Suggestions and info regarding challenges for a wayward teen

I realize that this thread may find it’s way to IMHO, but I’m hoping to go for facts first, so GQ is where I’m starting.

I’ve got a friend who has a teen who seems to be drifting into trouble, the way teens without a compass can: poor grades, questionable friends, bad decisions. His parents are looking at putting him into a more structured school environment, but I’m wondering if he needs more challenges generally. I’d love to see suggestions regarding how to put him into situations where he can get challenged and grow a bit. You’re archetypal ‘guy in the woods, sink or swim, call on your inner resources’ kind of scenario. I’ve thought about katimavik - they’re in Canada - as well as Outward Bound, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and the French Foreign Legion. Some of these may not be appropriate for a 16 year old, n’est-ce pas? Although he’s physically 16, he’s much younger in the head, and there’s that lack of direction thing.

In addition to programs, any suggestions regarding mentorship, ways to keep aimless kids out of trouble, and similar ideas would be much appreciated. In particular any ideas for real challenges (the kind that come with real consequences) to keep him on-track on a day-to-day basis when he is at home would be very welcome.

How do you put a kid in a situation where they develop self-reliance and faith in their own abilities, and get them to take responsibility for the decisions they make?
Full disclosure: my husband, who is very very handsome and smart, typed some of this from my dictation as I talked and cooked. *

Hmm. I’ve never had experience with any of the boot camp or wilderness programs, so I cant really vouch for their effect.

The Army can be a good place to make a man, but it can also be his downfall. The decision to join is a life-changing event and isn’t something one should do overnight. Obviously he’s not ready yet, but now is a good time to think about it.

Have you thought about trying to find something that the kid likes and sharing that? E.g. finding a type of book he likes and really getting in depth with it and studying it? Perhaps he might realize that academics can be fun, and then find that other things aren’t so difficult.

Parents? I know there are some of you out there.

As a teacher, I would say that the most important thing is to understand that this won’t be solved with a magical epiphany, nor a life-changing trip. It takes attention and consistency. What I see all the time is parents who get upset with their teens, have a big come-to-jesus meeting (possibly with teachers involved), slap down a bunch of new rules, commit to spending more time with their kid, and then it all just sorta . . .dissolves over the next weeks or months, behavior returns and the cycle repeats. This is worse than doing nothing. At least with doing nothing, the kid has to face natural consequences, instead of coming to see his parent’s interference as the problem.

This is ESPECIALLY true when the system you are using is working. Parents figure out some new system, things seem to be going better, so they decide it has worked and go back to the old way–and everything goes to hell.

On the one hand, you talk about a lacking compass, which I assume means values and character. But then you talk about self-reliance, sink-or-swim. So what do you want: a person that is self-reliant, or a person that has values? Putting people without a character into a sink-or-swim program can easily mean that they develop man-against-man values: I survive by taking from the weaker members, because only my survival counts.

If you want somebody to develop values and become a character, you need to provide him with a real, authentic person who embodies these values and acts as an ideal to follow and inspire. That person(s) need to be not only honest in their values (no pretending), but also devote a lot of time to this task of building trust, being there for the teen to listen and talk, and guiding softly.

Which is why wilderness camps are much more popular, as they require far less of the adults, just a money sum.


If a kid grows up without having to suffer consequences for bad decisions, its hard to start getting him to face those consequences now. It can be done, but it takes alot of patience, and adult communication.

Not saying this is the situation in the op, but its one in which I have some experience. I am also bipolar, which is part of the reason I was a pain in the ass kid.

Since the OP is seeking advice, this is better suited to IMHO than GQ.

General Questions Moderator

This is a big problem in the office world as well. Productivity and/or quality is down, so Management introduces new policies or practices. There is an initial flurry of formal or informal training, and some efforts at compliance by Joe Timesheet. Then, people get lazy and return to their old ways, but the new policies are left in place. Then, people sit around and talk about how we have a policy compliance problem, and that we need more discipline. This is epidemic.

