DR. WALLACE: Our 15-year-old son (my stepson) has run away from home twice in the past eight months. His father and I have tried to find out what's bothering him, but he won't open up. You seem to understand teen problems given your experience, so maybe you can at least help to enlighten us.
We love the boy and hate to see him so miserable. Somehow, I don't think we're doing anything to cause him to run away. But I will admit that we are very strict as parents, and my husband does threaten to use a belt occasionally to discipline him, even though he has not followed through yet. Any help will be appreciated. — Concerned parent, via email
CONCERNED PARENT: Thank you for contacting me concerning this delicate situation you are now in. The following is a list of several of the prime reasons why teens run away from home, according to federal research:
— "Poor communication with parents.
— "Existence or fear of child abuse, neglect or sexual exploitation.
— "Unreasonable demands or restrictions by parents.
— "School related problems.
— "Disruption within the family system" (could include divorce or threat of divorce, death or severe illness within the family, wage earners' loss of job).
— Rejection, abandonment or threat of abandonment by parents.
When you next talk to your son, try the gentle approach. Don't threaten him with physical punishment. This is absolutely unacceptable, even if your husband has no intention of following through with it. How would you feel if your husband made similar verbal threats to you? My point here is that it is no way to build trust and understanding — the two key elements parents need to establish and maintain with teens.
Young people can be very wary of opening up. Let your love for him come through in your conversation, not your anger with him. I suggest you and your husband sit down with this young man immediately and apologize to him for threatening to activate corporal punishment upon him. No matter what he did or was thinking of doing, your husband (and you, by extension) made a big mistake.
Admit to your son that you and your husband had no good answers at that time and it was a very poor decision to speak to him that way. Ask him to work with you to reset things among the three of you. Encourage him to speak first to tell you what is truly bothering him. Don't be judgmental or interrupt him at his time, just listen attentively and absorb information. Then seek to make him a part of the process of setting new rules and expectations. Yes, you can and should enforce mutually agreed-upon rules, but you and your husband need to rebuild trust via compassion at this point. Give this meeting a try right away.
If this meeting succeeds, congratulations on taking a great first step toward rebuilding mutual trust. Don't become complacent: Stay engaged and seek to avoid highs and lows when it comes to your son. A teen thrives when fair and reasonable rules are set and enforced fairly (and with flexibility when warranted). Your husband's iron will method obviously did not work, so drop that tone completely going forward. All of my advice here is much easier said than done — or implemented. Don't hesitate to immediately seek professional counseling at any point you note a stalemate or a regression in progress with your son.
I often say that parenting is the toughest job on earth and very hard to master completely. Your story illuminates both the challenges and strategies that relate to this most vital job. My best wishes go out to all three of you. Take action immediately.
Dr. Robert Wallace welcomes questions from readers. Although he is unable to reply to all of them individually, he will answer as many as possible in this column. Email him at [email protected] To find out more about Dr. Robert Wallace and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.