Teens & “@#$%#! impossible parents!!”

A Personal Story From 2009:

He sat stewing in the passenger seat as we headed to the airport, a deep frown on his face. I met Nick only the day before, and today he was on his way home after more than two months in an intensive wilderness therapy treatment center in the Rocky Mountains.

Nick shook his head, scowling. “He’s such an ass. He’s always like this. It’s not gonna work back at home. I’m just gonna get thrown out of the house. He’s giving me no choice. So much for college!”

After working two years as a year-round wilderness therapy instructor in the Rocky Mountains, I had officially retired to my individual private practice. But I still find myself unable to resist returning to cover for a day or two here and there. This was one of those days.

Nick set down the list of “Rules for Home” that he had just finished reading. I was a little taken aback. Nick had been here a long time. He was going home. I could tell he was a great kid. Were the last two months for nothing?

“I’m sorry.” I said. “Sounds like you got a few surprises in there? Did you talk about any of this in your last therapy session with your parents?”

“No, I spent most of it outside the room. My parents have a lot of issues to work out.”

“Wow, that must have been frustrating having hardly any time to talk about your needs.”

“Yeah, it’s all right.”

“So tell me about these rules for home that you just read.”

“It pisses me off, my dad’s always just laying down ultimatums.”

“I’d be pissed off too if I spent two months in a program and didn’t get any input into the rules for going home.”


We talked a bit more about what he’d read, and I heard him out as he told me his point of view. I asked him what his goals were for home. Going to college was a big one, which wasn’t going to be easy on his own if he had to get a job and pay rent. He wanted to finish High School to get to college, which wasn’t going to be easy on his own either, but if he didn’t abide by the rules he was going to be kicked out of the house.

“So you have one more year of high school,” I observed.  “Do you think it would be worth it to you to put up with the rules for a year so you can go to college like you want?”


“So of all these rules, even if none of them is ideal, which are going to be the hardest for you? Let’s say you decide to go along with these rules for your own goals, of going to college and having the benefits of a place to sleep and food on the table, and anything else your parents can support you in. As annoying as the rules will be sometimes, which of them will be hard for you to deal with?”

After talking it over and getting a chance to have his point of view heard, Nick realized he was actually OK with most of the rules. Putting myself in his position, I imagined that much of his objection to them was simply that he hadn’t been consulted. Once I heard his point of view, there was really no problem with most of the rules themselves.

But there were still three that were going to be hard: Not being able to play his music, eating dinner with his parents five days a week, and not smoking pot.

“Great, now which of those three is the least difficult?” I asked.

“The music.”

“So why don’t they let you play your music?”

“They say it’s too loud for the neighbors.”

“Oh, so if you could do it in a way that didn’t disturb the neighbors would they be OK with it?”

“I guess.”

“Do you have any ideas how you could meet your parents needs and still be able to listen to music?”

“I guess I could stuff clothes in the vents. I did try that once.”

“Did it work?”

“I don’t think my parents knew about it.”

“Oh, so maybe that would be something to check with them and see if it made it quiet enough for them. What about an ipod?”

“I don’t have the money to get one.”

“Maybe that’s something your parents would be willing to help you buy as long as you were doing well in school, and respecting the boundaries they’ve set for you? Have you asked them about that?”


“Do you think they’d be up for it?”

“Yeah, probably.”

“Great. Here’s something you can learn about your parents that could really help you out. There will probably be other times when they’ll set a limit with you, tell you “no this” or “no that.” It’s annoying right? If you can figure out, what is it that they really want, then you have a chance at coming to a solution that works for both you and your parents. In this case they didn’t really want you to stop listening to music. What they wanted was to avoid upsetting the neighbors. There are lots of ways to listen to music and not piss off your neighbors.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

“So how are you with that rule now?”

“Better, I think I can work that out now.”

“Let me know if there are still problems, so we can talk about it and find a way that works for you and your goals.”

“No, I think I’m good with that one.”

“OK, so which is the less difficult of the remaining two: not smoking pot, or eating sit-down dinner with your parents?”

