A Teen’s Cry for Help
About the Guest
What do you do with a teen who’s out of control? Today, Dennis Rainey talks with Heartlight Ministry founder Mark Gregston. Joining them are George and Livia Dunklin, concerned parents who brought their daughter Megan to Gregston’s residential facility for crisis teens after their daughter became a danger to herself and others. The Dunklins talk about the shame and fear they felt as they watched their daughter spiral out of control, and the courage it took to seek help for their family’s crisis.
What do you do with a teen who’s out of control?
George: We didn’t have drugs, sex, alcohol. Those weren’t Megan’s issues.
Livia: We were exceptionally close. In fact all three of the girls were. I think that was probably the same with her two sisters trying to figure out how it started and where it was going and how to stop it.
George: It was an anger issue more than anything. It was her frustrations and her outbursts would be an uncontrollable type of anger.
Livia: We had agreed ahead of time if it got to a certain point, and I think the point came when her sisters were afraid.
George: That was a tough one. That was a hard one.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, July 16th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey and I’m Bob Lepine. What can you do as a parent when a son or daughter is out of control? We’ll talk about that today. Stay tuned.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. When you are watching certain events in Olympic competition, sometimes the judges will talk about the degree of difficulty that the particular event has.
Dennis: Like diving.
Bob: Or gymnastics will have degrees of difficulty. When you talk about parenting there ought to be a degree of difficulty scale there too, it seems to me. Parenting is a challenge but sometimes the parenting challenge can be a real high degree of difficulty.
Dennis: It’s funny, Bob. I’ve written a book about parenting and made the mistake of writing it before I was finished parenting. God had a few more things to teach me about parenting and about being His child in the process. I have a real heart for parents who from time to time struggle with a child who is pushing back.
Maybe they’re living at home and they’re pushing back. In my book Parenting Today’s Adolescent I refer to them as in-house prodigals. There are those who leave the house and who struggle and who act out against their parents or reject the faith they have been brought up with.
We’ve invited some folks into our studio today to have a chat about their experience with children who struggle from time to time. I think there are a lot more parents who are in this category than would raise their hands.
Somehow the shame of not having everything work out perfectly, I think, is huge especially within the community of faith, the Christian community. I am excited that we have some folks here who have not only experienced this but have seen God do some very special things. George and Livia Dunklin join us along with Mark Gregston. Mark, Livia, George, welcome to the broadcast.
Guests: Thank you very much. It’s good to be here.
Dennis: Mark and his wife Jan have been in ministry for more than three decades. They have two grown children. They give leadership for a ministry that is headquartered near Longview, Texas. It’s called Heart Light Ministries, working with children who struggle from time to time.
George and Livia are neighbors, sort of, from DeWitt, Arkansas. They are rice farmers and also do a little duck hunting on the side, which I find interesting. They have three daughters. It’s really their oldest daughter that we wanted to talk about here on FamilyLife Today. It’s Megan. Megan started pushing back when she became a teenager. When did you first sense that maybe she was struggling a bit with the whole process of growing up?
George: Seventh and Eighth grade is when we saw the change. When there was an event that happened in the eighth grade that caused the principal from her middle school to call me to come and get her. She had told the principal and I that day that she didn’t want to be the good girl. She was tired of being the good girl. She wanted to be the bad girl. The principal allowed her to be the bad girl and sent her home for three days. That’s the first that we saw that we really had some issues we were having trouble getting our arms around.
Dennis: George, as her dad, did you notice that she was running around with the wrong group? Was their any kind of hint in terms of peer pressure that she was beginning to give in to or just was an issue of her attitude?
George: No. She didn’t have a lot of friends. Megan is a little bit of a loner. It wasn’t a problem with the wrong people. There certainly was a group there that would have liked to have had her join their club. That was a great concern of ours that we could go down that wrong road. We weren’t going down, but we certainly could start down. It was mainly attitude, lack of respect for her parents and for others.
Bob: Livia, let me ask you what was going on in your heart as a mom when you got the call that your husband needed to come down to the school and pick up your daughter because there was a problem?
Livia: Probably more confusion than anything else. Trying to figure out, I think that was the basis of all this. She was trying to figure out where she was. I was trying to figure out who she was and how this all transpired. That’s probably the best way to summarize.
