Parents of strong-willed teens gain strategies

Confidential class caters to families whose kids have had brushes with law

As a police officer, April Wagner has responded to countless calls from desperate Palo Alto parents whose teenagers have run away, shoplifted, pulled weapons on family members or collapsed from the effects of drugs and alcohol.

"Parents think they're the only ones going through it. It's horrible," Wagner said.

"It's heartbreaking, and it tears families apart."

Last month, Wagner and fellow officer John Alaniz convened a group of such parents for the launch of a strictly confidential class on how to handle strong-willed teens.

Two rooms full of parents -- one English-speaking, one Spanish-speaking -- gathered on a weeknight at Greendell School.

For three hours with no break -- fueled by Subway sandwiches, candy and Peet's coffee -- the parents bonded over stories about their kids, according to a mother who was present.

The mother's child -- a popular Palo Alto High School student -- has had multiple contacts with police, including a citation for possession of marijuana.

"We talked about 'strong-willed' and 'compliant' kids to see what we had, and everybody in the room had strong-willed kids," the mother said.

"Traditional parenting can be effective with compliant kids, but with strong-willed kids traditional parenting isn't effective so you need ways to be effective without shutting them down."

The 12 parents in the English-speaking room interviewed one another and then introduced their interview partners to the larger group.

"It was completely open -- you could share things if you wanted to, but you didn't have to," the mother said. Parents pledged to maintain confidentiality about discussions of particular children and the identities of other parents.

They received a homework assignment to report back the next week on how their teens reacted when the parents "showed them love in a tangible way every day" through notes, hugs or verbal expressions.

"It sounded pretty obvious to me, but there was someone in the class who said, 'I don't want to tell my kids I love you,'" the mother said.

"There are definitely kids out there who aren't getting that regular dose of verbal or physical love from their parents."

The Parent Project class is now in the fourth week of a 12-week series. A joint effort of the police department and the Palo Alto Adult School, it has been offered twice a year in Palo Alto for the past five years.

Parents are referred to the class either by the school district, the police or, occasionally, by a juvenile-probation officer. Police said they typically reach out to parents of teens who have had multiple, serious contacts with the department.

"I send a letter not to every, but close to every, family whose child has been arrested more than once in that year," Wagner said.

"For example, if a child has no discipline history with the school district and shoplifted a soda at Long's, I'm not going to send a letter. But if a child has a discipline history at school and was cited for smoking weed at 11 p.m. out on a corner, it's a case where, if the parents made a bigger effort, everyone could benefit."

The Paly mother received her invitation from Police Department School Resource Officer Nanelle Newbom.

After recounting police contacts involving the woman's child, Newbom's letter said: "I'm not writing to you as an officer but as another parent of teenagers. Most of what I'm talking about here is not a matter for police to address, beyond safety concerns.

"It is for you to handle as a family."

Newbom said she sent 42 personal letters to solicit enrollment for the current class and circulated 400 fliers.

The Paly mother had already initiated an informal support group of parents of her child's friends but said she was happy to participate in The Parent Project as well.

"Palo Alto is in denial about these things," she said.

"We have this image to uphold."

The mother said she was pleased the first session had focused on the importance of parents expressing unconditional love for their children.

"Instead of making you feel like you're doing something wrong, they focus on the fact that while we cannot control our kids, we can manage them in a different way," she said.

"We talked a lot about short-term consequences, taking away things they enjoy for a short period of time."

Police officers, all too familiar with middle-of-the-night youth busts, said the Parent Project is one of the most effective tools in their arsenal to improve out-of-control teen behavior.

Calls for police to respond to the households of parents who have taken the class are eliminated or sharply reduced, Newbom said. Those parents who still call the police, she said, "tended to be the ones who were inconsistent in their attendance and participation."

Beyond coaching on steps toward "active, engaged parenting," a key goal of the course is to foster longer-term bonds among parents.

"Many parents comment that what they like most is being able to talk to other parents who have the same problems," Newbom said.

"They feel alone because their next-door neighbors -- who can hear all their family arguments -- appear to have perfect children who are attending school and on their way to Harvard."

In addition to the 12 parents in the English section, 14 are enrolled in the Spanish section.

Forty-two couples had been invited.

"I think there's a time commitment issue and maybe a feeling of, 'Oh, I don't need that,'" Wagner said. "It may be hard to admit that you need some skills."

