April 02, 2009

Runaway Teens: Level One Detention

Old Battersea Bridge by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. 1859

How do we get a kid to leave Fantasy Island and cross the bridge to Reality? 

We shout out a few Wake-up Calls and REFUSE to meet 'em even half-way to crazy.

My nephew ran away on Wednesday after getting in trouble on Monday, managing to make a bad situation worse with his arrest on Friday. That’s three days on the lam. They were armed with DVDs, CDs, ipods, and comic books---enough entertainment to distract them from freezing temperatures, growling tummies and adolescent egos too proud to call home.

I am thankful the police were concerned when we reported him missing Wednesday afternoon. I am thankful watchful people called police when they spied two stray kids roaming a parking lot. They could have ignored their intuition, but they didn’t. Bless them.

For three days, the agony of not knowing if my nephew had been kidnapped was hellish beyond description. We hardly slept a wink. We were reassured by his disheveled appearance on Friday that he hadn’t gotten much sleep either.

My sisters and daughter and I kept vigil in our home while extended family members called for updates. Prayers went out all over the USA because we did not know if he had run away of his own volition, been abducted by a weirdo, or kidnapped by his estranged father. The waiting period was excruciating and our imaginations got the better of us from time-to-time. Then we’d joke ourselves back to normalcy, cry to relieve the pressure, and start the emotional rigmarole all over again.

We admitted that if he walked through the front door at any moment (which is what the police presumed would happen), our immediate reaction would be to cover him in kisses and hugs; we’d be so relieved. 

I’m deeply sorrowful for parents who never know what happened to their child. The unknowing is immobilizing. It’s as if life stops. Moving one foot feels like a betrayal to the child’s safety. We want to freeze time in place. Hold our breath long enough to keep the days from moving forward. Maybe we could find a magic key and turn back the hands of time? I bargained with myself, “If he comes home, I’ll hug him every morning before he leaves for school.” “If he comes home, I’ll pay more attention, be less critical, make chocolate pudding three times a week. If he comes home, I’ll…”

Well, you get the drill.

The initial decision to have him arrested was hard because parents cannot bail out a child in state custody. That meant he could sit in detention anywhere from three days to thirty days, depending on the judge. We went for the three-to-thirty anyway. He got five.

We kept his psychologist informed from the day he ran away to the time of his arrest. Once she knew he was safe in detention (and yes, she’s the one who told us to let the cops handcuff and arrest him), she outlined a plan for our consideration.

She suggested we keep ourselves busy over the weekend while my nephew was locked up and not spend the weekend in detention ourselves. That we go about our normal routine so he did not control the family’s behavior. She suggested we not call him or visit him during visiting hours because in her opinion, he needed to miss his family--to really and truly YEARN for his family. Detention was a good place for him to think about what he’d done and make the connection between his choices and consequences.

“First,” she said. “By choosing to run away, he has basically lost his privileges in the family. Do not reward him for coming home. If you do, anytime he has problems, he’ll leave, expecting you to shower him with love when he returns. If you’re strong enough to take my advice and nip this self-destructive pattern in the bud RIGHT NOW, you can start with Level One Detention: his room is his prison and you guys are his wardens.”

That meant removing everything from his bedroom but the bare essentials. We were supposed to transform his bedroom from a teenage sanctuary to a detention cell.

1-We removed his favorite feather pillow; his comfy comforter; his games and game players; his extra clothes and stuffed animals. Yes, teen-age boys do have stuffed animals even if they won’t admit it to their friends. We stripped his bed of everything except a bottom sheet, a polyester pillow, and a meager blanket.

2-We boxed up his stuff, all his luxuries, and stored them in the garage where he could gradually earn them back for good behavior. (Good behavior=not sneaking out of his room; getting to school on time; no sass-back and no snotty attitude either). Some items he could earn back but others would be pawned to pay his legal fees, which we would not be paying for him. That meant the Sony player and other expensive items would be hawked at the pawnshop…when he had permission to leave his room, that is.

3-He could not eat with the family. He was to stay in his room for at least a week and IF he followed the rules, his dining privileges would be restored.