Rule out a mental health issue first (bipolar disorder, psychopathy, narcissism, etc). Family counseling is NEVER a bad idea, but the parents will have to be prepared to hear that they’re doing something wrong. No parent does everything right, of course. And there are bad seeds. But as a rule, behavior like this is a result of neglect or inconsistency. I remember when I was a kid, the primary reason I never did anything crazy was because if I did it, my mom said she’d show up at my school with the same thing done (belly button ring, dye hair pink, etc). Kind of a fascist technique, but it works well on a teenager whose parents are pretty much the most humiliating creatures alive (lol).

Getting involved in volunteer programs is always a good way to provide sheltered/selfish kids with perspective. I (voluntarily) spent a night in college checking in homeless people to a shelter, dishing out food, getting them toilette items and handing out towels to use the showers, and making sure order was kept. It can provide a lot of perspective and motivation to see what might happen if you let your life stay on a fucked-up path.

If he likes animals, see if there’s a shelter that needs help walking dogs. It can help to make this a FAMILY activity if he is not able to be trusted out on his own.

As someone who went through this, the best advice I would give is separate them from the “bad” friends.

OK, sure, but I’m not the mom or dad. The dad - whom I know better - is pretty stellar in the ‘person with character’ department. He is really struggling with this. Nonetheless, the kid seems to be easily led and directionless. I don’t think he’s amoral, but rather that he’s clueless about the real world, decisions with consequences, stuff like that. He’s also a poor judge of character - hence the cohort. I think he’s led a very urban coddled life up to this point. One of the things I’ve been thinking of suggesting is to give the kid a certain amount of money for clothing/entertainment etc. for the month and let him budget his own funds. That way, if he blows it with his friends, he’s out of luck for the rest of the month.

I agree with you, but I don’t think this is what’s happening with this kid. The Dad spends a ton of time with him, and always has. But, I think the parents have set things up such that he never has to do anything and yet life still brings him everything he needs and wants. Because he doesn’t actually need to contribute to the world he has no sense that if he does something, he’ll get satisfaction from doing it. Plus he might actually get satisfaction from helping other people, or making the world a better place. These ideas seem to be foreign to him. This is why my husband thinks he should be dropped off in Istanbul with $50 and a pen knife.

Your parents did things the way my husband and I do things. My husband will frequently cite the awesome power of parental embarrassment as a superpower. Seriously though, he’s been cleared regarding psychological issues. There were probably things that could have been done differently - but no neglect, and I can’t comment on the inconsistency. The Dad is certainly always there for him though. Volunteering makes a lot of sense to me and I was thinking of suggesting that - maybe something like Habitat for Humanity.

Yes, but how do you sequester them? This thread is actually an attempt to figure that out. How to get them away from their friends and into a situation where they are challenged, have to dig a little deeper, and “man up”.

What happened to me was I got a car which got me a girlfriend. I that made me ditch my loser friends. Other than that, nothing else worked.

You keep 'em busy. You encourage them to take honors classes (which doesn’t eliminate the “bad” kids, believe me, but it does nudge the odds in your favor), you get them into supervised extra-curriculars (athletics, theater, chess club, student government, whatever), you get them working an after school job, you go with them to volunteer at the soup kitchen on Friday, the animal shelter on Saturday and visit Grandma on Sunday. You take them to church, you take them to work at your job site, you go camping together. You take them to a football game, or a car show, or a Comicon.

You keep them busy under the supervision of adults as much as you possibly can, and then they simply don’t have as many hours in the day with which to get into trouble.

And, of course, you have hopefully been giving them opportunities to make choices and live with the consequences since they were 2. If you haven’t, you done messed up already, and yeah, the military or some kind of eco wilderness boot camp is probably your best shot. Some environment in which he is responsible for himself that’s carefully designed to give him a good shot at succeeding at that. Self-esteem isn’t generated from praise, or from winning easy, but from tackling the hard stuff and succeeding.

