By Anne-Rachelle McHugh
In the late 90s, parents shocked by the Columbine High School shootings held their kids tight and asked themselves what they could do to protect their children from “monsters” with guns.
The question they should have been asking was “How do I keep my kid from becoming the troubled teen holding the gun?”
The sad reality is there have always been troubled teens that push their parents to the point where they are simply unable to cope with behaviour they can no longer tolerate.
So much so that in 2008, overwhelmed Nebraska parents took advantage of a vaguely written safe haven law that allowed them to abandon children as old as 19 without fear of prosecution.
In total, 36 children as old as 17 (most between the ages of 11 and 17) were abandoned before legislators plugged the legal loophole that allowed parents to give up on their struggling teens. The law was rewritten to reflect its original intent, which was to provide teen mothers with a safe place to leave newborns they couldn’t care for.
Children and Family Services Director Todd Landry said most parents who abandoned their teens were frustrated by their child’s behaviour or inability to follow rules.
“I’m a parent of a teenager myself and so I can empathize with what many parents around our country go through with sometimes rebellious teenagers,” Landry told a local radio station.
The incident raised questions about the way social service agencies throughout North America deal with troubled teens, estimated at more than four million.
A report released in the wake of the Nebraska mix-up described mental healthcare services for adolescents as fragmented, inadequately coordinated, and insufficiently accessible.
The report, “Adolescent Services: Missing Opportunities,” said teens have unique problems that require care tailored services to their needs.
Venture Academy for Troubled Teens is one of a growing number of facilities dedicated to helping struggling teens in Canada.
Founder Gordon Hay has spent 23 years working with troubled youth and says lasting change requires long-term help involving a team of professionals.
“It’s not simply that the young person won’t try. It’s often that they can’t,” he says. “They aren’t making a conscious effort to rebel, or to be disobedient, in fact they may not even understand what it is they are supposed to do and how to achieve those goals.”
Hay says many teens with serious behavioural issues struggle with learning disabilities that affect every aspect of their life, not just their grades.
“Adults have expectations as to what a teen should be able to do at a given age and in many instances that cognitive ability just isn’t there. Perhaps there’s too many steps in the reasoning process or maybe the words are simply too big.”
Hay says understanding a teen’s thought processes is the first step in determining how their brain works and if they need learning modifications that will help them survive — and even thrive — in the challenging world teens must maneuver as they transition from child to adult.
“It’s not easy being a teen nowadays, nor easy being a parent, but there is help out there for those willing to reach out and ask for it,” Hay says.
Venture Academy offers residential treatment programs for troubled teens that provides an alternative to boot camps. Venture Academy has schools in Ontario and BC and serves families from through the US and Canada including those from Alberta, Newfoundland, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. For information, visit www.ventureacademy.ca.