By Glenda Gabriel
Change . . . an amazingly powerful and often times emotionally charged word. Change can be a word that seems like such a great idea when directed towards someone else; i.e. how “they” can change in a way that will make your life better. At the other end of the spectrum, the word “change” can trigger fear and resistance in a nanosecond if someone says you need to do it. Or, it can be embraced and welcomed by choosing to move forward with an attitude of gratitude and appreciation for the opportunities change can bring to the quality of your life.
Whether you’re toying with the idea that something different needs to be done, already made the decision things must be done differently, or moved to action to create a different outcome, change becomes part of the equation. Change happens in all areas of life. No area of change is seen more intensely then with families of struggling teens.
Needed change seems obvious in a teen whose life has gone off the tracks through poor choices and behaviors and has become a risk to themselves and/or others. When it’s determined that intervention placement in a private residential school or program is the responsible, loving decision needed, it is important to remember that your child’s true and lasting change will not happen fast, nor on your timeline.
Key to remember is that your teen is just one member of your family system. For the optimal outcome, the entire family needs to be committed and open to change. For starters, what’s going on in their life affects all members of your family. Your teen has done a very good job of signaling “this system is not working.” They are waving a very large, very scary red flag. Wise parents will step up to the plate and willingly be part of the solution.
It’s a Process: There are specific stages of change that experts have identified. Lasting change is going to involve going through all of the various stages. But don’t expect change to be made in a straight line. They will go back and forth many times.
1) Being in resistance, or denial, to any change needed.
2) Considering the possibility of the need for change in the future.
3) Decision that change is needed. Making a plan and setting gradual goals.
4) Taking action. Putting specific plans into play.
5) Maintaining and internalizing the change. Incorporating the change into your life.
Look at the changes you’ve made in your own life: changes in diet, workouts, even cutting back on your work schedule. Can you see how these stages in change fluctuated and flowed? How many times did you repeat the steps? Start. Give up. Go back. Start again.
Don’t Hover: The tendency for parents of children in treatment is to hover and hang on their child’s every movement longing to hear a report or some evidence that they’ve had a miraculous “ah-ha” moment. But change generally comes slowly. It evolves. It’s a process of forward and backward movement. How well would it work for you if someone stood over you with the spoken or unspoken expectation of your needing to make changes in order to make them happy? Would that motivate you? Lasting change must come from within. It must come from their own desire of wanting something different for their life.
Care vs. Control: Be interested, but don’t attempt to maneuver or manipulate their changes through enabling, guilt-trips, anger or avoidance. Whether they tell you or not, you are the most important person in their life. Be willing to hear they are struggling. It’s part of the process of change. It’s also an important part of what they need to learn to be successful.
Be supportive: It’s important that your child know you are in alignment, and in support of, their program and staff. If you have an issue or concern in those areas, do not discuss it with your child. Do not let your emotions or tone of voice betray you. If your child is in any resistance to change, they will see that as a chance to divide and manipulate. It’s critical to your child’s and your family’s success, that you create a unified team.
No sugar coating: In your willingness to be part of the solution, be willing to openly hear the reports of your staff. Don’t set yourself up to expect glowing reports every week. You want to know what’s real. Your child is in treatment because serious changes needed to be made. It will take time. Yes, it is hard. But you’re tougher. You have to be. So find things to be happy about, even when the reports aren’t what you wanted to hear. Such as, be grateful your child is safe and with people dedicated to working with both of you.
Be a team player: Make it easy for your staff to work with you. These are people who do what they do because they care about making a difference. Do your part to make sure they were glad they showed up for work today.
Results based: True change will show up in your child’s results. Your child knows what you want to hear. It’s their actions that will speak to their changes, in either forward or backward movement. Pay attention to how they are interacting with their peers, working with staff and responding or reacting to you.
Setbacks: Sometimes successful change can be so frightening to a teen who lacks self-trust and confidence, that it triggers self-sabotage and setback. Recognizing that setbacks are a typical part of the change process can help you prepare for measures on your part that will help your child get back on track.
Take care: Instead of hanging your happiness and well-being on the status of your child’s change, or lack thereof, be good to you. Give yourself permission to enjoy life. Pay attention to your changes. Take this time to restore the balance in your life. If all of your conversations and thoughts are consumed with your program child, then others in your life are getting shortchanged, starting with you. Your child needs a happy, healthy parent who is modeling a life of self-appreciation and personal happiness.
You’re the parent. Your child needs to know they can count on you to stay the course. Be open to learning and seeking ways you can contribute to the solutions your family needs. Be courageous enough to work with your staff, ask your child, ask your family members and self-inventory the changes you can make to create a successful home environment. By your example, your child needs to know that change is not a four letter word.
Glenda Gabriel is a strong advocate for parent's rights and the parent-choice industry. In addition to being the mother of a program graduate, she’s worked for many years developing vital parent support services for structured residential boarding schools.