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Advice for Parents of Teenagers in Trouble

If you have teenagers living in your home, even if it’s only on weekends, then you already know how hard it is to maintain structure, set limits, and make sure they avoid trouble. They may not look or act like you remember them at five or six, but as much as they’ve changed, they’re still children. And while they might sulk while texting their friends and not talking to you, while they might scoff at your advice or even openly defy it, they still look to their parents for guidance and as role models.

As parents, the first goal should be to determine what “normal” is for your particular adolescent. Some kids don’t seem to change much at all from middle to high school; some dye their hair pink and pierce multiple body parts without permission. And many of those trouble-free kids in high school will start acting out in college once they are out from under watchful eyes of Mom and Dad. Over the years of representing teens who have been charged with crimes, I have discovered that most parents don’t fully appreciate the normal and expected turbulence that comes with a teenager.

The adolescent world is full of paradoxes. The typical American teen is selfish but dependent, moody while aloof, predictably unpredictable, and surly yet insecure. So, you have to factor that into your assessment of your home life.

In our professional practice, we work with adolescent psychologists, substance abuse counselors, and behavioral therapists who can help prosecutors and judges understand the difficult transitions of the teenage years. I personally, and repeatedly, have come to understand the major transition in graduating from eighth or ninth grade to high school. As an eighth or ninth grader, your teen was one of the oldest in school, completely familiar with the daily routine and the subtle nuances within each peer group. Now, that teen is met with awesome change: a brand new and much larger school, a lack of understanding of the “rules” of high school (especially the unwritten ones), and the emotional and mental stress associated with being a guppy in a pond full of larger fish. Lunch period, for example, becomes one of the most stressful experiences for a freshman. A daily battle is finding a “safe” group to eat with to avoid eating alone is perhaps the single worst experience for a 14-year-old or 15-year-old.

The importance of your child picking the right peer group to “fit in” with can’t be overstated, both for his or her well-being and yours. Your teen’s peer group will steer him or her into or out of harm’s way. Freshman year tends to introduce kids to alcohol (and marijuana), an elevated sexual awareness, and increased self-consciousness. This perfect storm will cause even the most humble child to become a self-absorbed teen. This is not a graceful transition for most households. On the rare occasions that your child opens up to you, be patient and use your best listening skills.

As they progress through high school, teens are gaining momentum and are being invited to upper class parties (or hosting their own). They are also out on the road: drinking and driving around with friends, going to fields, closed roads, and parks to get out from under the watchful eyes of parents. This feeling of independence and freedom can be overwhelming for some teens, and they can exercise very poor judgment. They take risks that most adults wouldn’t, leading to fights, sexual assaults, property crimes, and DWI.

By junior year, body image awareness is in full blossom. The stressors American teens go through to look a certain way can be very unhealthy and cloud judgment. Girls may not eat well (or purge) while boys take nonapproved supplements (or even steroids). Alcohol and drug experimentation and high-risk behavior tend to increase. By age 17, it is quite normal for teens to reject parental values and not respect authority figures. By junior year, most teens have no hesitation identifying hypocrisy in their parents, schools, or any other authority figure that they are supposed to respect. Their search for individuality and increased freedom are the reasons behind this.

Their insight into their own parents as human beings with shortcomings becomes fodder for arguments. This revelation has a chilling effect on parent-child dynamic. Parents must see past these personal attacks and remain focused on finishing the last two years of raising the teen.

It is generally not advisable for parents to admit their own use of alcohol or drugs because this information will not only surprise teens, it will make them feel more comfortable in experimenting or using on a regular basis.

By senior year in high school, most teens are quite comfortable at school, the reality sets in that they are almost out of the house and on their own, and they should start to get a handle on who they really are. By the end of 12th grade, they tend to start to repair the relationships with parents (and other family members) and set the stage for their “new relationship” with their folks.

Senior year is full of alcohol in most social situations. Driving is no longer new and nerve-wracking, which leads to more reckless driving and inattentiveness. Drinking and driving needs to be met firmly and sternly, for example, “If you are drinking and drive home, you will not see your car again until you graduate. We guarantee it.” We even suggest that you write this pledge down and have your son or daughter sign the “agreement.” However, you must also offer them amnesty if they call you for a ride home (i.e. no questions asked) after drinking.

For parents, the issue is how to set limits. If you give too much leeway, teens will rush past the implied limits. However, if you push too many restrictions on them, the teen will rebel. Parents need to understand that lying is part of adolescence. It is temporary, but deception is a necessity for most teens to experiment with drugs and alcohol as well as to engage in “fun” high-risk behavior.

The problem is that once parents catch their teen lying, the parents do not know where the truth is. Parents begin to question nearly everything their teen is doing, either to their face or behind their back. This nags at the teen and makes the household dynamic even more difficult.

The answer is actually pretty straightforward according to many experts. If teens want more independence and personal decision making then they will need to feel the “natural consequences” for those very decisions. As the parent, it is your duty to enforce the rules of the household upon your teen, especially when you know he or she will overreact to the penalty. As you’ve known since your child was a toddler, kids crave discipline and boundaries. We all do better when the rules are clear.

The enforcement side of having a teen is, of course, hard to stomach for many parents. In the short term, it might be easier to let the teen continue to run the house and dictate your mood. But in the long run this is horrible for his or her personal development. Accountability and personal responsibility are the keys to adult success.

In my professional practice, I have had many parents explicitly or implicitly request that I set the boundaries of their teen for them. Once a teen gets charged with a crime, parents tend to over-analyze the situation. They don’t have a good grasp on how superficial or deep the problems are. Parents look to others for help in this situation, whether that is a friend who is a policeman, lawyer, judge, or therapist. Punishment at home remains the sole province of the parents, however.

The idea of punishment is to (a) deter future conduct, (b) define when trust is restored, and (c) allows the teen to move on and away from the guilt associated with this transgression. It must be fair. It can be neither an emotional response nor arbitrary. It must be naturally related to the transgression. Seek agreement from your teens that they violated your trust. Avoid lecturing, as it often falls on deaf ears. Give them a clear and concise statement of your expectations of them, specifically tell them what they did to violate those expectations and how you plan to punish them. Experts agree you must resist the temptation to reduce or eliminate the penalty. You must, for the sake of your teen, stay the course, impose the full penalty, and do not change your mind later.

When I am advising teens and parents, I remind them that 90 percent of teens who get caught drinking and smoking don’t turn into adult addicts. Ninety-nine out of 100 of these teens will move up the ladder of life. There is a teen somewhere in America right now who is drinking alcohol (or inhaling) on the weekend at parties who will be elected President one day.

If you have a teen charged with a misdemeanor or felony in Queens, Brooklyn or on Long Island and would like to hire Mr. Brill, please call 888-315-9841 (including evenings, weekends, and holidays).

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