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September 20th, 2011
12:12 PM ET

How can I help my teen be more responsible?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Tuesdays, it's Dr. Charles Raison, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, and an expert in the mind-body connection for health.

Question asked by Risha from Sacramento:

My son suffers with anger and low self-esteem but is outrageously cocky toward me. He is almost 18, we don't get along lately, and I feel like he is jealous of my happiness. I feel like it is my fault, as I raised him as a single mom and spoiled him a lot, and now it feels like it has all backfired on me. I am crushed, but I am also starting to have my own resentment toward him.

He suffers from ADHD and most likely a mood disorder, but he refuses to make time to see the doctor. When I schedule appointments, he often wants to reschedule, which leads to having to start the whole process over. I don't want to give up, but with no support, I just don't know what to do. I am 35, I had him young, and I want to have a life, too; and I just don't see how that can happen when he refuses to help himself. It's like he wants me to do everything for him. Please advise.

Expert answer:

I've been thinking awhile about your question. Often there is a straightforward answer to people's dilemmas, but yours is not one of those. Even if I really understood your son's issues and the problems in your relationship with him, there would probably still not be any obvious, easy way to resolve things.

Having said this, let me tell you about a technique that can make solving these types of complicated problems simpler. Rather than focusing on all the issues you are facing and trying to make them right, try focusing on the outcome you want to achieve. In your case, I suspect you want your son to treat you better and take responsibility for improving his own mental health and functioning.

With this desired outcome firmly in your mind, a first step is to watch closely to see which of your actions move him a little toward this goal and which move him away from it. My guess is that much of what you are doing now is helping to promote his bad behavior and irresponsibility. Try to see this clearly without letting it bother you too much.

You know it's a serious problem, or you wouldn't have written in to me. With a clear head, try to identify anything you are doing that results in better behavior on this part, and build upon this.

Very often, relationships will transform only when one member radically changes his or her behavior toward the other person. Your son may be irresponsible and angry in part because you have been doing everything for him. If this is true, you might find his behavior improves significantly if you make him responsible for his own life and leave him to suffer the consequences of his behavior and actions. This is what happens to young people when they join the military, and it is why the military is often so good for them.

I've seen many young adults similar to your description of your son whose behavior and emotions improved significantly when they had to begin making their own way in the world.

But a word of caution: Sometimes, young people with serious mental illness are not able to make this transition and get much worse if and when their parents demand that they "grow up." In these cases - all of which are heartbreaking - parents have to decide to either cut the child loose to face dire life circumstances or realize they will need to oversee and intervene in the young person's life indefinitely.

However, even in these situations, if a parent watches his or her behavior to identify what improves and what worsens the child's behavior, things can often improve.

Let me leave you with a final thought. Trying to change your son, at the age of 18, is a very difficult undertaking. A smarter way to help resolve the problem is to focus on yourself and your own issues. I never cease to be amazed how profoundly relationships can change when one person gets help for his or her own issues. You might consider seeing a therapist yourself to work on your own reactions and behavior within the relationship, rather than trying futilely to force your son into treatment.

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soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. erich2112x

    You have 18 years to raise a child. That's more than enough time, but during those 18 years, they need a lot of practice with responsibility and life lessons. It's far better for them to fall on their a$s while still living at home rather than when their out on their own.

    September 20, 2011 at 12:34 | Report abuse | Reply
    • teresa

      ADULT STEM CELLS CURE'S AIDS / HIV and A NUMBER OF OTHER THINGS BUT WHY????? IS AMERICA BEING HELD BACK FROM THE MAJOR LEAP IN MEDICINE DOES AMERICA WANT TOO KILL YOU ??????? OTHER COUNTRIES MAKING MAJOR LEAPS INTO MEDICINE BUT AMERICA IS STILL IN THE STONE AGE WHY????? WHO BENEFITS THE FDA BIG CORPORATIONS .......???

