By Melissa Chianta
It was 11:30 p.m. and Kathleen Stafford was anxious for her 16-year-old son to come home. When he walked in on schedule, as she knew he would, she let out a sigh of relief and went to bed. It wasn’t until the next morning when she discovered that her normally conscientious teen had snuck out in the middle of the night to get high on Xanax and alcohol with friends. He almost didn’t make it home alive.
A shocked Stafford was forced to confront a reality many parents don’t want to face: Teenagers of all stripes take risks. Some teens take so many risks that they are called “at-risk”— for criminal or violent behavior and substance abuse. Others, like Stafford’s son, take their parents off guard with their walk on the—potentially lethal—wild side.
There are many ways to approach adolescent risk-taking, from drug and alcohol education classes to psycho-education groups and individual, family, and group therapy.
School-based drug and alcohol education is tops on the list for Stafford, a Petaluma business owner, and her newly formed advocacy group, Petaluma Parents Against Drugs.
“A great ER nurse from [Petaluma Valley Hospital], Wendy Thomas, just did a little [assembly] at St. Vincent’s High School. A couple of kids came to her and asked her to come to the school and talk. Wendy said absolutely. Three hundred and seventy-six kids sat intently for 35 minutes listening to her speak. They asked questions, they were interested. How easy is that?” says Stafford.
Besides assemblies, sometimes drug and alcohol education is offered in small groups, like the ones Carter Grissom runs for at-risk youth.
“We go over the impact of drugs and alcohol on the brain, body, family system. Guest speakers come and share their own stories and experiences with drugs and alcohol,” says Grissom, who works in prevention and early intervention services at a local youth-services nonprofit. Kids then make the decision about whether or not to use substances “based on their own experience and education,” he says. Grissom asserts that this approach is “so much more powerful” than parents telling kids what to do.
Local therapists and nonprofit administrators say that, beyond drug and alcohol education, getting to the root of what drives kids toward substance abuse and other risky behaviors is key. And that is where psycho-education groups, as well as individual, family, and group therapy, come into play.
The goal of psycho-education is often geared toward helping kids, as well as parents, identify and cope with the stressors in their lives.
Jolene Chapel, director of a local school mental health initiative, says that anything from academic and extracurricular pressures to a traumatic home environment can trigger the fight-or-flight stress response. So a stressed child might get physically aggressive or seek to escape or “flee” through alcohol and drug use, she says.
Aggressive children can learn to handle their feelings through avenues like the nonprofit Petaluma People Services Center’s (PPSC) Interactive Journaling program or other anger management groups. Meanwhile, overscheduled students can learn to cut back on their activities, Chapel says.
“When a child comes to us and says, ‘I can’t handle sports and school right now,’ we as parents, caregivers, and coaches…[can] help them to make some decisions about what is going on in their lives so that they feel like they are still in control and that they don’t need to escape,” she explains.
In order to help teens manage their emotions and make good choices, parents need to effectively communicate. Santa Rosa therapist Uriah Guilford says that parents often react instead of respond to their kids. And that can spell trouble. He teaches parents how to “dial down” their own reactivity and approach problems with playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy—PACE, for short.
“I tell parents that the best way to change their child’s behavior is to change their own behavior,” says Guilford.
The PACE approach may look something like this: The next time your kid yells, “You’re ruining my life!,” try to contain your hurt and anger, and instead, calmly ask, “What do you mean by that?” Be truly interested in your child’s response. When you communicate a real desire to understand—not judge—your child’s thoughts and feelings, he or she is more likely to open up to you.
If a child doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you, he or she might be willing to speak to a therapist. Often parents don’t reach out to a professional, though, because they assume such services are out of their budget. But Elece Hempel, executive director of PPSC, says some community agencies offer one-on-one therapy on a sliding scale— $10–$28 at PPSC. And Medi-Cal covers many services, too.
Still, moms and dads may never pick up the phone because they simply feel too embarrassed. Hempel encourages them to shirk shame and feel empowered, instead.
“A lot of times parents…are anxious and nervous because they don’t want anyone else in the world to know that they are dealing with these issues. And I think we would be doing everybody a big favor if we felt not stigmatized by saying, ‘I’m getting help for my child,’” asserts Hempel.
Stafford says she felt like “locking [herself] in the house and closing the curtains” when she found out what her son had done. But she knew that she had to speak up so other parents would know they were not alone.
“I’m a good mom. I’m a careful mom. If this can happen in my family, this can happen in anyone’s family,” she says.
Of course, there are parents who have tried everything from psycho-education groups to family therapy and are still dealing with a verbally and physically abusive child. In situations like these, where it’s no longer safe for a family to house their teen, Guilford says shelters like Social Advocates for Youth’s Dr. Coffee Teen Shelter in Santa Rosa can provide a temporary place for teens to stay and get assistance.
The path of parenting a risk-taking adolescent is full of twists and turns, some of which, as in Stafford’s case, are completely unexpected. While every family’s journey is unique, there are therapists and programs to light the way. Educating kids about drug and alcohol use, teaching them how to handle stress, and learning to communicate are all steps in the right direction. The rest of the road is paved by the choices that kids, and their parents, make.