Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Tyranny of Troubled Teens

The New York Times ran an article today called “A Business Built on the Troubles of Teenagers”. Mildly interesting. It’s about families that have kids who are deemed to have some sort of behavior problem that requires professional help, at a cost of anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a month. So, in essence, it’s about rich families with troubled kids.

The one paragraph that really caught my attention was this one:

“The teenagers who attend these programs have often been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder or other behavioral problems and are taking medications. Some have used drugs or have been sexually abused. Many have been in trouble at school or in minor trouble with the law. Others have run away from home or stolen from their parents.”
Aside from the kids who are sexually abused, which I think would be a damn good reason for a kid to have a behavior problem, the rest of this list of problems that land the kids in Troubled Teen Camp seem pretty lame to me. Have you never used drugs? Did you never get into trouble at school? Have you never had minor trouble with the law? Did you ever run away? Or steal anything from your folks?

I have a theory. It is mine. It’s based on my own experience as a teenager, some 20 years ago; my experience as the mom of a kid who some people have labeled behavioral; and my experience as the step-aunt of a 16 year-old boy who’s back in juvie lock-down this summer, for a third time in three years.

Here’s the theory:

You take a pre-teen, say 9 or 10 years old. He’s misbehaving in school, goofing around too much. Teacher tells the parents to take the kid to see a doctor. Doctor says he has ADHD and prescribes a stimulant drug. The kid takes the drug, settles down to the teacher’s liking. All is good in the world.

Or not. What does that kid believe about himself, his emotions, his personality now? He’s going to believe that there is something wrong with him. Something about him that is not right and needs to be changed through psychotropic drugs. Drugs not unlike cocaine, by the way.

At 9 or 10, the kid has become a legal drug addict who understands that drugs change the way he feels and acts. He believes that drugs that alter his mood and personality are a good thing. The drugs make him more likable to his teachers and probably, to his parents as well.

This unspoken message to a young kid, that his personality needs to be adjusted with drugs, is probably not doing a whole hell of a lot to help him build healthy self-esteem.

A few years go by. The kid’s now 14. He’s rebellious despite the doctor-approved drugs he’s taking (or selling for $10 a pill to his classmates who know that grinding up Ritalin and snorting it provides a really good high).

His parents are on his case about some stupid thing so he runs away. In fact, he probably just stays a friend’s house without telling his folks.

And/Or he really wants some new Nikes but his mom won’t cough up, so he steals $60 from her wallet and buys the shoes.

And/Or he’s out with a gang of buddies and they stupidly think it would be a good idea to break into the corner store to steal some chips and beer.

Odds are, at 14, he hates school and is getting mediocre grades. Or worse, he hates school because he’s bored to tears and so he gets lippy with his most boring teacher. (In my neighbourhood there’s a program for teens who either quit or were kicked out of regular high school. Almost half of these kids test gifted.)

Is this a bad kid who needs to go to reform school, Troubled Teen Camp? Maybe some are. But the article indicates that this is a growing industry. Like the growing industry of putting our moody teens on antidepressants and our hyper kids on stimulants drugs. Quick fix band-aids that do nothing to address the root of the behavior. And in some cases, I’d argue, behavior that simply needs to be tolerated while the kid finds his natural place and voice in the world.

Kids aren’t easy to raise. Parents who expect their kids to behave perfectly all the time, to always follow (often stupid or arbitrary) rules, and never break (often stupid or outdated) laws, should not be allowed to parent. And parents who ditch their teens when they start to exhibit rebellious streaks, or their grades start to fall, or they get caught with pot, should be the ones sent to correctional camp. Especially those parents who model the behaviors they don’t want to see in their kids…but that’s a whole other rant.

I think our expectations for kids to act more mature than their natural ability, older than their age, has gone to an extreme. We can place the blame on many shoulders, but ultimately, it’s the parents who have to decide how to handle their challenging kids. And, in my opinion, making the decision to first drug then boot camp away the undesirable behavior, is much less humane than taking the time to listen to your kid’s reasons for acting up. In my experience (as a teen, a mom and an aunt) kids can have some pretty compelling reasons for acting the way they sometimes do.


Blogger Herbinator said...

This modern world requires a far higher degree of conformity than my world did. Damn glad I'm not a youth today ... I'd be lobotimized in short order.

August 18, 2005  
Blogger jon said...

After we paid for our kids summer camp activity we found it tough to recover! I totally agree with you!

October 02, 2005  
Blogger Kshitiz said...

Troubled teens always need support and secured environment. Without parents support troubled teenagers cannot live normal life. They need help. Parents should give maximum time in guiding struggling children.

September 26, 2007  

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