      October 17, 2011 at 22:43 | Report abuse |
  2. rileydog

    One word of advice. Stop making it your responsibility to make him happy. I would stop making appointments, beggging etc. I would see a therapist for yourself who can also help you with how to handle this, but honestly if you step back and let him take over his life without your intervention he will likely step up to the plate. If you continue to rescue him there is no reason for him to do so.

    September 20, 2011 at 14:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Jay

    What happened to swatting a kid's behind when they got out-of-line? I'm 26, have an education and career, I'm respectful, trustworthy, and honest. I also have ADHD. My parents used to smack me with a belt all the time–and not in an abusive way–because I NEEDED it for being a little jerk. Parents want to be their kids' friend when they should be the parent. This issue is what's wrong with education in this country too–too many "friends" and not enough parents.

    September 20, 2011 at 14:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Wondering

      Because there are too many cell phones with camera, video survelliance etc. You are not allowed to raise you child yourself, I've had the police called on me for yelling at my kids, not touching them, not kicking them out of the house, simply yelling at them. Yet I constantly hear from teachers etc. that I have very respectful, well-behaved kids (now teens). But I am not allowed to discipline them, because someone thinks a few cuss words yelled at a teen being disrespectful to her mother is abusive behavior.

      September 20, 2011 at 18:54 | Report abuse |
  4. Juli

    At 18 he is an adult. I raised 2 children as a single parent; used the book "Parent Effectiveness Training." Not sure what you can do once they're 18; I trusted my children to do what they considered right for themselves.

    September 20, 2011 at 14:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Cyc

      It doesn't sound like a joke to you because you don't know her and don't izalree how much she jokes about her kid being spoiled with people she knows, and I and most likely everyone else who liked it izalreed that. Did you see the sarcastic response right under it? I strongly doubt this is an actual friend. The poster is guilty of accepting friend requests from acquaintances that are most likely jealous that she manages to hold it together so well and want an opportunity to be nasty (I've told her to weed it down and hopefully after this she will she's just busy and doesn't bother). I know me and two other people alerted her that this got posted by some virtual frenemy ). She's a busy person, but clearly since people like you have nothing better to do than take things out of context of a person who was probably typing a quick update to her family one handed while taking care of a baby and managing a full time job.

      March 5, 2012 at 20:28 | Report abuse |
  5. kw1223

    I'm 36 and I have a 13 and a 16 year old. Neither of them disrespect me. The biggest problem I have is that i have to remind them to clean their bedrooms. That's it. Both are honor roll students. the 16 year old takes AP classes and plays softball. The 13 year old is on the same track. Oh yeah, and I'm a single mom too. Have been for the last 12 years.

    Ii just do not understand how so many parents can have so many problems with their kids. If they do their job right, kids turn out fine. And for God's sake, stop blaming everything on ADHD and mood disorders and own up to the fact that your kid turned out to be a jerk because you let him.

    September 20, 2011 at 15:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • melvinslizard

      I hope you didn't hurt your shoulder while you were patting yourself on the back. Are your kids as egotistical, I wonder?

      Don't climb up on your throne and preach until you've had actual experience with ADHD. Thank you.

      September 20, 2011 at 16:03 | Report abuse |
    • consistent accountability

      I have experience with both ADD and a major mood disorder, both of which were diagnosed 10 years after I left the nest. My parents raised my brother and I with very high expectations and standards and were were always held accountable for our behavior. This is why I have survived my illness and am doing quite well. I was raised with discipline from the very first days and I don't give up. Parents do have to be parents and they do have to be firm when needed. Everyone should always be accountable for their actions. Is ADD/ADHD difficult to deal with? You betcha! That's no excuse, however, for slacking off with your kid because you, the parent, don't feel like enforcing the rules. Do your job and you will be rewarded later. I know because I am the product of it. Thank you Mom and Dad for having and consistently enforcing the rules.