The Parent Project is a "high-commitment class," she said. Consistent participation is critical because the curriculum builds from week to week.

"The parents want all the answers the first night -- they just want to go home and read the book. But you can't just read the book. It's about the facilitation, the other learning tools, the parents interacting -- that's what you get from it, as well as the support group."

Kara Rosenberg, principal of Palo Alto Adult School, a class co-sponsor, said she audited the first series of The Parent Project and noticed echoes of principles she absorbed years ago as a parent in Palo Alto's PreSchool Family Program.

But she was initially skeptical.

""At the beginning I thought it was never going to work and I think the parents felt the same way," Rosenberg said.

"But what I saw at the end was that the parents were confident. Not all their problems were solved, but they had strategies to help them.

"And it's nice for the parents to have these connections with the police department outside of their kids being in trouble.

"It may be trite to say, 'It takes a village,' but that is to some extent what this does. It helps parents create a network to help each other out and to know they're not in it alone."

For more information about local offerings of The Parent Project, call the police department at 650-329-2274.

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Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 5, 2011 at 4:30 pm

It's great initiative. Thank you for doing that, both parties. Thank you, committed parents, who didn't sit alone, too embarrassed to admit. I would like to see this class even as a proactive measure, starting from middle school. We all need the tools to deal and understand, prevent rather than response.

Like this comment
Posted by Alice
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 5, 2011 at 4:57 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by good program
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Feb 5, 2011 at 5:21 pm

I think it is great that the police are organizing things like this.

But more than 42 Palo Alto kids have multiple arrests in the last year? Is that an epidemic, or typical for cities of this size?

Like this comment
Posted by Sally
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 5, 2011 at 7:23 pm

Where are the fathers? Only men can raise teenage sons in a serious way. Women are out of their league. Teenage boys run all over their single mothers.

My husband always handled these issues, and they did not progress. He took care of business.

Like this comment
Posted by Single Mom
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 5, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Not all Single-Moms are "out-of-their-league." My son is doing just fine with out the ever present, domineering, demoralizing, idiotic behavior of his father, 7 days a week. Not all single moms are created equal just as all fathers are not, as all sons are not. Most people I know do the best they can, and sometimes we get lucky. If you know a single mom having trouble with her son, why don't you offer to help her? It would be more beneficial and a nicer thing to do than judging her.

Like this comment
Posted by The Key
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 5, 2011 at 9:57 pm

As mentioned, the best way to get your children to behave is to show appreciation and love. All children want the love of their parents, even if they deny it. Parents need to show their apprectiation for their children by spending time with them. They don't necessarily have to ask the child to talk to them (some parents can't talk or praise) but they can take them out to a meal and talk about stuff other than their child's life. They can even play video games with them or watch DVDs with them. Just showing the child that the parent cares enough to hang around with him/her will do wonders for the child. When children feel that their parents care, they will naturally want to please them. Rebellious children want the attention of their parents. Depending upon the relationship, it could take time. Don't think a couple of vids and DVDs together are going to miraculously change the relationship. And don't be surprised if the child makes rude, unappreciative remarks. Inside, the child will subconsciously appreciate the attention. It may take months, but a parent's love in the heart of a child is the key to peace and happiness in their hearts. Kids who FEEL unloved by parents will always have a hole in their hearts.

When kids have tantrums, they want to be heard by their parents. Parents should hear them out and acknowledge their thoughts, even if they disagree.

Parents should also let their children make many of their own decisions and choose their battles with them. If a child is always told what to do by strict parents, the child is eventually going to want to rebel. As an adult, how would you like to be told what to do all the time?

When the child is at his/her worst, it's the time the child really needs your love. It goes against human nature, but attention and a hug to the child at this time will fan the fire. Try it and see.

Like this comment
Posted by Love is not enough, but it is a start
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 6, 2011 at 4:30 am

It would be completely inappropriate to assume that teens who act out do not receive physical and verbal "proof" of love daily. Some of us are simply born very strong willed and rebellious by nature. Throw in any learning disabilities and/or stuff like ADHD, and these teens become even more likely to act out. They are very hard to manage, with or without a father in the home, though I agree that without a good Father, it would be well nigh impossible ( for me, for example, to manage our son).

