I can harldy imagine them offering that there will be definite consequences. They used to be more like, "Have a nice time and don't do anything stupid." -when I think they knew I was doing drugs all along. They seemed to be the composer of "Love is all you need", but sometimes love can be clothed in a reasonable amount of household rules. Now, as a last resort, I thought about what the common denominator was in all that I did that would get me back into the psycho wards and all and it became obvious that one simple thing I could do was to abide by the law as "old hat" as that seems. It has worked, but I'm still turing over stones for clues to how I could get further, this after having and being treated for hepatitis C. Thank you for your writings for what good I can glean from them.

Comment By : Shembo

We are hoping for some advice and some commentary. Our 17 year old daughter is working really hard at throwing her life away. She came to live with us in July. It took a while for us to figure out the games she was playing and the lies she was telling, but once we did, we started cracking down on her. She is ODD and BPD. One day she wanted to go out, while she was grounded, and I told her she couldn't, she stormed out anyway and announced she was moving out. I told her she could come back that night, or the following night, but after that, she didn't live here anymore. She bounced around a bit, had a great time doing drugs, and we got a call 5 days later, she wanted to come home. I told her it was too late, she was staying with her brother at that time. She wound up moving back east to live with her father. When her mother and I were to be married, we sent her a ticket to fly here and attend, but as soon as she got the ticket, she ran away from home there. We found out, and cancelled her ticket. Now she desperately wants to come here so she can live on a reserve with a friend and collect welfare. Not interested in getting a job or finishing school, just sitting around and hanging with her friends, drinking, doing drugs, cutting herself, all the good things.With her out of the house and over 1000 km away, there's little we can do. Any ideas?

Comment By : perplexed

* To “perplexed”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. I can hear how distressed you are with the choices your daughter is making. I can understand how it feels as if there is little you can do to help her turn things around. As Debbie points out in the article, it’s important first and foremost to establish clear boundaries. From your narrative, it sounds like you have done that very well. By not allowing her to move back in, you’ve established a very firm, clear boundary as to what you would or would not do for your daughter, what behavior you would or would not tolerate. At this point, it’s going to be difficult to hold her accountable for her choices due to the circumstances of your situation. This is where the natural consequences for her choices can have the most influence on her future choices. As James Lehman discusses in his article Why You Should Let Your Child Fail The Benefits of Natural Consequences, the benefit of natural consequences is they allow your child to feel the discomfort of their choices. By not enabling or rescuing her from the situation she has gotten herself in, you’re actually allowing her to develop the skills necessary to turn her life around. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

My 18 yr old son is making poor choices and as a result he is getting into more and more trouble. Last night he came home high and informed us he had been in an accident but didn't remember the details. 10 min later the police were at our door informing us that he had hit a pole and fence and cited him for hit and run. Last month he got his marijuana card and now smokes pot all day. He said he took a xanax bar and passed out and doesn't remember the accident. He has been in front of a judge more than once for minor with alcohol and marijuana. My brother took him on a 'field trip' to a bunch of seedy motels and introduced him to all these people who had drug problems and they all said it started with pot. Some were missing teeth and had low paying jobs. Nothing seems to affect him. Last yr my bff's 23 yr old daughter was killed in an accident and he has seen the effects of her death on us all. But he still continues to make poor choices. He did graduate high school, but he doesn't have a job. Now he doesn't have transportation because his car is totaled. I've tried everything to get thru to this kid and it just scares me at what it's going to take for him to wake up. He might hurt himself, someone else, lose his freedom, etc. Nothing seems to faze him. So hard to love a child with issues and slowly watch them self destruct. It's heartbreaking.

Comment By : My3sons

I have been separated from my second husband for 5 years. I have 6 children. Four of the 6 are grown with kids of their own except one of them. Three of them have chosen to work in restaurants or convenience stores, and barely make a living. I have two daughters left at home ages 17 and 16. As my four oldest have told me that their lives are the way they are because of me being too strict on them (not letting them run the streets and going to church) I have been a lot more liberal with the other two. My 17 year old daughter keeps telling me she is too stressed out due to her 16 year old sister having Autism, so I let her go do more things with her friends. The 17 year old has a good head on her shoulders, and started planning to go to college in the 6th grade. By the 8th grade she had her major picked out. She has been very blessed with it all being laid out for her. A place to live during college where she will also be working and making money, and the funding for college. 2 1/2 years ago she started sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night. I had an officer talk to her and tell her about the curfew in our town. He told her if he saw her out after curfew, he would arrest her. I thought it would scare her into not going out after midnight. It did not. It scares me to death because I do not know where she is going or what she is doing. When I have caught her and ground her, she will ask during grounding if she can go do something with her friends. I say no, and she says she is going to do it anyway, and does. I have had her checked for depression. I have talked to the school counselor about working with her. I do not know what else to do. She knows if I tell her "if you think you can live on your own, go do it". She knows it will ruin all her chances for college. The funding is due to my disability and my father. I love this child and have been so proud of her achievements, but I do not know the one that is acting out now. Has she put too much pressure on herself? Does she deep down feel that I give more attention to the other one that requires more attention? I have asked her these questions, and she says no.