      September 20, 2011 at 16:55 | Report abuse |
    • Afflicted

      You know what? You are fortunate. I have three kids: 2 with ADD, one without. The two with ADD also have depression/anxiety/mood problems. I raised all of them to respect me, gave them lots of my time, both my husband and I disciplined as consistently as we could. And yet, the oldest does not respect us (she is better than many I have seen, but we have high expectations, and yelling reasons why she isn't responsible for something, counts in our book as disrespectful. Especially when she IS responsible.) She is immature, lazy, and poorly mannered. The other two are wonderful, even the other one with the same emotional problems as the oldest one (both the younger ones are teens now). Not that the one with the same difficulties doesn't struggle, but he doesn't fight his parents' authority and advice like the oldest does. I can discern no difference in how they were raised, other than the oldest got the most advantages in way of attention and opportunities (school, programs, athletics, etc). I believe that God gave me a difficult child...and two others to prove to me, it wasn't my fault. That's how she is. We are still trying to help her, but understand that children with ADD are slower to mature emotionally and socially than normal children, and tend to be egocentric, that is, think of themselves, and they also tend to avoid taking responsibility for things that go wrong. Add to that a stubborn head plus the surety that she's got the answers, and you have a recipe for a parental headache. I used to think parents who had kids like my oldest were bad parents, but I am one of the most proactive parents I know, and not at all afraid to discipline, and yet I still have this child. I feel like a failure some days, but when I am honest with myself, I have done everything to the best that I could, and I have two wonderful children to show that that worked well. The oldest..well, I am hoping her innate wisdom and God's hand on her life will eventually help her to realize her potential.

      September 20, 2011 at 20:19 | Report abuse |
  6. Nicole

    She needed to be teaching him responsibility WAY before now. My kids (ages 9, 4 and 3) are already being taught that they are responsible for their own happiness and not to blame others for their actions. My nin year old does her own laundry and my 4 year old puts his away. All the kids clean their own rooms and the two older ones are responsible for making time for homework (we help them if needed when they don't understand something). If they don't complete it then they will suffer the consequences in class...I tell them all the time that I have already been in school, now it's their turn. If he's 18, it's time to let go and see if he can fly...he may surprise you.

    September 20, 2011 at 15:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. In the know

    You all know everything, don't you?

    I've raised two kids. One has adhd and a mood disorder and the other doesn't. I've raised them basically the same way. One is snotty toward me, sneers at consequences (even though I follow through), and has tried to get physical with me. The other is thoughtful, courteous, kind, a high achiever and goes out of their way to help others. Sometimes nature really does trump nurture.

    But I was smug and had all the answers too before I became a parent to a child with issues.

    September 20, 2011 at 16:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Kris

    I live in a well-to-do suburb east of Seattle. The kids that go to the schools here are often pampered by their parents. The parents don't realize the disservice they are doing to their children. When these types of kids go off to college, they are ill-equipped to handle life's challenges (like doing their own laundry, for example!). Some of these kids demonstrate significant talent at a young age, whether it be a musical instrument, a sport, or dance. And yet, mom and dad don't teach them how to make their own lunch – even when the kids are teenagers who are capable of accomplishing great things (like earning their Eagle Scout). Nobody does anything unless they have to. Make it so your kids have to learn these things and they will. They are capable!

    September 20, 2011 at 16:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. us1776

    The time to develop your child is during early childhood.

    Once your child is in their teens most of their habits and behaviors are already formed and difficult to change.

    Parents, do your homework early – it's much easier that way.

    .

    September 20, 2011 at 17:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Teemee

    Simple problem- simple solution. the problem: kids have too many rights now.... in the 50s if a boy would be outrageously disrespectful to his parents or a girl got pregnant, they would have been thrown out of the house- no questions asked. Kids knew that could happen back then and so generally they were more respectful and used their brain more. Simple solution: knock off this unconditional love crap and stop letting kids run everything! And another thing- stop buying them everything! I read a statistic that states that when one takes inflation into consideration, the average parent spends 500% more on their kids now than they did one generation ago. Hello! STOP giving in to them! And if they fry out, let them! bye bye, and welcome to planet Earth! Geez!

