When is it Time?
By Lon Woodbury
Reprinted with permission
Perhaps the most confusing question faced by parents of a struggling teen is when the behavior has reached the point where a short or long-term residential option should be considered. Contrary to a popular misconception, relatively few parents just want to "send their kid away." In my practice, the decision to enroll a child in a residential school or program is usually a gut-wrenching experience that brings a parent face to face with feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, self-recriminations, and makes them vulnerable to criticism by friends, family and community who judge but don't understand. Actually, the easiest decision, in the short-term, is to reject the residential option and try another round of counselors, rules, contracts with their teen, groundings, punishments, etc. That decision to do more of the same seems the easiest in the short-term, but can be the hardest in the long term because of the likelihood of watching their child self-destruct without exercising a parent's prime responsibility, that of providing for the needs of their child, whatever they might be. "When is the child ready?" is an important question, but a more important question is, 'When are the parents ready?" When it is obvious that the child is on a downward spiral, with no indication of a change except their childish hopes and wishful promises, when behaviors are potentially endangering the future or even the life of their child, then for the sake of the child's safety and future, he or she has become a candidate for residential placement. That often is a straightforward question. Of course there are some gray areas at times: the parent may not be aware of some of the worse behaviors, or the child can act very destructively some of the time, but at other times is the sweet, loving child of bygone years. Yet when I ask clients what scares them about their child's future, they have a long list of concerns, and when I ask them what is happening that might indicate a change for the better, there is silence, or at best a slim hope that they will finally penetrate the barriers, which really only amounts to wishful thinking.
When most parents contact me for advice in finding a program, they admit they probably should have done this months or even years ago. With them, the problem wasn't a matter of waiting to reach the point when the child finally needed residential intervention. Instead, it was that the parents needed to work through their own rationalizations, denial, fear of criticism, or financial concerns. Often, their child had to do something so bizarre that it shocked the parents out of their wishful thinking and into action.
In educational consulting, parent readiness is a very important factor with which the consultant has to work. Sometimes even after a parent has finally called me, engaged my services, and actively developed a placement plan, they still hold back from actually enrolling their child in one of the recommended schools or programs. It is not uncommon for a parent to act on my recommendations a year or even two years after we talked and developed a detailed plan. The saddest situations are those in which parents did not take action after our conversations, and now that their child is of legal age and still doing self-destructive actions, the parents recognize it is too late.
To help some parents overcome their hesitations in making an enrollment decision, I recommend they set up a contract with their child. This tool is used almost universally by counselors as a way to help the child make better decisions, the idea being that if expectations are crystal clear, then the child is more likely to understand what is expected and will actually honor the agreements. Perhaps the contract does the job in many cases. I would know because most of my clients are parents who have established contracts, and watched the child sooner or later ignore the responsibilities the contract has outlined Sometimes all it takes is my questioning the circumstances, asking if they have any hope that another contract will do any better. Sometimes, when parents look at it from that perspective, they admit there is no hope another contract will improve things, which helps them push through their hesitations to become ready to take the next stronger intervention step, that of residential placement. In such a situation, if a contract is tried again, it can work in two ways. It gives both the child and the parents a second chance. If the child then breaks the contract, it is a clear statement that he or she was ready for something more. And, by clearly demonstrating the lack of response on the child's behalf, the parents are more ready to take action, as well. When there are broken contracts in the past, sometimes the parents still feel they are not ready, often out of a desire to be more than fair; a very important concept in our society. Or, they had not thought out what the consequences should be if their child breaks the contract. Trying to develop consequences on the fly, making decisions under pressure, can be very difficult and confusing. It causes the parents to feel the need to justify their actions and go to extreme lengths to understand their child's decisions, which can lead to paralyzed ineffectiveness on the part of the parents.
In these situations, I recommend that the parents make another contract, including only the most important elements, deciding in advance what consequences will result from breaking each part. It is important that the contract be reasonable, reflecting only the issues with which the parents are most concerned, behaviors that the parent knows are seriously self-destructive. For example, it would be unreasonable to think of residential placement if a child breaks the contract by missing curfew by only a half hour, but if he/she is out all night possibly partying with wild and irresponsible peers, then for that to be the last straw is a more reasonable consequence.
Looking at a contract in this way not only helps clarify whether there is a need for more serious intervention, and gives the child another chance; it also prepares the parent to be ready to take effective intervention action if the contract is broken. Setting up the contract in this way can be a win-win situation. If the child fills his/ her terms of the contract, then progress is being made in helping the child grow up successfully. If the child breaks the contract, then it helps the parents to be more decisive by making it crystal clear that the child is really ready for more serious intervention.
So, when is it time? It is time when the child's behavior is such that it has convinced the parents that their child needs more than can be provided within the family or by local resources.