Comment By : Worriedsick

* To “Worriedsick”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. I can hear how distressing this situation is for you. It’s logical you would be concerned about how your daughter’s current behaviors and choices may affect her long range plans. Many parents of older teens would feel the same in your situation. It wouldn’t be possible for us to determine the factors behind your daughter’s choices. There could be any number of reasons she’s sneaking out at night and not following the expectations and rules you have for her. Regardless of the “why,” the bottom line is she’s not following the rules of the house or meeting expectations. At this point, we would suggest coming up with a plan for holding her accountable instead of trying to figure out the cause of her behavior. From what you have written, it seems like you are reluctant to call the police when she sneaks out because you are worried what this may do to her chances of going to college. If calling the police when she sneaks out after curfew isn’t something you would be willing to follow through with, it would be beneficial to come up with another, fail-proof consequence for her choices. A fail-proof consequence is a consequence you have full control over. In your case, grounding may not be effective because it’s not possible to make her stay home. Instead, you might consider grounding her from a privilege, such as cell phone or car, until she stays home for three days in a row. There is a great 2 part article series by Debbie Pincus you may find helpful. You can find it by clicking on these links: Adult Children Living at Home? How to Manage without Going Crazy & Adult Children Living at Home? Part II: 9 Rules to Help You Maintain Sanity. Keep in mind whether or not your daughter ends up going to college is ultimately her responsibility and concern. If she continues to make choices that run counter to that outcome, she is the one who is responsible for how things turn out. Your job as a parent is to help her learn the skills necessary to be a responsible adult. What she does with those tools is her choice. We wish you the best as you continue to work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

My 17 year old son is very bright and can gets grades of high 80's with little or no effort. He works a part-time job but has shown very little motivation towards college. His friends are very similar in terms of lack of motivation - they do very poorly academically, get into minor trouble at school and just want to have a good time. My son was a late bloomer socially and just seems to gravitate towards this group of underachievers. They all will be attending our local community college -- as that is their only option. My son could do better and attend college elsewhere, but has done nothing to facilitate this. I hate to keep advocating for him, but if I didn't force him he wouldn't even take the SAT's. He seems to think he can just get by on "good enough" when he's really capable of so much more. I hate to see him in what I call "13th grade" with these kids. I don't want to sound snobby but they come from a lower economic background and many of their parents aren't as educated. All are very nice, but they are just hoping their kids even graduate. I have been told from school/parents that he's been a good influence on some of these kids, but while he may be bringing them up, he's being pulled down.Like I said, they're not bad kids (no drugs, occasional drinking) but no real motivation/aspirations!We've tried to get him into other activities/groups/sports but he only seems to feel in his element with this group. He has no interest in going away to college, either. He simply lives in the moment and we can't seem to get him to think ahead. Help!

Comment By : Mom of Good Enough to Just Get By

* To Mom of Good Enough to Just Get By: It is so trying when you have a child who does the bare minimum to get by, especially when you know that he is able to achieve better things. I hear your frustration with his choice of friends, and your feeling that they are bringing him down to their level. Here’s the truth, though: you cannot control your son, and you cannot control his friends. Your son likely feels as though he has a connection with his friends, and he is getting something out of this friendship, or else it would not continue. We do not recommend forbidding your son from seeing his friends, but you can set some structure around the time that he spends with them. Ultimately, the only person you can control is yourself, and your actions. As Debbie reminds us, when you need something from your child, you put yourself in a vulnerable position because your child doesn’t have to give it to you. It may be helpful for you to think about your responsibilities, and what belongs to your son. It is also useful to work through these difficult feelings surrounding your son’s choices so you aren’t parenting from an anxious place. I am including links to some other articles I think you might find helpful. Take care and we wish you the best as you continue to work through this with your son. Anxious Parenting: Do You Worry about Your Child's Behavior?
Does Your Child Have "Toxic" Friends? 6 Ways to Deal with the Wrong Crowd

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

What do you do when your 18 yr. old looks you in the face and say "I'm not doing your punishment. I AM going out tonight with my friends and NO I AM NOT coming home tonight." The punishment was for breaking a house rule of being home on a school night at 10pm. And lied about where she was so she could stay out later. Punishment was to stay home all day and night on a Friday. Then she would have served the consequence, which she was away of before she broke the house rule.

Comment By : Exhausted and fed up.

* To “Exhausted and fed up”: Thank you for writing in and asking such a great question. It can be a challenge to know how best to hold an adult child accountable for the choices she makes. You might find it more effective to use a fail proof consequence to hold your daughter accountable for her behaviors. A fail proof consequence is one you have complete control over, maybe something like her cell phone or driving privileges. It’s probably not going to be effective to try to make her stay home, especially if she is just going to go out whether she has your permission or not. You might consider saying something to your daughter like “Whether you agree with our rules or not, we still expect you to follow them. When you show us you can come in on time for 3 nights in a row, then you can have your driving privileges back.” If she doesn’t have driving privileges, use one of the other privileges she may have, such as cell phone or her computer. Be as calm and business like as possible when you have this conversation and try not to get pulled into an argument or power struggle. You may not be able to control the choices your daughter makes but you can control how you respond to them. By using consequences you have control over, you will be better able to hold her accountable. Good luck to you and your family. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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