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At Wit's End with 14-Year-Old Stepson

"Dear Aunt Traci,

I am at my wit's end with my 14-year old stepson. He is getting into trouble and I don't know what to do to stop it! He got kicked out of the after school program for getting into trouble too many times. He got an 5-day on campus suspension for being disrespectful to four of his teachers. He is getting into trouble everyday. Barely doing his chores. Mean to my kids. He's getting four Fs and a D in school. I already took his phone, video games, tablet, and have been trying my best to get him back on track for months. I don't know what else to do! What do you suggest?


Frazzled Frannie"

Dear Frazzled,

Oh, I feel your pain. I've raised two teenagers so far and have another one turning 13 in 6 months. I'm entering the Tunnel of Hell again, too.

I think the answer is two-fold. What to do about him, and what to do about you. First, let's look at your stepson.

When I was younger, a family member of mine had some trouble with drug and alcohol abuse, and as part of the treatment, we all had to attend Families Anonymous meetings. I was NOT happy about having to spend time with "those" kinds of people. I was expecting the meetings to be filled with the kinds of families you see on reality TV.

So, I walk into the first meeting reluctantly, and before I knew it, started to realize that it was filled with people just like me. Sure, there were some folks that looked like rejects from the WalMart people videos. But most of these people were educated, hard working, loving family members just like me, who happened to be struggling with someone in the family.

Over the months I attended that group, I began to realize one thing. Unless the person is a very young child, THEY are responsible for their own behavior. No one is "causing" the person to act a certain way.

Frazzled, YOU are not causing this. HE is. And that means that HE is the only one who can stop himself. He is getting some benefit from acting out this way, and until he stops getting the benefit of it, or the pain of it is worse than the benefit, he's going to keep doing it. Human beings are rational creatures and they behave pretty predictably, if you understand their frame.

Your stepson is probably angry at the world. There's not much you can do to shift that frame for him. He's just going to have to grow out of it, I'm afraid.

Now, on to you and what you can do. The best thing you can do is stay the course with enforcing consequences. Even though they don't seem to be working, keep at it. Keep taking things away, putting on the squeeze, for behaviors you don't want. And reward him for the behaviors that you do want.

But, here's the tricky part. DO NOT ENGAGE HIM. Don't get angry, cry, hurt, sucked into fights. He is thriving on being able to disrupt the family. When my oldest was a young teenager, I would envision a window going up between us, like a limo driver has. It helped me create a perceptual boundary between us that reminded me that this was HER issue and not mine.

Frazzled, don't let it get to you. This is all easier said than done, and there are a ton of resources and support groups out there who can help you realize that you are not alone. You can do this!

Even as kids reach adolescence, they need more than ever for us to watch over them. Adolescence is not about letting go. It's about hanging on during a very bumpy ride.

Ron Taffel

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