    September 20, 2011 at 18:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Teemee

    Simple problem- simple solution. the problem: kids have too many rights now.... in the 50s if a boy would be outrageously disrespectful to his parents or a girl got pregnant, they would have been thrown out of the house- no questions asked. Kids knew that could happen back then and so generally they were more respectful and used their brain more. Simple solution: knock off this unconditional love crap and stop letting kids run everything! And another thing- stop buying them everything! I read a statistic that states that when one takes inflation into consideration, the average parent spends 500% more on their kids now than they did one generation ago. Hello! STOP giving in to them! And if they fry out, let them! bye bye, and welcome to planet Earth! Geeez!

    September 20, 2011 at 18:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tom

      Week put and totally correct.

      September 20, 2011 at 20:08 | Report abuse |
    • Soma

      Posted on The ancient Greek phoioslphers and the writers of the Old Testament stressed that there is a higher law than human law. In the first century B.C., the Roman philosopher Cicero insisted that this higher natural law is universal and can be discovered through human reasoning. (It is God's law, which he reveals to all people through their reasoning. It is not learned. It is divinely given) This led to the idea that government power has limits, and that people and governments everywhere are bound by natural law.

      March 4, 2012 at 11:03 | Report abuse |
  12. Christianna

    Lady, go to church together and pray for him. Set a standard and enforce it consistently. Tell him he has no right to stay under your roof if he does not comply and do what you say to him to certain extent, explaining the relation of rights and privileges. Tell him how much money you are losing by rescheduling appointments. Teach him faith and morality even now. Don't let kids just do what they want to do but make what is good their duty to do since they don't know what is best for them. Being in the right place, kids learn. It's better than nothing. Don't give kids choice where they should not have choice.

    September 21, 2011 at 01:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Bill

    Just because your son is 18 doesn't mean much, kids mature at different ages. I can appreciate that as a single mother, it has not been easy but you have to set some limits on him and not let him treat you like a doormat. You spoiled him, to make up for the lack of a father, now he is moody. If he will not go for help, then you go. You need a counselor who can help you learn how to be more strict and not a push over.

    September 21, 2011 at 07:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. teresa

    ADULT STEM CELLS CURE'S AIDS / HIV and A NUMBER OF OTHER THINGS BUT WHY????? IS AMERICA BEING HELD BACK FROM THE MAJOR LEAP IN MEDICINE DOES AMERICA WANT TOO KILL YOU ??????? OTHER COUNTRIES MAKING MAJOR LEAPS INTO MEDICINE BUT AMERICA IS STILL IN THE STONE AGE WHY????? WHO BENEFITS THE FDA BIG CORPORATIONS .......?

    October 17, 2011 at 22:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Amora

    Jenny, speaking as a rnpeat, this is one of those subjects that scare me. I have two daughters. I hold their hearts and affections right now, along with their daddy, and we do our best to teach them right and wrong and how to love and forgive and all that stuff that makes us good humans. However, I know that there will come a day when their hearts and affections will be placed on a boy that I will most likely have no knowledge of. I won't know how he was raised, how his mama taught him to treat women, how his daddy taught him to be a man. I won't know if someone taught him to treat women with respect and honor. I won't know if he will just want to use my children, to degrade them, to fondle them, to take away their purity. I won't know if he's a beater, a drug user, an addict of some sort, a harmer. And that's one of those issues I have to tuck away into a special envelope inside of me of "Stuff I Can't Control".Speaking as a woman, this post makes me so sad, mostly because there are so many women out there that would allow themselves to be treated so vicously by another human being and are not being taught to choose wisely. We are pretty much shouted at by the time we are walking that we are to love, and love soon. We are considered weird if we keep ourselves aloof, or not splashing ourselves around. We're called square. So, we go with the flow, and we date boys that look fun, who pay us a bit of attention, that seem to fill a hole. And we begin a pattern that is so hard to break. We are sad. And we look sad to others.

    March 6, 2012 at 01:18 | Report abuse | Reply

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