No topic was a no-go zone. This was how Vivienne and Eric safeguarded their family from the typical dangers associated with rearing two lively young teenagers.
The proliferation of drugs and promiscuous sex at their local school was a regular dinnertime conversation. Sometimes Vivienne and Eric would have to make a concerted effort to hide their natural expressions of shock in reaction to some of the stories their children told them about the troubled teens they knew. They were immeasurably lucky they thought. They were completely unprepared when the bomb dropped. Yes it was true that their angel daughter had become increasingly irascible and uncooperative but isn’t that the way that teenager’s behave – a kind of terrible twos for teenagers?
The term ‘troubled teens’ was still a remote concept to them. And it was true that she had lost weight but then she had always wanted to be thinner. She didn’t eat much but they imagined that the life of a teenager was consuming in other ways. Jillian finally told them, in a round about way. Nothing could have prepared them for the impact of it.
One evening their daughter became distraught and begged them to send her away to stop smoking. They were furious. They didn’t even know Jillian smoked. ‘Why do you need to go away to stop smoking’ they wanted to know. They were genuinely puzzled. Their daughter still could hardly be described as one of the quintessential troubled teens.
Jillian beat around the bush and cried some more but finally she admitted: she had been sniffing increasingly large doses of cocaine regularly for the last six months. Vivienne and Eric felt their world turn upside down. The sense of falling from a place of safety, of spiraling down into a kind of underworld haunted by troubled teens, would color their days for the next crucial six months.
This is not an easy story to hear. Most of us want to read through a series of informative bullet points on how to be good enough parents so that we can prevent our children from becoming one of the growing numbers of troubled teens. What Vivienne and Eric learnt was that there were no guarantees. They knew they were not a typical family. They knew they had made a concerted effort to keep the lines of communication wide open. What had gone wrong? Vivienne could never really say.
Jillian used to tell her group of similarly troubled teens at the rehab center that she had always told her parents everything. Everything — except for the last six months. Jillian was unusual in that she had not drunk alcohol, smoked cigarettes or taken any form of drugs before her experience with cocaine. Her story is one of the ‘good girl’ always out on the fringes, unable to find a wholesome good time. Jillian began taking cocaine to show her classmates that she could not only be bad, but she could be really bad.
Schools are filled with troubled teens but even Jillian’s Goth, anti-everything friends became afraid for her. It was their admonishments that finally drove her to tell her parents and come clean. Jillian had been terribly lonely, lost on the fringes of a world filled with troubled teens acting out.
She had also been good at presenting a cheerful, coping face to her family. Because Vivienne and Eric liked to believe she was happy they took her valiant efforts to act balanced and normal at face value. Now, Vivienne says, that it takes incredible maturity to look past the ideal family circumstances that you believe in and want to be a part of. It takes courage to look beyond the front everyone has to present to the world. It takes knowing that no-one is immune to look beyond the surface into the desolate land of troubled teens.
Communication in a family normally runs along well-worn paths. Jillian’s family spoke easily about the problems of other troubled teens. They were less able to admit their own problems. It was easy to strip the protective coating off the stereotypical teenage issues but more difficult to shed their own in order to achieve the kind of intimacy that allows one human being to confess to another the frightening thought that he or she might need help.
It is several years later and Jillian is a beautiful young college student who has finally found friends that she can be herself with. She benefited a great deal from her sojourn with other troubled teens at the rehab center. In the safety of that environment she learnt the profound lessons of the 12-step program. She attributes her recovery to her family’s insistence on believing in her and their unflagging support.
Troubled teens are more prolific than ever. One of the most significant things a parent can do is to provide a home environment that embraces all the aspects of what it is to be human and not just the socially acceptable ones. Your teenager may be fragile and needing an opportunity to confide that to you. Show your vulnerabilities. That is the best way to provide an environment where honesty can flourish.