Sixteen-year-old Kaitlyn was a very unpleasant child. She came and went as she pleased. When she wasn't ignoring her parents, she was nasty and swore a lot. All she wanted to do was hang out with her questionable and considerably older friends. Kaitlyn smoked, drank and was definitely into drugs. She was failing school and had been in trouble with the law on a number of occasions. She was not your normal inconsiderate teen – she was a big step beyond.
"Where did I go wrong?" her mother wondered.
Eighteen-year-old Ethan spent all his time in the basement playing video games or going to who knows what websites. He participated in nothing that went on in his house. He spent time with a couple of friends who similarly lacked ambition to do anything with their lives. He was now out of school – he hadn't graduated, but was able to keep his parents off his back by having a part-time job that gave him pocket money and a minimal contribution for food and upkeep.
"Where did I go wrong?" his father asked.
Let's say that the children's parents had sought every kind of help that they could think of, but nothing had seemed to work. Their teens seemed stuck.
Some children can reach a point where they do not seem to be going anywhere good. With such children it is normal for parents to feel a sense of despair, failure, self-blame.
"I don't know, I did my best, but clearly I failed," Kaitlyn's mother says. "Obviously I was not a good mother. Maybe I let her get away with too much. Maybe I went back to work too soon when she was little. I don't know."
"Maybe I set expectations too high for Ethan," his father thinks. "Maybe I didn't fully accept him for who he is. Maybe he felt like I loved his sister more than him. Maybe I was too strict. I know I got angry at him a lot."
Such parents are not helped by the prevailing sense in our society that if a kid is no good, it is Mom and Dad's fault. "Look at Kaitlyn. Her parents just dropped the ball."
"It's a disgrace about how Ethan's parents raised him. What a waste."
I am not so sure that it is always the parents' fault. Over my years as a practising psychologist counselling children and their parents, I have seen a lot of teenagers who do not seem to be going in a good direction. Yet it has always struck me that the vast majority of their parents seem like nice people. They want what is best for their children. They make mistakes, but so does every parent. They simply do not seem to be doing anything so terribly wrong that would have led to their children being as they are.
There is much that parenting does that shapes a child. But so too does the world they live in and the individual temperament of any given child.
I believe that if you can look at yourself and say that you have loved your kid, shown them care and support, if you can say that you have tried your best to get them to act considerately toward others, and to do what they need to in order to make an independent life for themselves, you have done your job.
It is what most parents do and it works.
If your kid seems set in a place far from what you had wished, don't worry about what you did or didn't do wrong. They are who they are now. Do what you can to help them – if they are interested. But mainly deal with the present – which is how to live in the same house as best as you can, so that they do not intrude too much on your having a nice life. Or maybe you can't live under the same roof.
But regardless, you want to keep doing one thing that you have been doing all along, which is giving them love – if they can tolerate it on your terms – and being there as their parent. The offer is there forever. There can still be a nice place for them in your life.
And maybe as time goes on they get their life together. Maybe they don't. But maybe too as they get older – and they know that things can be nice when they are with you – you can have a relationship. Even a pretty good relationship. And of course many of us whose lives worked out pretty well weren't exactly superstars in high school.
But for now, especially, as you find ways to accept that your children aren't going in the direction you wanted for them, it's good to have people to talk to who don't judge. It's good to have friends in the trenches, whose kids maybe aren't doing so hot either, to share war stories with.
"What your Kaitlyn did was nothing. Let me tell you what Brianna said to me this morning."
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of several parenting books.