“I guess eating dinner with my parents, but there’s just no way that’s happening.”

“Well let’s just say you decided to do it, what would be the hardest part?”

“Ughh! It would just be too awkward. We never eat dinner together.”

“So, I understand that it might just be really awkward at first. Can you think of anything that would make it less awkward?”

“Well, I guess if they agreed to let me cook them dinner at least once a week.”

His answer totally surprised me. I was glad I’d asked him for a solution. I wouldn’t have come up with anything even a hundredth as good as that.

“Wow,” I said. “They’d probably love that! If that is something you’d really enjoy doing, I think you’d score some major points with your parents.”

“I like to cook. I already cook whole meals for my friends’ families. They love it. I could do that with my parents and it would make it way better.”

“Great! Do we need to work out anything else with that rule?”

“No. That’ll actually be kind of fun.”

“All right, on to the final contestant: no smoking pot.”

“Dude, that’s not even a choice. It’s not like I want to smoke as much as I used to, just here and there. It’s harmless. I’m not gonna stop, that’s not even a choice for me.”

“You know what? It actually is a choice. You may decide you don’t want to stop smoking, and that’s fine, but it’s a choice that you make. So I just want to support you in making the choice that best fits all your own goals for yourself. I have no attachment to whether you stop or not. Does that make sense?”


“Great. So I wonder if it’s worth it to you to stop for the final year so you can stay with your parents, finish High School, and get into college? That’s something you’ll decide – a choice that you make. So what is it about smoking pot that’s so important to you?”

“It’s just what I do with my friends. It’s the way we hang out and chill, and have a good time.”

“If you decided to stop smoking so you could get the other things you want, are these the kind of friends that would support you in your choice?”

“Oh yeah, they’d be totally chill with that.”

“OK, well that’s great, to have friends that will support you in what you choose for yourself. Do you think there are other things you could do with your friends that would be just as fun as smoking?”

“I don’t know. We’re not the kind of stoners that just sit around doing nothing. We do other things, they’re just that much more fun when you’re high.”

We were approaching the airport, so I knew our conversation would have to wrap up soon. “Well, this may be something that you continue to think about. I just hope that you keep in mind all of your goals for your life, so that you’re the happiest with whatever you decide.”

“Yeah, thanks. At some point my parents are gonna have to drop these rules though, and give me a chance to fuck up. Otherwise I’ll never be able to prove to them that they can trust me.”

“I think there’s some truth to that, but I think there’s something else that’s much more important to building trust, and you can do it with your parents even if they never give you a chance to fuck up.”


“Communication. Being in contact with them. Taking the time to try to understand what they want when you disagree, and letting them know what you want. Because your parents will notice when you’re paying attention and trying to understand them, or if you’re blowing them off. If they know you’re listening to them, even if you disagree, that will make a huge difference.

“Think about it. If you weren’t in contact with them to begin with why would they give you a chance to screw up? If there’s no communication or relationship, then there’s no trust, and giving you the chance to mess up doesn’t really prove anything, even if you follow all the rules. Without communication and relationship, there can be no trust. They could give you a million chances to mess up, and you could pass them all, and they still wouldn’t know what was going on with you. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, it does.”

“So the good news is you can work on building that trust as soon as you get home. It’s going to be hard and frustrating, and there will be times when you just don’t understand your parents at all, but if you work at it you’ll start to build trust that way. Then when your parents give you a chance to screw up and you don’t, then it’ll mean something.”

We pulled into short-term parking and walked inside. While we were waiting to check his bags, I said. “So it sounds like you’ve got ways that most of the rules will be OK now. I think the pot is the only one left for you to think about and decide for yourself what’s best.”


“And I think you struck on something really important, and that’s how to build trust with your parents, which can only make your life better for all your goals. And the key thing to building that trust is – ”

“ – Communication.” Nick filled in without missing a beat, catching my eye and nodding with a thoughtful expression.

  • David York
    Posted at 21:40h, 17 January Reply

    Thank you Mark for this article. I wish that I knew some of this material when my kids were teens. And I wish more parents were interested in this type of material. This would be a better world.

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