Earlier this week, a report came out about parents who were abusing Nebraska’s Safe Haven law by dropping off their wayward teenagers, some as old as 17, at state hospitals. The law was intended to work like California’s Safely Surrendered Baby law, where parents can leave their newborn infants at a state hospital — no questions asked.
Instead, stressed out parents from all over the country abused the Nebraska law and dumped their teenaged children, roughly 36 of them, hoping for no questions asked. Not only were questions asked and some of the children returned to their home state, but Nebraska amended the law and put an age limit of 30 days, i.e., one month old.
In our Art and Culture section this week, I wrote a story about young women who have been incarcerated in the Ventura County Juvenile Justice Complex who turned over a new leaf through a new hobby — photography.
At this facility, I talked to the staff talked about who was being held there. One girl didn’t know where her father was, her mom had died of cancer and the home of the girl’s adoptive relative was unsafe and unhealthy. She had gotten into drugs and gangs at the ripe age of 12.
Another girl was stuck there because her parents opted out of picking her up at the time of release, leaving her with nowhere to go. She had served her time, had cleaned up her act and was beginning to pursue healthy hobbies. She hadn’t even reached her 16th birthday.
The staff at the facility also said nearly 30 teenagers were awaiting trial for crimes of murder, hate crimes and rape. None of these kids were even old enough to vote and here they were, acting like they had been living the life of a seasoned criminal.
And now here we are. Parents, teachers, journalists, firefighters, CEOs, small business owners, etc., and the battle ensues: “It’s the parents’ fault!” “My child was out of control!”
But the girls referred to in my article were not out of control. After my visit, I found that they were well spoken, hopeful, emotionally enlightened young girls. They just needed someone to listen to them, but more importantly they needed someone to guide them away from the paths they were following into productive activities that helped increase their self worth.
As a society, pointing fingers is useless. Throwing in the towel on rebellious teenagers doesn’t help them or anyone else. Teenagers rebel because they want to assert they have authority over their life and don’t want anyone telling them what to do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need structure, guidance and love. Children and teenagers are impressionable, soaking their surroundings up like a sponge, and eager for recognition.
But it doesn’t stop with the parents. Parents need help, too. Educators can’t just blame the parents for the behavior of their students. They spend six to eight hours a day working with these children and can’t just pass the buck. There has to be a cooperative effort, whether a person reaches out to a worried mother, a teacher sits down with the defiant teenager, or a mother seeks counseling for her child.
Parents: Be aware of your children’s behavior, connect with them. Take action to help them, distract them with something fun and interesting. And get to them before their hormones begin to rage. You, for the most part, are all they have and know.
Educators: Pay attention to the signs, talk to the parents and let counselors know if behaviors worsen. If you are feeling disengaged from your pupils, find a way to revitalize your passion for helping adolescents succeed. Understand your role is almost as important as the parents’ role when helping a teen become a healthy adult.
Leaders and role models: While teenagers rebel against their parents, they are looking for respect as unique and important individuals. As adults, we should treat youngsters the way we were treated or wished to be treated as teenagers ourselves. Their success depends on you as well.
We have to stop giving up on these bright, yet very confused children. They need our help as a whole; they are not looking to be in the middle of a blame game. We can’t just dump our teenagers off and expect them to just understand why they are being abandoned. We have to understand that some children are harder to handle than others and need extra attention, and some parents just need extra help in raising their children. Their future depends on us.
E-mail Michael Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.