Help for the Troubled Teen
About the Guest
Do you have a child that's out of control? We want you to know there's hope. Jim Subers, President of Shelterwood, a residential facility for teens ages 13-18, explains why it's getting more and more difficult to raise children today. Jim tells parents how they can know when their child needs professional help, and how their facility is giving these teens a hope and a purpose.
Do you have a child that’s out of control? We want you to know there’s hope. Jim Subers, President of Shelterwood explains why it’s getting more and more difficult to raise children today.
Help for the Troubled Teen
Bob: Have you wondered if a teenager you know—maybe your own son or daughter—is just going through a difficult time or if there is something really wrong? How can you tell if the issue is critical / if it’s serious? Here’s Jim Subers.
Jim: You know, there are all kinds of warning signs—defiance, cutting, suicide ideation—where they’re talking about hating themselves / wanting to kill themselves. There are lots of warning signs, but you can’t underestimate the gut of a parent. If they find themselves, more than once a month, wondering, “Is my child really in serious trouble?” they need to get him some help.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, May 21st. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. What can a mom or a dad do if a son or daughter needs serious help? We’ll explore that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. There are times, when a mom or a dad can do all they can do in raising a son or a daughter, and they just look at each other and say, “We’re over our heads.” They never anticipated they’d get there. They are kind of blind-sided—they feel defeated. It’s a hard place for parents to be.
Dennis: It is. It’s interesting, Bob, within the Christian community, how many parents can be hurting, privately, and not kind of come out and share their drama—and find help, and healing, and hope—in the Christian community, who can kind of wrap their arms around them, and say: “You know, you aren’t alone. Here are some other parents you need to be getting together with where you can kind of gain some courage, perspective, and not beat yourself up with shame.”
Bob: Yes, don’t you think a lot of parents don’t open up about this because they do feel: “It must be me. I must have been a bad parent.”
Dennis: Absolutely—in fact, let’s ask our guest, who heads up a ministry in Kansas City called Shelterwood. Jim Subers joins us on FamilyLife Today. Jim, welcome to the broadcast.
Jim: Thank you. It’s great to be here; and you’re describing most of our parents, Bob. Most of—used to be, I guess—20 years ago, if a kid had significant behavioral/emotional problems, you could kind of assume that the family was dysfunctional—that there was a father that had left or there was some kind of abuse.
But I’ve got to tell you—most of the families at Shelterwood / most of the kids that we have here come from stable two-parent homes and loving parents, who are trying their best to do a good job and take their kids to church on Sunday.
But they are finding some real struggles with their teenagers.
Dennis: Yours is a residential facility where parents can bring a troubled child, aged 13 to 18; is that right?
Jim: Yes, 13 to 18.
Dennis: It’s a pretty good-sized facility. You’ve got room for 64 teenagers; right?
Jim: Yes, we currently can take 64 kids. We’re building a new residential lodge so we will be able to expand in the next couple of months as well. The demand—we’ve got 5,000 phone calls we take a year—parents looking for help for their teens—and about 80,000 come to our website looking for help. It’s a significant issue, right now, for faith families that are looking for help for their teenagers that are being assaulted by the challenges of this culture.
Dennis: Yes, let’s talk about that for a moment. Before we talk about a true prodigal or a troubled teen, you’ve been a student of what’s taking place in teenagers for a number of years.
You help launch and lead Kids Across America, which was a very successful endeavor. What do you think parents need to know today that—maybe it’s not unique just to kids today—but what do you see happening with teenagers today?
Jim: In my view, perhaps this is the most—at least in the modern era—the most difficult time to raise a child. I think you guys probably remember there was a movie, a number of years ago called, The Perfect Storm, when it was a convergence of several major weather patterns at the same time that created this monster storm.
Well, I think that’s what we’re dealing with, with our kids right now. It’s the perfect storm in our culture. You think: “What are the storms? What are the things that converged?” Well, I don’t think you can underestimate, first, the influence of modern media—whether it be the iPhone® and the computer and the iPad® and the internet. Even if you restrict stuff at your own home, your children’s friends still have it on their iPhone or at their home. It’s a challenge.
And then there are other issues related to that—influence of media too. We know about the content issues and how that’s influencing our kids. But what effect does constant screen time have on the adolescent brain, and the development of the adolescent brain, and the way to think and the way to process information? What influence does the texting and the sound-bite communication that kids are doing have on their ability to develop deep relationships and to communicate?
