Help is on the Way
About the Guest
Your teen is in crisis. Where do you turn? For George and Livia Dunklin, Heartlight Ministry, a residential facility for crisis teens, was their answer to prayer. There, their daughter Megan was able to learn new ways of thinking and coping with the world around her. Joining them today is Dennis Rainey and Heartlight’s founder and executive director, Mark Gregston.
George and Livia DunklinGeorge and Livia Dunklin are rice farmers in DeWitt, AR. George also serves as President of Ducks Unlimited.
Mark GregstonMark has spent his entire adult life working with teens and parents, in an effort to offer help and hope to any situation a family might find themselves in. Mark spent years working with Young Life, was a youth pastor for several years, lived at a Christian sports camp where he developed a home for struggling teens. Twenty-four years ago Mark and his wife Jan, headed back to Texas to start Heartlight, a residential counseling center for teens.
Your teen is in crisis.
Help is on the Way
George: Those first three or four days when you’re back home and Megan is not in the house there’s no turmoil and no anger but there’s no Megan. There’s no daughter. That’s tough. There is no question about it. You do question the decision. Is this the right thing? You’ve left her four and a half hours away with people you barely know in a situation where you know your daughter knows no one there and she had no idea it was going to happen. That’s just hard.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, July 17th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey and I’m Bob Lepine. Sometimes as parents we have to make hard choices to get the very real help our sons or our daughters need. We’ll talk about that today. Stay tuned.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We have been unpacking this week a story Dennis. It is one of those moments in a family’s life when a mom and a dad have to make a tough call and it takes courage to make the tough call. We’ve been hearing about a young girl, Megan, who was acting out at home with outbursts of anger that were threatening to others in the family. It came to a point where her parents felt that they finally had to remove her from the home and get help for her.
Dennis: She was 16 years old and a tenth grader. As we’ve been talking about here this demands a lot of courage. Megan is the daughter of George and Livia Dunklin. George and Livia welcome back to the broadcast.
George and Livia: Thank you.
Dennis: They have three daughters and live in DeWitt, Arkansas. They do a little rice farming out on what’s called the grand prairie of Arkansas. Folks who have never been there don’t know what I’m talking about but those who do think it’s one of the most beautiful spots on the planet.
Mark Gregston doesn’t think it’s one of the prettiest places because he’s from east Texas. He likes pine trees.
He likes mosquitoes smaller than birds.
Mark Gregston: That’s right. (laughter)
Dennis: Mark is the head of Heart Light Ministries and he lives near Longview, Texas. He’s been in ministry for over 30 years and has two grown children. He and his wife Jan have been in ministry working with teenagers all those years and they’d have the privilege of working with Megan when she came.
I’m going to begin with you Mark. Share that day when George brought his daughter to your place. Do you remember it?
Mark: I do remember it because I didn’t think they would show up. So when they came I was excited and when we sat there and talked I would look at George and his first comment to me was “Hey Mark, just tell me there is hope.” I looked at him and said, there is hope. You can get on the other side of this stuff. It may not look like what you think it’s going to look like but it is going to be a little bit different.
Dennis: George you were hopeless at that point. You’d experienced enough pain in your family with Megan as you were driving down there this really represented a last ditch effort.
George: Without a doubt. I knew we need help. Livia and I as parents needed help. We had done everything that we knew for Megan and we didn’t know where to go. Steve Largent is a good friend of ours and Steve had duck hunted with us. Steve had watched our children grow up and the year before when Steve was there during Christmas time hunting with us I asked him to spend some time with Megan. He did. And he told us we needed help.
He gave us the name of a friend. As the Lord works in mysterious ways Mark Gregston was that friend. He just knew that was the calling we were looking for. That was the hope that I needed to know that there was help on the way.
Dennis: Was Megan without hope?
George: Yes, I think at that point and time. Megan was so lost she just didn’t know.
Dennis: She was confused.
George: Totally confused. I think that is where a lot of the anger issues came from was the confusion. Megan loves us and her sisters more than anything in the world. It’s not that she didn’t love us. It’s just that she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know what made her happy.
Bob: Mark, here is Megan. January of her sophomore year and she’s on a road trip with dad and she thinks she’s coming home that same day. What was about to happen was that she was about to move in. Did you have any idea how long she would be there? Were George and Livia going to be able to see her? What were they headed for?