Dennis: Did you have a good relationship with her?
Livia: We did. We were exceptionally close. In fact all three of the girls were. I think that was probably the same with her two sisters trying to figure out how it started and where it was going and how to stop it.
Dennis: It’s interesting. This is a tough time for a young person to grow up.
Livia: Especially girls, I think.
Dennis: I really agree with you. I felt like it was more challenging to raise our daughters than our sons, not that our sons didn’t have their moments. For a young lady to kind of find herself and for her to find her way in the midst of the conflicting signals and the messages of this culture.
George, I’m going to put you on the spot at this point and then I’m going to come to you, Mark, and ask you to comment on this. If you could’ve had someone to come into your home and wrap their arms around you and Livia and said, “Let me just coach you a little bit here at this first juncture, this first event that you’ve had with your daughter.” What do you wish somebody would have said to you at that point?
George: That we are not alone, number one. You feel like as parents that you are the only one. You are isolated on an island. That we’re doing something that’s wrong. We’re doing something wrong as a parent. That there’s help. That there’s hope. Mark and I talked about that. That was one of the first questions I had for Mark when we went down to see him. Is there hope? He said, “Yes.”
Dennis: It’s five or six years since this event. You’re emotional about it even as we speak. The shame that a parent feels is real, isn’t it?
Dennis: The sense of feeling like you failed. Where did I go wrong? I understand that. I really do.
Bob: Mark, when a dad hears from his daughter in the eighth grade, “I don’t want to be the good girl any more. I want to be the bad girl.” That’s a scary thing to hear. You wonder, “What do I do now?”
Mark: Yes, it is. I think one of the hardest things for somebody to understand is: most kids want to fit in with other people. If you don’t normally fit in through all of the healthy avenues, then a child’s going to fit in through all of the unhappy avenues. They’re going to do whatever it takes to fit in.
A child is basically saying, “This stuff you are teaching me isn’t working. It’s just not working the way that I’d like for it to in the society and in the culture that I’m in. So I’m going to try something different.”
I think that’s where the focus has got to be. What is not working? What are we not helping? Or is this a bigger problem that we don’t know about yet that’s going to present itself in the future?
Bob: You’re saying that the longing to belong in the heart of a teenager is so profound that he or she will jump over a lot of hurdles and cross a lot of boundaries just to have that sense of acceptance from a peer group.
Mark: No doubt. I think the encouragement to families is that it’s okay to struggle. There is something about allowing a child to struggle so that they may have guilt for their wrongdoing but they don’t move into shame thinking that there is something wrong with them. You are at a crossroads. It’s just telling parents: don’t be afraid of that crossroads.
Dennis: Don’t give energy to the crisis.
Mark: Right. Because the tendency is: the energy to the crisis is, we’re going to be negative and shaming them in some way, which just pushes them further and further into the mess.
Dennis: They really need the love of Christ. Interestingly so do the parents.
Dennis: That is what George was expressing. Livia, the struggle for a mom watching her daughter not do well is tough for a mom, isn’t it?
Livia: It is.
Dennis: How did you take it? What did you feel as you were watching your daughter struggle? You know it’s a little bit like the caterpillar and the butterfly. They are breaking out of the cocoon. You see them struggling. You know it’s going to be ultimately good but you haven’t seen the butterfly emerge yet.
Livia: Part of the thing with Megan, I noticed too, was sometimes you’d have to go through the experiences. You could talk all you wanted to and give scenarios but until she actually experienced different things the point wasn’t made. So unfortunately we had to let her go through some of those experiences in order to see her grow and knowing that the potential was there and how to get her to achieve the potential, I guess was probably one of the hardest things.
Dennis: In other words letting her experience the pain of her choices.
Dennis: That’s really tough to watch.
Livia: With her being the oldest the other two have had, I guess you would say, an example to know how to do and how not to do. She being the eldest and not having a whole lot of people to watch and pattern after I think probably had a lot to do with it.
Bob: This is your first time raising teenagers. You’ve never been down this path before either. As things progressed starting with this incident in the eighth grade and as ninth grade and tenth grade went along, were you watching her spiral more and more into a bad place?
Livia: I don’t know necessarily if she was at the place yet, but we saw that it would be. I think that’s when we phoned….
