Our 16-year-old is becoming aggressive and using drugs

He is displaying all the characteristics of troubling behaviour. I’m at my wit’s end and dreading the forthcoming Transition Year

“Well-meaning parents constantly nagging struggling teens about study leads to stress and resentment.”

“Well-meaning parents constantly nagging struggling teens about study leads to stress and resentment.”

 

Our 16-year-old son is an affectionate, intelligent and humorous individual who, over the past couple of years, has increasingly displayed severe mood swings, sometimes developing into aggression, particularly towards me (his mother).

Coupled with this, his last few years of secondary school have not been easy (he’s just completed the Junior Cert). They have required my constant liaising with the school due to his lack of organisation, disconnect/disinterest with some subjects, homework, study, etc. He has also been reported being disrespectful to teachers, particularly to those who teach the subjects he doesn’t like. We had him psychologically tested in school, which suggested he had some struggles.

In summary, he’s not academic and that’s fine, not everyone is, but his lack of interest, motivation and engagement that really worries me! All this week he’s stayed in bed until 1.30 or 2pm. I can’t get him to engage in anything – he’s only interested in meeting with his pals.

He does not play sport either; the school sport is rugby, which he doesn’t like, but won’t sign up for the various other options available, such as rowing, tennis athletics, even golf, though he used to play some of these in the past. However, far more worrying is that earlier this year we discovered that he and other friends bought and smoked some dope. We found out by accident and when asked about it he tried to lie. Only when we confronted him with evidence and took away his phone did he finally admit what had happened. (He also admitted he had stolen money from me to get it.)

Clearly he is displaying all the characteristics of troubling behaviour. I’m at my wit’s end and dreading the forthcoming Transition Year. Can you please advise the best route to get some professional help. I need to get on top of this.

In the turmoil of the teenage years, many young people can develop troubling behaviour, such as being aggressive at home and experimenting with drugs. This is particularly the case when they are struggling with school and have not yet found their niche in other activities or interests in life.

While it is bewildering, as parent, it is always important to respond in a balanced and measured way. The goal is to both hold your son to account for the problem behaviour ( aggression, drug-taking, etc) while warmly reaching out to him to understand what is going on with him and to help him sort his life out.

Reaching out

Take time to try and understand what you son might be going through. Just imagine how it might feel to not be succeeding in school academically or at sports (when all the emphasis is on succeeding in these areas). Try to get him to open up and talk about what is going on with him and potentially encourage him to explore other courses of study, hobbies, interests and passions that might be more engaging for him.

While I can see how you might be dreading the next school year, perhaps TY will provide a great opportunity for him to explore other activities that might build his confidence. These could be crafts or technical skills, artistic subjects such as music or art, or interesting work placements and projects that he could try out next year. Perhaps you can use the summer to set some goals for trying out new things. Maybe use the prospect of an enrolling in an exciting activity as a reward for getting up and engaging in things or even behaving more positively at home.

Holding him to account

It is equally important that you hold your son to account for his behaviour. Sit down and explain to him that “you can’t stand by and let him use drugs” or “it is not acceptable for him to be aggressive – he needs to learn to talk about his feelings instead of shouting”. As you are doing this, make the privileges he has in the household (such as technology time, phone use or pocket money) dependent on his good behaviour (eg he has to work to pay back the money he has stolen or if he is aggressive he loses some pocket money).

With such discipline plans, try to reach agreement with him about what you are doing and take plenty of time to negotiate and problem-solve the underlying issues with him. How can he avoid getting into a situation of buying drugs again? What can he do instead of getting aggressive when he is upset? You have to be prepared to have many conversations and to be persistent over time to help him change.

Focus on your relationship

In the long term, you need to work at keeping your relationship open with him so you can influence him. The pressure of problems can frequently damage parents’ relationships with their children. Well-meaning parents constantly nagging struggling teens about study leads to stress and resentment. Also, once anger and aggression creep into relationships then everyone gets hurt.

The key is to work hard at building the positives in your relationship. Back off from unnecessary conflicts and focus on creating enjoyable time with your son – time when you can chat and connect with one another. Focus on finding regular ways of enjoying the “affectionate, intelligent and humorous individual” you described.  

Professional help

There are lots good professional services that you or your son can access for support. You could consider contacting the school about what support options they can refer you to or which they have themselves (eg guidance counselling). There are also some excellent family counselling services, such as teencounselling.ie, as well as jigsaw.ie, the national youth counselling service. There are also a range of family-based drugs counselling services, which are listed on drugs.ie. You can also ring the national drugs helpline at 1800-459459 for support.

Even if your son might not initially wish to be involved, gaining support as a parent can be an important first step. For example, attending a parenting teenagers course with the likes of parentplus.ie could be sufficient to make progress.

Send your parenting queries to health@irishtimes.com

 Dr John Sharry is a social worker, psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes and author of Parenting Teenagers: A Guide to Solving Problems, Building Relationships and Creating Harmony in the Family. See solutiontalk.ie.

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