4-He had one menu for an entire week (or longer if he gave us any flak): a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk. That’s it and that’s all he could eat even though he knew we were enjoying his favorite dish: heavy-on-the-garlic-pork-carnitas simmering in the kitchen. When we sat down to eat as a family, someone took his sandwich to him on a paper plate where he ate alone in his room. Nobody joined him other than his cat.

5-We drove him to school and picked him up (how embarrassing!) at the end of the day. He lost the privilege of walking home by himself. Until he earned our trust again, his pajama-clad aunts with no make-up and lousy hair would shuttle him back and forth.

6-He could not play games with the family nor watch TV. No radio, no telephone, no music, no puzzles, no free time outside his room other than practicing the piano, using the bathroom, doing his laundry, cleaning the cat box and taking garbage cans to the curb. Not beyond the curb either since the ‘street’ was out of bounds without a chaperone. That also meant he was banned from shopping or going anywhere other than school or his room.

7-He was not allowed anything in his room other than a couple of books we selected from our ‘classics’ collection. I believe he finished reading Huck Finn in fewer than three days. If he was bored, he had two choices: read a book or think in silence. If he was really desperate, he could study all the little sparrows flitting to his windowsill like the birdman of Alcatraz did in his off-time.

8-He called his case manager daily. We did not. We did not remind nor beg him to conform to the law. If he didn’t do what he was supposed to do, he knew the consequences: Go Directly To Juvenile Detention where the beds are hard, the floors are cold, the food is lousy, and the wardens watch you pee in your toilet. 

9-He went to his high school and talked with the counselor, making arrangements to catch up on his homework. Even when one of his aunts or his mother accompanied him to the counselor’s office, he took full responsibility for the arrangements. We let him do all the talking, all the apologizing, and we never flinched a muscle or made excuses.

10-We did not handle his money crisis for him. He didn’t have a job so he had to sell his stuff. (Yea, it bout killed his mother who’d paid fifty bucks for a computer game bringing three dollars at Game Stop). I’m proud of her for sticking to the ‘rules’. That wasn’t easy. He also gave the courts all his Christmas money along with any savings he had accrued.

11-We did not hire a private attorney. This was juvenile court, which is less serious because of his age, but we wanted him to be represented by the attorney he could afford (another big reality check). That meant he had a public defender with about fifteen minutes of preparation prior to standing before the judge. A judge, who from the looks of her, was plenty fed up with juvenile delinquents who thought they could do whatever they wanted because somebody would let ‘em the hook. That somebody was usually a parent.



  1. Thank you for this detailed road map through the Country of Tough Love, CZ. It's one thing to talk about consequences; it's quite another thing to understand, implement, and SUSTAIN them.

    You provided consistency and standards... two things that are all too often missing when people mistake enabling for love.

    Well done. I hope he comes to his senses, and I hope one day he realizes how much you and his mother did for him - here, now, this - and how hard it really was... at first... until you began to realize that it was, truly, the only workable option.

    And oh, yea... his therapist?

    deserves a medal.


  2. Thanks, Storm. I hope writing about the 'details' will help other parents facing similar challenges with their children.

    In all truth, the psychotherapist was shocked to see how dutifully we followed her directions. This approach was definitely the HARDER path to take. It's understandable why parents are unable to detach quickly enough to avoid the Drama Triangle. Our first instinct is to rescue the child and HOPE our intervention will have positive results.

    We are seeing encouraging changes in my nephew's maturation and I'll write more about that. Because we've seen him 'wake up' to his responsibility as a young man, I feel much more comfortable writing about our strategy to keep him focused on himself and not on a rescuer OR a handy excuse.

    I've also made my fair share of mistakes with my own children. We learn so much about ourselves in the recovery process so being able to test that new knowledge is very rewarding. What's the use of a million facts if we don't know how to implement them?

    In learning about and dealing with narcissists, most people have direct experience with what DIDN'T and DOESN'T work. No need doing the same thing over and over again...we all know where that gets us: Nowhere.


  3. It is huge gamble to make. You could easily have lost him to the law.

    Here in Denmark where I live the police don't arrest youth who run away.

    If a teenager is reported missing they just locate him to secure that there is no pedofile involved. Then they leave it to the social services to negociate the teenager home again.

    Only if the family are not willing agree to some terms the teenager is sent to one of our continuation schools, which are known to be hell. The teenager cannot drink alcohol there as non-potential terrrorists do (Our laws allow them to buy alcohol when they are 16) and at some they even cannot smoke.

