Parenting a Struggling Teen: Learning How to Cope with Shame and Isolation This Emotional Life - PBS

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Adolescence / Blog

 Frederic Reamer Ph.D.

Frederic Reamer Ph.D.'s Bio

Dr. Reamer is a professor in the Graduate Social Work Program at Rhode Island College.

Parenting a Struggling Teen: Learning How to Cope with Shame and Isolation


Parents of struggling teens know the unparalleled pain associated with unwelcome news that their child is in some kind of trouble.  They are all too used to telephone calls from the school guidance counselor, teacher, vice principal, police, or summer camp director that begin with something like, “We need to talk – it seems we have a serious problem here with your child.”  Parents of struggling teens usually have a large collection of stories about their trips to school, the summer program, police station, or elsewhere for yet another meeting to talk about their child’s mischief, distress, inappropriate behavior, or poor performance.  Meeting after meeting is filled with hand wringing and earnest efforts to help the teen get back on track.  Professionals and parents either lock horns or put their heads together in an attempt to provide the teen with useful supports, incentives, and appropriate sanctions.

In each instance parents may feel shame, disappointment, sadness, frustration, fear, and anger.  Parents may wonder, “Why us?” particularly as they scan school hallways and friends’ homes and see countless other teenagers who seem to be able to avoid these troubles.  “Why can’t our kid be like all those other kids?” they think.  Over time, parents of struggling teens may find it difficult to socialize with other parents whose children seem to skate through adolescence without any significant spill, win athletic academic awards and athletic trophies, star in school plays, volunteer in hospitals, achieve high scores on their SATs, and win admission to prestigious colleges and universities.

The reality, of course, is that most parents encounter rough spots – some deeper and wider than others – with their teenagers.  Some parents whose children get into trouble feel so much shame that they find it hard to acknowledge their situation publicly and imagine that they are the only ones in such dire straits.  Gradually they isolate themselves, perhaps limiting their social contact to a few select parents in similar circumstances.

Parents of struggling teens often find it helpful to acknowledge their “situation” with a few trustworthy, nonjudgmental friends, including friends whose teenagers are not struggling.  Storing up and holding in one’s pain and frustration can be debilitating and, ultimately, self-destructive.  Sharing one’s plight with sensitive and supportive friends can provide much-needed solace.