Mark: Yes, we knew at that time that is was going to be difficult. Whenever somebody brings a child that doesn’t know they are going to be with us it makes it more difficult. You have to get a picture of what Megan must have been going through for her to not fit in with the people she has longed to fit in with. She didn’t have the ability to engage in the way she wanted to. Now the only thing that she knows is mom and dad have made a decision to eliminate her from the family…
Bob: To abandon her in one sense.
Mark: It is.
Bob: That’s what it feels like.
Mark: Yes, and I think that’s where her heart was so of course you’re going to get a response out of that. For a child to actually live that is so difficult and they can’t believe it because mom and dad become the last bastion of hope and they feel like now I’ve really been rejected. Not only am I rejected by everybody else in my life but now my family, too.
It sounds terrible. It is hard. It is difficult. I don’t like being there when anybody’s dropped off and I don’t like being there when kids leave and go back home because it tears me up because of the connection that has been made. The exciting thing is that sometimes you have to get to the very bottom for a child to realize that there has got to be some changes in your life. Or the way that you’re thinking is not working.
Let’s change some thinking in the way that you engage with people and learn some things through things like meetings, and counseling and groups of kids living together. A different way of looking at Scripture that applies it to their life so that they can go okay now I get it. Most of these kids feel like God has abandoned them as well.
Most of them have been raised in Christian homes with great parents like George and Livia but they feel like if God is so good why in the world am I so miserable? If God is so good why can I not engage with any other of His creatures? Why am I beginning to hate myself? How could God ever love me? It is helping them take what they have been taught and repositioning that within their life so that they can start thinking in a different way and may look at things in a different way.
Dennis: Livia and George I want you to both comment on this because a couple of times in Mark’s comments there he mentioned that the child feels rejected and abandoned. Actually what you did for Megan was the most loving, compassionate, and courageous kind of tough love I think a human being can show for another person. Comment on that because I know that both of you had to experience counting the cost of doing that.
Livia: Probably that was the hardest part but it’s interesting once we got working towards that other side and Megan saw she could make different strides and make different accomplishments through the things she was challenged with at Heart Light then she began to realize that without that guidance from them and us putting her in that position to receive that guidance she probably wouldn’t have made those strides any other way. So Mark is right. Unfortunately she had to get to the bottom to realize anything she was going to do in a positive way only made her stronger and better.
George: No question. It was not easy. Those first three or four days when you’re back home and Megan is not in the house there’s no turmoil. There’s no anger but there is no Megan. There’s no daughter. That’s tough.
Dennis: Did you ever question the decision?
George: There is no question about it. You do question the decision. Is this the right thing? You’ve left her four and a half hours away with people you barely know in a situation where you know your daughter knows no one there and she had no idea it was going to happen. That’s just hard.
Dennis: Share about the first time you communicated with her. That’s a big deal. That’s the voice on the other end and undoubtedly there was some indication of whether you’d made the right choice or not.
George: At Heart Light part of the program is that you have 30 minutes a week to talk to your child. The first time we called Megan was extremely angry with us and very confused and she took it out on us on the telephone. I don’t think we even made it the full 30 minutes because the anger was so strong.
Ironically Mark has three parent retreats and the first one was due within a few days of that first phone call. So we got down there for the parent retreat with all the other parents that were there and I’ll never forget it. One of Mark’s counselors came and said, “Livia and George about 9:00 all the kids from the South house where Megan was living are going to come over except for Megan.
Dennis: You’d driven four hours…
George: It took about four or five hours to get there for the two day and three night retreat. She said, “We monitored the phone call and heard Megan’s side of the phone call and Megan has only been here 10 days but we need to establish the rules today. Megan knows you are here just 200 yards away. She knows you are here but if we allow her to come over we are sending the wrong message.” That was tough.
Dennis: You didn’t see her at that retreat then.
George: We didn’t see her. She was 200 yards away from us that weekend. The next week we made the phone call and I’ll never forget it. I said, “Livia get ready. Get mentally prepared that we’re going to have this anger again and we have to just go through it. Mark talked about that at the retreat. We went through all this and kind of described it.”
We made that phone call and it was like another child. She was so excited to talk to us. It was unbelievable. That was really the first indication that we knew we’d made the right decision. That was the confirmation that we were looking for.
Bob: There would be a part of me hearing that second phone call I’d be thinking, let’s see a week ago she was angry. This week she is all sweet. We’re being played here. She’s just trying to figure out what’s going to work to get her sprung from this place she doesn’t want to be. Mark, kids play those games don’t they?