    Having a kid arrested just for running away is to giving a teenager a record without purpose and the sure path down to a lifetime in jail. You don't know what kind of tricks he learns inside.

  4. Dear Anne B. Jensen,

    You make an important point and one that ought be considered by every parent before taking the drastic action we did.

    The police in our city have an overnight jail for run-aways that nicknamed "The Christmas Box" where parents can come the next day to retrieve their 'gift'. This might deter some kids from running away and getting themselves in trouble with the law requiring juvenile detention.

    Had my nephew only run away and not vandalized a building and stolen property from two community organizations, we likely would NOT have asked the police to arrest him.

    Since HE made the choice to break the law, we felt it best for him to experience the consequences society enforces.

    I doubt most runaways are sent to juvenile detention unless they commit a crime. Once kids get hungry though, they frequently do foolish things to pay for food rather than let their egos take a 'hit' by returning home.

    Perhaps my messages were not very clear and if so, I'd like to restate that my nephew did not just run away. This made our decision more complicated than it would have been otherwise.

    Thanks for commenting. I appreciate the opportunity to clarify my messages and also learn about laws in Denmark!

    (tho' I'm not glad to hear that you also deal with teenage runaways overseas.)It's heart breaking...


  5. CZ what is the connection with this experience and Narcissism? I've been reading your blog and WoN(both lifelines for so many.) I am gathering information to help me understand this disorder. I am thinking that this nephew is exhibiting narcissistic behavior but is not diagnosed because he is a teen. Can you shed light here?
    Thankyou for this treasure trove of knowledge and experience.

  6. If a parent does not give attention to their kids and are not considerate enough to understand their situation then they will end up running away from their parents if they get in any kind of trouble because they are too scared on what their parents might do to them. Let us love our kids so that they will stay close to us and not away from us.

  7. Dear Geneva,

    I apologize for not replying to your comment earlier. It's been a year and a half since you left a comment on my blog!

    I also saw my nephew as behaving 'narcissistically' and it worried me a great deal because I know from experience that the end road of narcissistic behavior is disastrous. I really should address your questions on a separate article, tho.

    Just in case I forget to do that, let me say that my approach with him was to 'nip' his narcissism in the bud and get the kid 'feeling his feelings'. I encouraged him to express how he felt, even negative feelings.

    I also encouraged him to think about how his behavior impacted other people. To get outside himself as much as any teenager can, ha!

    I supported him doing charitable projects for others with positive reinforcement and cut back on the negative reinforcement most people learned when they were kids.

    But in short answer to your question about his narcissistic behavior, YES. I saw the narcissism and I thought of ways to help him break through his ego defenses. I never poo-poo narcissism as a 'normal' thing because it reduces the quality of their lives and other people's lives, too.

    It's probably time for an update on my nephew, though. His diagnosis changed when he was 19: Asperger's Syndrome.

    I guess the main thing that happened after he ran away is that I drew closer to him, offering more validation and support than before. (Not that I was ever a neglectful Aunt. This kid has had amazing support throughout his life).

    I am absolutely certain that my narcissism studies were instrumental in being able to support my nephew.

    Thank you for commenting, Geneva...you've likely moved on but I hope my mini-update is useful to other readers!


  8. Dear Gab,

    There are many reasons why kids run away. Although I appreciate your efforts to help runaway teens, it is too simplistic to blame parents for not loving their children or keeping them close.

    Parents have enough blame heaped on their shoulders. Society is ever-ready to point fingers at parents who are often facing incredible challenges with difficult kids. We don't give parents proper support OR credit. More often than not, parents are left on their own to handle abusive, even dangerous teens while onlookers criticize them for not loving their child enough.

    I have been on the ugly end of the stick, too. Any truly, no one has been more loving, accepting and gentle than myself. I can say that without any hesitation.

    We have children with serious problems, such as bipolar disorder and ADHD. Or even undiagnosed Aspergers.

    It is unthinkable how we treat parents who are raising these children. So yes, we need more support for our children but I also believe we need more support for parents.

    The society our kids are growing up in today will result in MORE troubled kids, not fewer. We all need to examine what we are teaching our children in a culture that is materialistic, self-adoring, self-promoting and self-centered.



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