Not really my area of expertise, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

WRT the military. In all these threads, there are always a bunch of people who are in the “the Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines will make a man out of you” crowd.

I’ve never been but I’ve known a ton of people from all walks of life who have been and here is my 2 cents. People who have had success in the military (or afterwards) seem to have already had a lot more drive, ambition and discipline than the kid in question. Even if they weren’t particularly academic or even got into a bit of trouble, they were often athletic, well adjusted and had a measure of character. They just didn’t know where to direct it.

The aimless, undisciplined types who fit the OP’s description seemed like they joined for a stint, didn’t much care for it and now it’s however many years later and they have just as little direction but they’re older and their only experience is humping a rifle and fixing Humvees.

Not to mention the possibility of going off to war and coming back a broken, traumatized mess.
And the Foreign Legion? WTF? Did he kill someone or run afoul of the mafia or something?
How about just have him join a freakin IM soccer team or something?
The thing is, you can’t make someone into an ambitious, disciplined person. They have to want it for themselves. The best you can do is be like “18 and you’re on your own. Go figure out what you want to do.”

Ok, but in the real world “on your own” doesn’t tend to mean that. It means “in your parent’s basement”. He’s 16 and there are a couple of years of parental leverage left, so how do parents best use that leverage to put the kid in a situation where they want to be “an ambitious disciplined person”, or at least they see the value of it.

Obviously the French Foreign Legion is a joke. He’s not old enough. ;).

[full disclosure: I am the handsome and talented husband in the OP.]

I strongly dispute that the Dad is a good parent. He might spend a lot of time, but it’s obviously not the right quality at all. If the teen is 16 now, and the parents only now realize that something is wrong - then they didn’t pay any real attention besides superficially to the kid when he was younger. There is obviously no good trust basis, otherwise he would be able to tell the kid to not do this and to do that.
A lot of families look “wonderful, caring parents” on the outside, and are actually hell one way or the other if you look behind the surface. Emotional neglect can happen even if the Dad spends a lot of time; and being a “steller character” with adults means nothing about how the Dad acts towards his kid, or how much character he has inside his home.

If the kid hasn’t learned consequences of behaviour or been given any tasks to do on his own, then the parents don’t trust him, and haven’t given him the chance to grow up. You give kids indepence in small steps, so that they grow into it. And if the kid hasn’t learned to be an individual and stand for what he believes in, instead of following the crowds, then the parents haven’t given him an example themselves, and have not given him any opportunity to develop individual opinions and stand up for them.
Pampering a kid by not allowing him to do anything independtly until he’s 18 and then dumping them “you’re on your own” is one of the best ways to ruin people. I’ve always thought it was an incredible dumb premise in college movies or similar, but now I encounter this kind of thinking regularly on the board: first, you don’t take proper care of the child while he’s young enough to learn, just pamper him, then you complain that he isn’t grown up and kick him out. Well, don’t get a child if you don’t want to care about him! Feeding and sending him to school is minimum, there’s a lot more to good parenting.

Oh, and the Dad is obviously not an exceptional kind of character serving as ideal, if the topic of volunteer or hobbies has never come up. What does he do in the “time” spent with his kid? Really listen and talk to the kid?

Wonderful. Why Istanbul, just kick him out on a deserted island. :rolleyes:

If the parents just forbid it, the kid will be attracted all the more. If there were a trust relationship, it would be different, but since there isn’t, strictness won’t cut it.

I think the parents have already lost the kid. They haven’t managed to build a trust relationship with their kid in 16 years, they won’t manage in 2. They haven’t managed to give him opportunities for indepence, they won’t learn in the next 2 years. Poor kid has been fucked by his parents already. I would suggest sending him to a good adult, but in the US, that means authoritarian discipline a la boot camp style of school.