There are specific parenting skills that can help parents, moms and dads alike, manage their kids better. The sooner one learns them as soon as one realizes one has a very strong-willed, rebellious child, the better off the child grows. It is very hard for those of us who truly believed "love is enough" ..meaning support, help with homework, be involved in the school, be at home whenever the kid is, bring to activities and enrichment, realize that one of our kids, raised the same as the others, is built so completely differently that "love" is simply not enough. Some kids simply need different parenting that isn't intuitive.

In the "old days" these kids would simply drop out of school or be flunked out, maybe join a gang, maybe head toward crime as a lifestyle, maybe not. But in any case, they would have been judged failures and that would be that.

I applaud parents who love their kids enough to try to change their style. Love is not enough.. a hug, a note, making a special not enough. But it is a start. I am sure that the police program will build on this to start teaching parents how to teach their teens in a way they can hear.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent Project Mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 6, 2011 at 10:50 am

We completed the Parent Project after our youngest became agressive and violent when SHE hit puberty. Our older kids (boys) turned out fine, but raising our daughter was/is a struggle. We have provided limits, boundries, etc.. Everything that works for compliant kids did not work for her. Then there is the issue of mental illness that is difficult to diagnose in young children and adolescence. Good parenting and love isn't always enough.

I agree that this town is in denial and tries to hide the many issues surrounding children. I applaud the parents who are taking the 10 week commitment to try another way to raise their kids.

Like this comment
Posted by Traditional Grandparent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 6, 2011 at 11:07 am

Unconditional love--what does that mean? To me it means that you love your kids--and grandkids--with all your heart. It also means that you act toward your children as is best for them. Love is not letting kids go down a path where they might end up in our prison system, not the best place to get back on track. Love includes reasoning, asking, modeling, and yes, consequences. Respect has to go both ways.

Spoiled brats? Yes, we've all seen a few. "Strong-willed" can be a euphemism for bratty or thuggish or criminal behavior, and we all know parents who makes excuses for inexusable behavior. Also, I have news for some of you--not all well-behaved kids are "complaisant."
Love, rightly expressed, can do wonders. But let's not get all sentimental here--kids need structure and willingness to discipline too.

Like this comment
Posted by Rebel/RedBull Drinker
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 6, 2011 at 11:18 pm

In high school all kids need freedom. This city is most likely one of the safest cities in the Bay Area. If your teen doesn't have enough freedom bad 'stuff' is more likely going to happen to them, or they're going to hit the tracks... Can't control or baby your kids forever, they need to be able to explore and experiment earlier in life, so that they build knowledge on things before they head to college and become reckless. & kids aren't looking for love by being rebellious, they do it so they can look tough amongst their peers, not be looked at as being wienies, and to rebel against b.s rules set by over protective typical Palo Alto parents...

Like this comment
Posted by Athparent
a resident of Atherton
on Feb 7, 2011 at 10:39 am

As the parent of an 18 year old who was very challenging from ages 12-16, I think this is a great intiative. The "job" of a teenager is to learn the behavior and choices that will help them become good grown-ups. This process sometimes results in kids making mistakes. Our job as parents is to love them unconditionally and keep them safe (and alive) through the teenage years.

I wish we had the opportunity to talk with other parents about our issues. I applaud Palo Alto's effort to bring the community together. I agree with the point that it really does "take a village".

Like this comment
Posted by Parent Survivor
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 7, 2011 at 10:58 am

Folks, please have compassion for these struggling parents. As a "survivor" of an out-of-control teen daughter, who is thankfully now a happy and well-adjusted young adult, I can attest that parenting that works for most teens does not work for many troubled teens.

I think this is a fantastic program, and I wish it had been available during the years our family was being torn apart by our angry, defiant, and self-destructive daughter. I needed someone to talk to during that stressful time, and there is such a stigma in Palo Alto about such things. It's wonderful that this confidential support option is available in our community.

Starting with generous applications of love is an excellent beginning for these kids and parents. I look forward to reading more about this program. Thanks for reporting on it.

Like this comment
Posted by Rajiv Bhateja
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Feb 7, 2011 at 11:15 am

I attended Parent Project (voluntarily) to learn how to parent teenagers better. I found it valuable to navigate the choppy waters of the teen years. We have a group of parents who continue to meet and support each other through parenting issues. Anyone who wants to join, check out: palo_alto_parenting_teens _at_ yahoogroups _dot_ com (replace the _at_ and _dot_ as usual).