George: That’s when we made the decision to send her to Heart Light.
Dennis: Talk about what impact this had on your marriage. I compare when a child is not doing well. It’s like the whole solar system stops revolving around the sun and instead it shifts and revolves around Saturn or Pluto. Everything changes in the home where the child becomes the center of the attention and can distract the marriage. Did it take its toll on your marriage?
George: Sure. On the whole family. That’s what ends us making that decision to take your child is to save the marriage and the family. What’s best for the family is that we need to get help for us to help Megan. That’s what Heart Light did for us.
Bob: Mark, for a family to make a decision to remove a child from the home in the junior high or high school years. Maybe we should explain: Heart Light is a residential program for troubled teens. For 30 years now you’ve been working in this residential environment with troubled teens trying to get them from where there are stuck to where they are unstuck. How does a couple know as they are dealing with a teenager who is acting out, who is being rebellious, who is pushing back, or who is breaking the rules when it’s time to make a decision like that and remove the child from the home?
Mark: It’s usually when you begin to see a child engage in activity that is going to cause damage to them. That’s the first thing. I think that some of the other things is people spend a lot of time saying, “You know, it’s not turning out the way that I thought it would so I’m going to put a child there.” We tell people all of the time, that’s not exactly how you run it. You don’t do it that way. It’s not going to look like what you think it’s going to look like.
A family gets to that point where they begin to say, “If this fleshes itself out and it’s going to be worse and it’s going to be a mess,” then it is better to do something now than to wait until later. You just can’t wait too long because at some point you loose control. When a child turns seventeen and eighteen they can pretty much do what they want. You are not supported by laws. Local authorities can’t help you and won’t help you at that time.
Dennis: The thing, Mark, about both Livia and George is the amount of courage that it takes to do what they did. It is underestimated by most. I don’t think someone can appreciate what it takes to be facing the daily struggle in the home of having the family bear the pain, like you have shared about here, and yet come to the conclusion that we have to do something dramatic. We have to take our daughter or our son and put them in a residential program to get some help outside of our family. We can’t do it. We are not winning.
Mark: That is one of the most difficult decisions that anybody would ever have to make. You are living in the midst of it and then to add greater pain, to have to make that decision, you almost have to have a bigger picture view of the child’s life on down the road instead of thinking that this is going to be an easy decision.
Your child will continue to act the way they are acting until the pain from their actions is greater than the pleasure they are getting from those actions. So will the family. They will continue until the pain is so great that it is taking away from and taking a toll on the family. Everybody has to get to that point.
I think that it is so painful that it becomes an easier decision because you want some relief from it. There is a part of it that a lot of these decisions are selfish. At the same time you are thinking about your child, projecting their future if you don’t do something. It’s tough. There is nothing easy about it. There has not been one person who has ever come to us and said, “This was an easy decision. Let’s do it again.” It’s a mess.
Dennis: Livia, talk about the decision. Was it difficult for you to make that decision? George indicated that you guys do things together. You agreed on things.
Livia: We had agreed ahead of time if it got to a certain point. I think the point came when her sisters were afraid.
Dennis: They were afraid of her?
Livia: I think so. I knew that it was time then to get it under control so that we could be unified.
George: I think her sisters were afraid of Megan maybe doing something to herself, maybe doing something to them. It was an anger issue more than anything. We didn’t have drug, sex, or alcohol. Those weren’t Megan’s issues.
It was her frustrations and her emotional outbursts would be an uncontrollable type of anger. Once it came out it was fine. She was good. It was just a trail of disaster behind her. She didn’t realize. She would come up and apologize to her mother and to her sisters and thought the slate was wiped clean. She did not understand the slate was not wiped clean.
Bob: She didn’t know there was scar tissue left behind.
Bob: Tell us about the day you drove her down to Texas.
George: That was a tough one. It was the day before she was going to start her second semester of her tenth grade year. I said, “Megan, we need to go talk to a friend of mine.” A friend of hers had died in a tragic car wreck the summer before. That young man still weighed heavy on Megan’s heart. I said, “We need to go talk to this friend of mine.” So we did. We got in the car and drove for four and a half hours to go see Mark Gregston.