Oh, and I accepted your assessment of the teen at face value. There is of course a load of difference between “making bad decisions because teens are not adult yet, but having a good character underneath” and “having no steady character at all / a bad character”.

Well, let me ask you this. Why SHOULD this kid become an ambitious and disciplined person? Just because his parents and their friends think he should in order to fullfil some sort of suburban middle class sense of parental validation? Is he trying to follow some personal passion? Pull himself out of poverty? Show those rich jerks he’s just as good as they are? Probably not. I’m guessing he lives in a typical suburban American home with typical suburban American parents surrounded by people pretty much just like them. Life is probably relatively comfortible. The adults work what to a teenager appear to be boring, nondescript jobs (and probably are to adults as well). From the perspective of the teenager, all this stuff “just sort of happens”.

What does this kid do for money? Does he have an after school job? That in and of itself might help to motivate him. Unless he likes the idea of spending the rest of his life working at the mall or in a fast food restaurant.

I know the family pretty well. The dad is “stellar” with the kids and in general. The mom I don’t know as well, mostly because she’s not someone who’s easy to get to know.

Yeah, he does listen and talk to the kid. He’s been working on this issue for ages, but the kid still seems…listless? easily led? adrift?

Sounds good - worked for Tom Hanks.

In all seriousness, I’m not advocating, and neither is Imp, that they do anything ridiculous or precipitous. Imp was asking for suggestions for things that would be better than leaving him on a deserted island or Istanbul, not for parenting critiques, especially since we ain’t the kids parents. Both Imp and I were more interested in bright ideas to kick across to the Dad (he’s stellar, you could look for planets around him) rather than for psychological insights into parenting. I’m sure there are tons of reasons things are the way they are, but the point of the thread is meant to be to brainstorm ideas for galvanizing a teen.

Again, perhaps the OP was overstated in a moment of concern. He’s a good kid, but seem to be adrift.

I think your analysis is not far off, and I suspect that a job would be a good start. I also suspect that he doesn’t have one. Congratulations msmith537, you’re on the scoreboard.

What about Scouts? Do they have Scouts where this kid is?

My cousin has always been involved in Scouts, and now I reflect on it, he kind of seems the sort who might be a bit directionless otherwise, but he’s always had that focus of group activities, in the outdoors, and now he is older - early twenties I think - he is a group leader and helps the younger ones.

Most of the Scouts I have met have been fine upstanding citizens with a lust for life - at least, the Scouts who are in their teens/twenties or are older leaders. I’ll give a disclaimer that my brother never got on in Cub Scouts because he was picked on, but that was under-10s.

I’d also just say that if nothing works, that isn’t the end of the story. I had no direction at 16. My parents never worried about it or bundled me off to National Service(although they might have, if it existed). I was a typical listless teenager, with some ‘bad’ friends. My parents made a few well-timed groundings to stop me totally ballsing up my exams, and I grew out of it. Finally found my vocation at about 22.

Here are some other things my parents did which stopped me from becoming a directionless adult:
Gave me monthly allowance, if I didn’t budget, there were no handouts
Monthly allowance was not that much so in order to have more fun, I needed a job
I could earn extra cash by doing chores for my grandma, who spoiled me as the only grandaughter, but they were real chores
I was responsible for all my own chores - laundry, making lunches, sourcing the food with which to make the lunches
Also responsible for all travel - finding a way to get to friends’ houses, into the town, also to school/college(money for bus pass was in the budget)

I know it’s all really basic stuff, but essentially I grew out of being a directionless teen, and found that all along I had the life skills I needed.

Worth noting that I still hang out with my ‘bad’ friends ten or twelve years later, and for the most part we are all contributing to society, no one went off the rails completely - a few close calls but you’ll find a bunch now made up of a teacher, a shop manager, a financial advisor, a publisher, a therapist, etc.

Publisher, eh? Sounds like you were with a sketchy crowd ;).

I’m thinking that the minimalist allowance / manage your own money / get a job if you want more money approach is a good one.