Going Beyond Tough Love

Parents who fear they've lost control are taking desperate mesures, including controversial, strict residential schools, to save their teens and their families.

July 31, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After years of struggle over behavior and drugs with his teen-aged daughter, Jim Singleton found himself sleeping in the hallway of his Ellicott City home to keep her from sneaking out, intercepting her 2 a.m. telephone calls, and conversing with Howard County police on a first-name basis.

Patricia and Dave Fritz of Frederick say their anguish over their oldest daughter's out-of-control behavior was so emotionally painful that Patricia's bout with breast cancer, followed by a mastectomy, "was a teeny-weensy blip" by comparison.

Kevin and Virginia Carter of northern Baltimore County took their angry 13-year-old son's bedroom door off the hinges to keep him from slamming it into splinters as he shouted defiance. They quaked at the thought of him in high school, meeting other unhappy teens - with cars and easy access to drugs.

Trouble between teens and their parents is a societal cliche in the United States, and teen problems can range from an occasional family argument or curfew violation to real criminal acts.

But for some parents, the challenge is unusually painful. They find their children virtually out of control - seemingly beyond the reach of family discipline and possibly poised to commit serious crimes.

"It's one of the truly hardest cases to handle because they're [teens] still under the custody of the parents until age 18 and the parents have no control," said Michael M. Gimbel, director of Baltimore County's Office of Substance Abuse.

There are no certain answers for parents faced with such chaos in their families, experts say. But the struggles of Singleton and the Carter and Fritz families offer some perspective on the problem.

"Our house was a total war zone," said Virginia Carter, who said no local counselors, teachers or psychiatrists were able to offer effective help. Their son screamed at them, threw things and kicked a hole in the kitchen wall - all while in middle school.

Teens out of control at home often can be charming to outsiders, so teachers and even extended families often can't tell what's really going on, and aren't always understanding, said Patricia Fritz.

"They [teens] controlled the family - absolutely," Virginia and Kevin Carter said, describing the experiences of her family and others.

The parents said they felt alone, isolated, with the thought that despite their best efforts, their children were spinning out of control toward some terrible destiny, while other people's children seemed fine.

Yet Singleton said he quickly realized that his daughter - like most kids - wasn't alone. She saw her friends daily at school, and stayed in touch via computer, telephone, pager and cell phone. He was the isolated one.

`Just a phase'

"At first, I was in denial about it," he said, telling himself what many parents do to reassure themselves - "It's a phase; she'll outgrow it; it's a teen thing; she's just a little wild."

Eventually it became clear, he and the other parents said, they were caught in a destructive vortex: teen action, followed by parent reaction, until they felt their lives, homes and families were in turmoil.

Singleton responded by becoming an amateur detective, tracking his daughter daily, intercepting phone calls, searching her room, driving her to school. He once grabbed a bag of marijuana left near a stop sign for his daughter, he said.

"I came to realize I could not keep her safe," he said.

Pat and Dave Fritz had taken to sleeping with their keys and sometimes the computer keyboard to deny their daughter access. She responded with threats, and they once found a large butcher knife under her pillow, they said.

"A psychologist said she was fine. She could put on the charm," Pat said, and she wasn't doing badly at school. In reality, she had tried to hurt herself several times and threatened her sister and a neighbor's children.

"It was scary," Pat said. "We realized if we sent her to high school, it would be all over."

Professionals note that sometimes parents may be part of the problem. What may be seen as "normal" teen behavior by some adults can be taken as signs of serious trouble ahead by others.

Few options for parents

Still, out-of-control teens can create bedlam in a family, professionals agree.

"Parents feel extremely powerless. We teach these parents they can be in control and how to develop contracts," said Eileen Dewey, a Columbia-based social worker/therapist who sees many families who are in crisis over their teen-agers' behavior.

She says there are standard behaviors to watch for as red flags, including children who:

Run away

Abuse alcohol or drugs

Suddenly exhibit a changed attitude and withdraw from the family

Change friends

Suddenly do much worse in school

Have legal troubles

In most communities, there are programs designed to address specific aspects of the problem, including drug use, help for parents, self-esteem issues and crisis intervention.

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