Don’t give up hope on helping older teenagers who seem lost

There is a fine line between helping your kids and enabling their unhealthy behavior.

At 18, Joe’s son left home without a word.

Bill’s early adolescence was marked by chronic lying to his parents, drug use, school failure and defiance. His parents tried to re-engage with their son. But all they heard from him was tall stories and promises that were never kept.

After several years of this same story, they were discouraged, hopeless and heartbroken. They feared that Bill would never find his way back to his family. They worried that he wouldn’t find his way into a responsible, successful adulthood.

As a psychologist, I see these youngsters often dragged into therapy by their parents. These older teens are lost. They struggle in school, turn to substance abuse, connect with other unhappy, disenfranchised youth, and blame their parents and the world for their alienation. They don’t trust adults.

Their parents don’t know what to do. They feel like failures as moms and dads, and while they love their kid, they are starting to dislike him. It’s a sad story.

Sometimes it’s very hard to understand how some youngsters lose their way. Often these youngsters come from good, solid families who love and care for their children. Sometimes there are underlying problems — Attention deficit disorder or learning disabilities that make school a challenge, a family history of substance abuse, serious family problems, major life challenges or chemical dependency.

But I often scratch my head and just like their parents, wonder what happened.

There are social, economic and environmental forces at play. It’s a tough time to grow up — with electronic distractions, social strife, instant gratification at every turn and competition for high-paying jobs. There is no guarantee of upward mobility. The world seems less safe, sound and secure.

I was something of a lost teenager, too. Coming into my teen years, in New York City, in the mid 1960s, I was impacted by the war in Vietnam, the draft, psychedelic drugs, the civil rights movement and social upheaval. I became a chronic high school truant, although my parents never found out until many years later. My parents should have been more worried about me.

My best friend became a heroin addict in his later adolescence. Another friend was hospitalized for a suicide attempt. A guy from my friend group died of a drug overdose.

For parents, the scariest part of having a lost teen is the fear that they won’t make it into adulthood. It’s a terrifying thought. So what can parents do?

Don’t give up hope. I eventually found my way — I became an honors student in college. My best friend went into a recovery program, went back to school, became a physician and has a practice in Vermont. After practicing as a psychologist for 25 years in Everett, specializing in troubled youth, I have seen many lost teenagers come into adulthood as responsible, successful and loving individuals —in spite of their many challenges as teenagers. Now they have families of their own.

Keep the lines of communication open. Keep reaching out, even if your kids don’t respond. Love them without liking their choices or their behavior. Let them know that you care deeply.

Express confidence in your young adult. This can be a tall order when parents are in the dark. Let your older son or daughter know that you have confidence that they will find their way back to who they really are — even if it takes a long time. This statement of faith can be very powerful and affirming.

Get help for yourself. Parents need help, guidance and coaching from a trained therapist to stay on track. There is a fine line between helping your kids and enabling their unhealthy behavior. Professional assistance is very important.

Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His blog can be found at

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