We find kids that come to Shelterwood—they’ve got friends, a mile wide, but an inch deep. They haven’t really learned to communicate—they’ve worn their mask. We disconnect them from the matrix, so to speak, when they get to Shelterwood. They get off of their phones, they get off their iPads, and they get off their computers. They have to learn to relate to one another and to communicate.
Dennis: Do you think we’re trusting young people at too early an age with these devices? If you were a parent again, what would you do? What would you and your wife do?
Jim: Well, I am a parent—still. [Laughing] I’ve got a 19-year-old and a 22-year-old, and then, I’ve got the two older ones that are married and off. But my 22-year-old has autism. For his sake, we have not given him a phone that enables him to access the internet because he doesn’t have the—
Bob: —the filter
Jim: —the filter / the wherewithal to say, “No,” when the desire comes to go to sites that would be inappropriate.
I don’t know how you stop this train because it’s running pretty fast. But I know that is a major, major barrier to parenting today—is the influence of culture. So, you’ve got media. Then you’ve got the general challenge of a culture that no longer believes in moral absolutes.
Then you’ve got the issues of the teenage years—and kids feeling like they don’t have purpose / they don’t have a reason to exist. There’s a lot of depression that’s coming because there is a sense of not really having a goal and a meaningful purpose for their teen years.
Used to be—kids had jobs—they were working the family business. They were involved in some type of activity that was supporting the family. The last 40 years—that hasn’t happened, and kids have been given a lot.
I know for us, at Shelterwood, one of the ways we battle that is we get the kids engaged in service projects. Our missions to Haiti have been instrumental in helping give kids the opportunity to serve and to see the benefit of living for something more than themselves. We’ve seen tremendous growth in lots of their lives with that.
Then, what you guys would be very familiar with is the psychobabble of the last 40 years and the ways the ideas of parenting have shifted because of Freudian thought—time-outs and explaining things to your kids—and not recognizing that your children need to shift, from the time they are two or three, to understanding parental authority and responding to that.
If you haven’t gotten a handle on that, by the time they’re a teenager, you’re going to have a tough row to hoe. At Shelterwood, a lot of the kids we’re dealing with have not really addressed those issues—have not come to a place of responding to parental authority. So, we have to come alongside moms and dads and help them in that process.
Dennis: It seems to set children up—young people who are not yet adults—they are not mature / they don’t have the character in place to be a shock-absorber and provide the rails to run on in life to keep them out of the ditch. They make mistakes repeatedly—over, and over, and over again—and sometimes it becomes damaging to the child and then to the family—
—and then they [knocking sound] they come knocking on the door of Shelterwood. Describe the typical parent who comes to see you and what they’re looking for when they bring a troubled teen to Shelterwood.
Jim: Well, oftentimes, moms and dads have tried everything—like Bob said at the beginning of the broadcast—to try to help their child; but they’ve gotten to a place where they are—either they’re afraid of the decisions the child is making are going to cause some permanent problems for them, and they are trying to nip that in the bud.
I quite honestly think the parents that send their kids to Shelterwood are some of the most courageous folks that I’ve ever met. It is not easy to say, “I need help,” and “I need to basically give my child away to some strangers to help me for a while.” I have parents that tell me, consistently, that when they drive off our property, after they’ve dropped their child off, they are a basket case. They are crying because there’s a sense of shame / there’s a sense of failure.
There’s a sense of having to trust God in a way that maybe they’ve never had to do with their child. It’s not an easy deal. They are pretty courageous folks.
And like I said, most of them are pretty dynamic families, with multiple kids, but they’ve got one child, for whatever reason, that has really struggled and needs to get extra help. Oftentimes, they’ve already tried therapy—so they’ll have a counselor that’s worked with the child. Many times, after a while, the therapist will say, “You know, I think your son or your daughter needs residential care.” And then they start looking—they start reaching, around the country, to try to find where they can send their child.
Bob: How does a mom or dad know whether the issues they’re dealing with the teenager are at that level of needing residential care versus “This is just the teenage way, and we’ve got to ride it though and get to the other side”?
Because teenagers are going to express their independence in a variety of ways—some of those are going to be healthy / some of those are going to be unhealthy, but not life-altering. And then sometimes, you’re dealing with a child who may be violent to himself or to others. How do you know, as a mom or a dad, this is one of those situations where it’s beyond us and we need help?