Like this comment
Posted by Another parent who loves her challenging kids
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 7, 2011 at 11:22 am

How do we get in touch with the Parent Project? This is the first I have heard of it.

Like this comment
Posted by Adviser
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 7, 2011 at 11:32 am

Our 13-year-old son is strong-willed and defiant, and I (his father) have adapted to that by becoming his adviser, not his commander. I feel I have no choice because he does not accept my command authority as his father. Before I gave up trying to tell him what to do, I was yelling at him in frustration when our neighbors called the police on us. (Presumably they thought it might be more than yelling.) After that police visit, I resolved to never yell at him again -- it didn't seem to help anyway, other than to let him know how much I cared about what I was saying. I now only try to appeal to his intelligence and desire to not screw up his life. Most recently, when he decided he didn't need to go to school every day, I printed out info on the Web regarding state truancy laws, court cases, and so on, so he would fully understand the direction he was headed. Since then he has been voluntarily going to school. I do not always succeed as fully as this, especially when there is no compelling case against his behavior, but the big-ticket items such as grades are holding up so far. Ultimately, I cannot control him, and so it's all about convincing him to choose the right path in his own best interests. I was raised with the belt and switch, but that is no longer allowed. I suppose society (and prisons) will adapt such that love/advice-centered parenting will suffice. We don't seem to have any other choice.

Like this comment
Posted by Chris Kenrick, Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 7, 2011 at 11:38 am

For more information about local offerings of The Parent Project, call the police department at 650-329-2274.

Like this comment
Posted by Ben
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 7, 2011 at 12:40 pm

I do not think this matter Would be properly handled by two police officers, a professional psychologist on Youth and family matters should be present.
while I find this welcome and very positive it is VERY delicate, and correction matters should be handled with a psycologist as well as with this well intentioned officers together.

Like this comment
Posted by Marcia Stein
a resident of another community
on Feb 7, 2011 at 3:06 pm

Thanks for writing this article. I feel for these parents and have been there. Having a teen with normal problems and angst is one thing, but having a difficult, troubled, out-of-control teen is another.

Acknowledging you have a problem and learning that you're not alone are important first steps. I write about parenting difficult teens, and the response from other parents has reinforced the importance of sharing the pain, learning new ways of parenting, and coping with the situation.

I interviewed parents and professionals, and Parent Project was featured in the book. It's easy to find and it's a great program. Make the call if you need help.

Good luck to all.

Like this comment
Posted by ConcernedParent
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 8, 2011 at 10:15 am

For those who feel they are not able to control their kids (usually boys, but not always), I would suggest consulting with adults that these kids respect, such as teachers and coaches. When the kids lose respect for us parents, they look for others for guidance. These "authority figures" in their lives can fill a gap. This is often more true in single-mom households or where the Dads just don't have the time or ability to deal with the problem. For those kids who aren't involved in sports, I would highly recommend a martial arts program. The instructors can often provide guidance on how to show respect, live a more meaningful life, etc, in addition to providing a safe physical outlet for frustrations.

Like this comment
Posted by Formerly out of control teen
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 8, 2011 at 2:19 pm

As a formerly out of control teenage girl, and now highly educated parent w/ decent career, I still recall those days with both fond memories and shock at what I used to do.

I was a straight A student that was just lucky that I was never arrested or killed in a car accident. I certainly could have been on many occasions. To today's parents here's my 2 cents:

- I knew my parents loved me unconditionally, but that was not a factor in my day-to-day escapades or bad choices. Telling me more or spending more time with me wouldn't have made a difference. I wanted to do what I wanted to do without anyone getting in my way. Master liar here.
- Most kids are just trying to have a good time, connect with friends, essentially we are biologically wired at that time to be self-centered with little consideration of true consequences, and controlled by strong emotions.
- If you think your kids are 'compliant' or 'well-behaved', there's a good chance they are just better at hiding it from you, at not getting caught, or just lucky.
- you really can't stop them. They view themselves as adults, in charge of their own lives. They don't know what they don't know. :)
- Be the Advisor - factually point out the possible impacts to longer term ambitions, then back off. Rinse and repeat.

I could go on, but out of time...

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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