Megan didn’t know that I was going to leave her there. That was the hard part. That was the hard part because you can’t even say goodbye. It’s tough. When she found out that she was going to stay, she showed why she was there. It was obvious. I knew driving home that I had done the right thing. It was a tough drive.
Dennis: It is a tough drive and only a parent who has been there, only a parent who has had to do a tough thing, can begin to identify with how hard that really is. You love your child enough that you express tough love. It’s a love of the heart but nonetheless, in my opinion, it’s battlefield courage because you are battling for your child’s life at that point. Did you feel that?
George: I don’t know if Megan could have made it without that, without that day. I knew that she needed help. Livia and I did all that we could do. We needed help as parents. Megan needed help as a child. We didn’t want Megan to get in a situation that could have been a fatal error. That’s why I drove down that day to Longview, Texas.
Bob: Dennis, there are undoubtedly parents who are hearing these folks talk about their daughter and their story and they are thinking, “We’ve got stuff like this going on in our home. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know where to get help.” How would you encourage them? How would you counsel?
Dennis: I wouldn’t, first of all, retreat and get isolated. I think one of the most important things that occurs is getting some friends around you who can pray for you, counsel you, encourage you, and remind you of the truth. Any parent who thinks they’ve got all the answers has got a problem. I just don’t know of anybody who is that smart, to do it without other fellow believers who embrace the Bible and who can bring godly counsel to bear. I think those friends can help clarify the issues.
Secondly, I think you go do some research and you find out what your options are. You clarify what are the options and what is within our realm. Heart Light as a ministry costs about $5,000 per month. Is that right?
Mark: Yes. It’s quite a bit.
Dennis: For a lot of folks that’s not going to be a possibility. There are other options available on perhaps a shorter-term type of situation. There is more than one option here that couples can begin to hammer out together and begin to think about. The point is you can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.
Bob: I think for a mom and a dad to be able to sit down and say, “Are we at a point where we need to do something dramatic or something more drastic than what we’ve been doing?” They need to get some help in even evaluating that choice.
Mark, that’s one of the reasons you wrote the book When Your Teen is Struggling, to help parents have a matrix they can look at to say, “Are we at a point where we need to do something dramatic? Or is this a situation where maybe if we can make some adjustments and get some help, we can get our arms around this situation with our teenager.”
We’ve got copies of Mark’s book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com. There is information about Mark’s book there. We also have copies of Tim Kimmel’s book Why Christian Kids Rebel.
Let’s face it, you can be a good Christian parent doing the right stuff and your son or daughter might step away from your belief system and embrace choices that you wish they wouldn’t face. Tim’s book helps you understand why that happens and helps you understand what to do when that happens.
We’ve got both Mark’s book and Tim’s book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about either or both of these books. You can order them from us online at FamilyLifeToday.com or you can call 1-800-FL-Today. 1-800-358-6329. Order over the phone and someone on our team can let you know how you can either or both of these books sent to you.
A lot of folks that I know, if you had a chance to thumb through their Bible, you would find notes or loose papers tucked into the pages of the Bible. Things that have been meaningful. Things to help them to remember to pray for specific issues.
At FamilyLife we’ve created a series of prayer cards. It’s just a way to help you focus on how you can pray for one another in a marriage relationship, how you can pray for your children. We just created a new card that’s called The Five Essentials for a Thriving Marriage. On this laminated card we provide you with the important issues couples need to keep in mind in order for their marriage to be all that God intends for it to be.
This month we’d love to send you a copy of The Five Essentials for a Thriving Marriage card as a way of saying thank you for your support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today. I think most of you know that our program like many of the programs you hear on this station is listener supported. It’s folks like you who listen and who benefit from this program who help make it possible for us to be on the air on this station and on other stations all across the country. We appreciate you financial support.
Again if you are able to help with a donation this month, we’d love to send you The Five Essentials for a Thriving Marriage card to keep in a book or in your Bible or to keep with you so that you can stay focused on your marriage relationship. If you are making a donation online at FamilyLifeToday.com when you come to the key code box on the donation form, type the word “Thrive” into the box and we’ll know to send you The Five Essentials card.
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Tomorrow we are going to hear the rest of Megan’s story. Her parents George and Livia are going to be back with us. Mark Gregston is going to be with us again. We hope you can be here as well.
I want to thank our engineer today Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team on behalf of our host Dennis Rainey I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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