A Tale of Two Teenagers

Hard to believe, Amy loves the Army.  She’s in boot camp, enjoying lots of exercise, full days, new jargon to learn, and she even likes the lectures on Army protocol. It’s stressful to be sure; it’s supposed to be tough.  Some girls are fainting, some are washing out because they can’t hack it, some stay up too late and lose sleep. Amy has her eyes on the prize- graduating and moving up.  When she gets anxious, she swallows it and moves on. Uncharacteristic for her, she’s eating well and going to bed early.  Her parents are proud, not only for her accomplishment but for how far Amy has come.  Her life wasn’t always this way.

From an early age, Amy was having a rough go.  She had trouble paying attention in first grade, though she was highly intelligent.  She angered some teachers with her pointed, seemingly rude commentaries, though other teachers “got” her. She was tried on ADHD medications, which helped for a time, but then began causing side effects where Amy acted confused and panicky.  By high school, it was clear Amy was depressed.  She was sullen, didn’t get along with most of her classmates, and scraped out poor grades. Despite grasping the material, she just didn’t care enough to get papers in on time or study for tests.

Amy had no obvious reason for depression.  She had two loving, educated parents and two happy siblings.  At the first sign of trouble with attention or mood, she got the best doctors and therapists.  As Amy got older and was able to verbalize what was going on inside, it seemed her depression was “chemical:”  she was just born that way, with no external reasons like bullying or her looks.

Anti-depressant medication helped, as did continued counseling.  Her parents cheered her on through thick and thin, and as she got older Amy’s life began looking up.  College was much better than high school as far as academics and having friends. She had positive dreams for her future.  Joining the Army wasn’t her parents first choice; heck, even with a bachelor’s degree she enlisted rather than take on the responsibility of being an officer. But now they were singing a different tune.

Sharon has it much worse than Amy.  I saw Sharon in the Emergency Department last month.  She came by ambulance after being beaten by a gang of boys.  They ran up behind her, knocked her down, and kicked her repeatedly in the head and chest. There had apparently been some bad blood between Sharon’s friends and other factions in the neighborhood.

From our computer record I saw that Sharon had had a tough life already, though only 15 years-old. She had been seen by us twice for sexual assaults, another time for being beaten up, and once to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for suicidal thoughts. She came from a rough house in a rough neighborhood.  Her mom obviously had mental illness of her own, from the pressured speech of hyperactivity or drug use, to her peculiar tattoos.  Mom yelled a lot, at Sharon and us, though this seemed to be not from anger but how she usually spoke.

Certainly Sharon’s depression has not gotten the attention that Amy’s did.  Though she had been in hospital for depression, Sharon isn’t on anti-depressants and isn’t in counseling.  Chaos rules her home life: her father’s gone, and she bounces between mom’s and the homes of several other families. Her school and neighborhood aren’t safe.

Despite all this, I have some hope for Sharon.  Kids can be resilient, and Sharon still had an occasional smile and some spunk, despite what just happened.  Mom also did seem to care about her, as did an aunt with her who seemed more emotionally stable.  They agreed that counseling was a good idea, and to see her doctor about a psychiatric referral.

Some kids like Amy are born with depression.  Some like Sharon, besides having inborn depression, also have life stresses that contribute.  Both kids need attention- counseling and maybe medicine to get them through bad patches. If your kid seems depressed, telling them to buck up and act happier isn’t enough.  You should ask about suicidal thoughts, why he is depressed, and see his doctor.  Depression is rough, so better that your kid gets the attention that Amy got, rather than Sharon’s. 

Unreasonable Teens, Unreasonable Parents (Hamiltons included)

Every so often a parent brings their teenager to the Emergency Department for a drug test.  The parent is suspicious that their teen is using drugs, even if the teenager denies it.  There is obvious tension in the air between the two.  We politely tell the parents that we can not legally or ethically make teens take drug tests (or pregnancy tests either).  If the teen doesn’t want the test, we can’t make them do it.  What would the parent have us do- hold their adult-sized kid down and catheterize him or her for their urine sample? 

Communication break-downs between parents and teens lead to a lot of miserable ED visits.  Problems with honestly discussing drug use, and trusting each other, lead to the trouble above.  Even worse, mistrust and anger between kids and parents can lead to depression, violence between parents and kids, and teen suicide.  Teen years are tough enough, and it is even tougher when the teen can’t rely on his folks for sympathy.

We all know teenage years are difficult.  New hormones lead to mood swings, love sickness, feelings of awkwardness as the body grows and changes and breaks out in sweat and zits.  Inside that big, lumbering body is a brain swinging from wisdom to toddler tantrum, and back.  Stresses of school, the meaning of life, sleep deprivation, fitting in, all take a toll.  Little problems to an experienced adult are new, huge problems to a teenager.

Parents respond to their stressed teenager in two ways.  Parents at their best are understanding, forgiving, and patient.  The other response is anger; anger at the teen’s whining, misbehavior, and snappishness.  We condemn our teens for bad grades, slowness to do chores or find a job, and inappropriate clothes.  Parents often show both understanding and anger in the same day, or the same hour.  I sure do with my three teenagers.

The trick is to be more of the first, less of the second.  If you are angry, walk away and cool off before you say hurtful things.  Pick your battles- having it out with them over drugs and alcohol is much more important than dogging them about their clothes, or manners, or speech. 

Most importantly, rewards are more important than punishment.  Finding something (anything!) to compliment your teen about will get you much farther with them than grounding them for a month for denting the car.  I’m not saying don’t discipline your teen- only that the punishment should be fair and the compliments kind.  Everyone likes to have nice things said to them like “Good job cleaning the kitchen,” or ”your hair looks great.”  Everyone feels wronged when having privileges taken away for mistakes, especially when the mistake was an accident and not intentional. 

So parents, next time you get really angry at your teen, back off.  Don’t let anger and a loose tongue wound your relationship with your kid.  Cool off, be calm, and remember that your love for your child is more important than your own righteousness. 

Got that, Scott?