Jim: Well, that’s a great question, Bob. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that, but let me just say this—you can’t underestimate the gut of a parent. If they find themselves, more than once a month, wondering, “Is my child really in serious trouble?” they need to get him some help. And you need to, first, have a discussion with your child. If, in that discussion—where you’re not accusing but you’re just saying: “I’m concerned about what I’m seeing. Let’s talk about it,”—the more defensive they are—the more of a warning sign that is to you that you need to get him some help.
Bob: The typical young person, who is coming to Shelterwood—what’s the profile of that child? What kinds of things have they been doing?
Dennis: Talk about guys first, and then let’s talk about the girls. Because they deal with different issues; right?
Jim: They do. They do. We’re not a lock-down facility. We’re also not a medical-care facility. So, if a child is persistently running away, then we’re not going to be the place for them. But the typical child that comes in to us is dealing with—I’ll tell a story of George, for example.
George was in a high school in Chicago—began taking marijuana / smoking marijuana—and then, to keep up with his buddies and their spending habits, started selling drugs too. Got caught / got expelled from school. He was given the opportunity, by the court system, to go into an alternative program, there in Chicago; but his mom and dad said, “He needs more.” They were really concerned about the spiritual component of his life as well. So, they made the decision to send him to Shelterwood.
At Shelterwood, he spent the first few months doing everything he could to convince his parents that it wasn’t the right place for him—they needed to bring him home—that he was changed / he would do better. Finally, when he realized Mom and Dad were serious that he was going to have to make it through graduation at Shelterwood, he made a decision that he’d start working the program. Over the course of that time, his heart began to open up. He had a spiritual experience, where he came to faith in Jesus, and everything turned around for him.
He went on two mission trips to Haiti. Both those mission trips kind of opened his eyes to a life of service. He got involved with the National Prayer Breakfast with the Youth Leadership Counsel. I kind of think this kid may be President someday—he is absolutely phenomenal.
He went back to his high school that he’d been expelled from—talked to the principal, apologized for his behavior, talked about his story of what had happened in his life. Principal kind of changed the rules—let him come back, and now he’s in college.
He’s an example of the kind of kids we get. We pray: “God, send us the kids and the families that we can invest in that we can help.” You know, my view is that, as followers of Jesus, we ought to be every bit as good, clinically, as the secular programs out there—but we ought to be better because we’ve got Jesus the Healer.
We even have neurological therapy. I think we’re the only program—at least, that I’ve heard of—in the country / residential program that actually has neurological treatment on the premises. We’ve got about half the kids doing neurological therapy now. We test every one of them that come in, and then the parents have the right to choose if they think their child needs it or not. I’ve been so impressed with the results that I’ve had my autistic son, now for two years, doing the therapy. Most kids, it is three to six months; but the progress that he’s made has been absolutely stunning.
Dennis: There’s probably some listeners, listening right now, thinking, “Neurological therapy?”
But there’s some research coming out about what pornography does to the brain—that you’ve got to address the wiring issue—especially, when it starts at an early age. It’s a little bit like—if a child had a physical handicap, you would take them to a physical rehab facility to do some exercises. I think we have a lot to learn about how God made us.
One thing I want you to comment on—you didn’t go to girls. Talk for a moment—
Jim: I’ve only talked about one guy so far. [Laughter]
Dennis: Yes, one guy. Are there certain issues you’re seeing today perhaps that are more prevalent than ever before among teenage girls?
Jim: Oh sure. Depression—which may have been constant—but the media culture has created such dissatisfaction in the hearts of our girls with what they look like and with their identity that the depression is a huge deal for teenage girls.
We see some of them acting out through self-harm issues—like cutting or anorexia/bulimia—you know, eating disorder issues. We have a significant number of our girls are dealing with the whole identity issues.
I’ll tell you about one little girl—I’ll call her “Lisa.” Lisa came to us—actually, she chose, herself, to come to Shelterwood. She knew she was in trouble. She went online and started looking, “Where can I go to get help?” She went to her mom and dad and said: “Mom and Dad, you need to send me someplace. I need some help. Can we go visit this place?” She actually chose us because we’ve got a pool. [Laughing]
She was dealing with a lot of depression. That depression had led to prescription drug abuse, which led to drug and alcohol abuse, which led to self-harm, which led to not wanting to live—it kind of spiraled down.
Over the time that she was with us, we saw—it’s kind of like watching a closed rose begin to open up. I’m mean, she’s a beautiful young woman, who was dark when she came, and has blossomed into a brilliant artist/athlete and really has a deep and abiding faith in Jesus. Now, she wants to give back—she wants to help others, and she’s been doing that.
One of the stories which has impacted me the most is a little girl out from the west coast—that she had been sexually abused by her biological dad for, like, four years. I remember, to this day, the very first moment I met her—head down / very untrusting—but it happened to be an Easter weekend.
I was sharing with the guys, and my wife was sharing with the girls. We had three crosses at the front of the property. Janice, my wife, took the girls in after the discussion about what Jesus had done for them. Each girl was given the opportunity to write down something they were struggling with—a sin, or some un-forgiveness, or something they were dealing with that they wanted to take to the cross. They’d write it down and took it to the cross—threw it in the fire.
This little girl had actually—things had gotten so bad she had cuts all over her arms—she was a cutter. She had a bracelet—she had renamed herself the name “Vermillion,” which means “red blood”—that’s what she was calling herself. She took the bracelet off and said, “This’ll be the last day I ever use that name.” Put the name and the bracelet in the fire and gave her heart to Jesus. Her life was transformed. So, whenever she holds her arms out, it’s a testimony of what God’s done for her—set her free / healed her. She’s actually came back on a parent weekend to share her story with families and kids.
I’d say I love my job because of this—I get to see lives change—like this little girl. You couldn’t pay me enough not to do this job.
Dennis: Yes, rescued from the pit—I mean, rescued from self-destruction and perhaps never coming to faith in Christ / never coming to know Him as their Lord and Master.
I think there’s something parents need to hear, as a result of our broadcast today: “No matter what’s going on with your child, you are the parents. You need to take charge—and not let your child manipulate you and just keep on taking you into the same alley and mugging you over, and over, and over again.” I’ve said many times, here on this broadcast, Jim—that a parent’s heart is a set-up to be taken advantage of, multiple times, because his or her heart wants to believe the best about their child. So, they see the pain in their face—they [children] say, “Aww Mommy, I’m sorry I did this.”
Moms and dads had to invent the second chance—you know what I mean? —
Dennis: —and the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. But they need to realize there is a point where the boundaries have to be drawn—and protection for your marriage / the marriage of the couple needs to be protected—but also the family—the other members of the family have to be protected. In some situations, a program like Shelterwood, I think, can be incredibly valuable and hope-filled, not merely for the child, but also to give life back to the parents.
Bob: We have probably got some parents who are curious about Shelterwood, right now, and would like to find out more. If you go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link in the upper left-hand corner of this screen that says, “GO DEEPER,” you’ll find the information about Shelterwood. You can click through—there’s a link to their site.
Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link that says, “GO DEEPER,” to find out more about Shelterwood and the program that they have for teens who are in crisis.
I should also mention—we have copies of a book you [Dennis] and Barbara wrote for parents of teenagers called Parenting Today’s Adolescent. This helps moms and dads deal with the normal kinds of things that most parents of teens are going to face, at some point or another. It’s a good reference book / a good guide book to have so you’re on the same page, as parents, when it comes to things like: part-time jobs, or whether kids should be involved in sports, having a bad attitude, media, dating, substance abuse, busyness, pornography—the issues that you call ‘the traps” that are laid for teenagers. Moms and dads are there to help guide sons and daughters through those traps.
We’ve got copies of Dennis and Barbara Rainey’s book, Parenting Today’s Adolescent. You’re welcome to request a copy when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link that says, “GO DEEPER,” in the upper left-hand corner of the screen; or if you would prefer, you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to order your copy of the book: 1-800-358-6329, that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life and then, the word, “TODAY.”
You know, you think about parents of teenagers—and whether it is parents who are facing the kind of really tough situations we’ve talked about today or the normal everyday challenges that go into raising a teenager—one of the things we’re committed to, here at FamilyLife, is to seek to effectively develop godly families because we believe that godly families will change the world, one home at a time.
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And we hope you can join us back tomorrow. We’re going to continue our conversation with Jim Subers about parents and troubled teens and how you reach the heart of a troubled teenager. Hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We’ll 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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