Dennis: Mark’s laughing. He’s seen it played a few times.
Mark: Yes, they all do. Parents always say you’ve got to realize that my son is a con artist. Or they say my daughter is a manipulator. And I think, really? (laughter)
But what they begin to do is the first sign when they kick into the conning or the manipulation and try to get out of stuff. What it’s saying to them is the old way of doing things isn’t going to work anymore so things are going to change. What they are doing is just going to plan B. When that doesn’t work they go to plan C. They will keep going down those plans until they finally run out. When they are deplete of options…
Bob: Nothing I know works.
Mark: That’s right. So then they feel like they are hopeless and that’s when they will start asking questions. How do I do this?
Bob: I would think there would be some parents who would get that second phone call where she is sweet and they would think this is wonderful. You have fixed her. Can we come and pick her up now?
Mark: Let’s come get her. A lot of people do that. And I say you don’t want to do that. Behavior isn’t the issue that gets somebody there. The change of behavior is not the issue that brings them back home. It’s looking at the heart over a period of time to make sure they are making good decisions that are moving them in a positive direction on their own without us putting parameters around them all the time.
Bob: How long was Megan at Heart Light?
George: She was there two years.
Bob: Was it a roller coaster? Two years is a long time. I thought this second phone call sounded like we had everything worked out.
Mark: Yes, if you look at behavior but that’s not the issue.
Bob: Is that typical? Two years?
Mark: No. It’s not. It’s usually 9-12 months. We felt like Megan needed more time to just engage and it was such a positive thing that we didn’t want her to come back home and lose the growth that she had gone through.
I think Megan was making some of the decisions as well because the environment there became a very safe place for her. She loved it. God used a 20 year old horse in her life and that’s a whole other program and story but it was absolutely amazing. One of God’s little creatures changed her.
I think that became a very safe place where she enjoyed going home more and they guys were there coming to see us. It worked. For a child to move to a point and say I’m away from home and I don’t like being away from home but I see light and hope and goodness.
I see something in me I’ve never seen. I’m loved and I’m feeling these things. For her to choose to be there was and is a miracle. It became something in her that she was longing for rather than her being controlled by everybody else.
Dennis: George do you remember she came back home and encountered her sisters? Did that feel like a safe confrontation at that point?
George: Yes. It was May of that year when they have a five day break. We picked Megan up and brought her home. It all went well. Livia and I really felt good when I got back in the car to drive her back and she got back in there with me. She was ready to go back. She was ready to go back and see the 20 year old horse whose name is Rocky. Rocky did have a tremendous impact on Megan. She was responsible for feeding that horse. It gave her so much self worth that is really made a difference.
Bob: How many years ago was this?
George: It was just a year ago.
Bob: So you’ve now seen the one year post Heart Light Megan. How is she different than she was when you took her and dropped her off at Heart Light?
Livia: I’ll tell it to you this way. I would worry every day how she was doing before and she’s doing great. I don’t have to worry about the phone calls or worry what could happen. Decisions she’s making now and seeing how she has grown up I look forward to every phone call instead of being afraid for the phone to ring.
Bob: Do you ever see flashes of the old anger break through?
Livia: No. In fact it was interesting because we were talking about not being able to see her that first time just a few weeks ago. I told her the main reason we couldn’t see you was they said you’d been there 10 days if we were to see you you’d start way back maybe even prior to the 10 days. She admitted it and said I probably would have. She said I can’t believe some of the things and how I used to act.
The level of maturity and how to handle certain situations is so different. Now when her sisters have a problem or an issue she goes back to things that she’s learned at Heart Light to talk them through it. She’s gotten very close to them. A lot of times she’ll call them without talking to either one of us. She’ll ask about things that have gone on in their lives and school and she always has some words of encouragement or advice that is real neat to see.
Bob: Mark I’m sure there are some students who graduate from Heart Light who head back home and everything is fine for a while and…
Mark: And they don’t do well. We had a young man commit suicide that was with us two or three months ago and it’s been our first. I think if mom and dad don’t make changes back at home and that’s not necessarily the issue with this one young man but he just had a tough time coming back to an old environment and fitting back in. He got involved in some other stuff and made a poor decision.
We spend a lot of time working with mom and dad. We go back to old high school reunions and we go back to be the same old person and go back and hang around the same old people and we assume the same roles. What makes us think our kids won’t do the same?
We work with mom and dad and help them change the environment. They gain a deeper understanding of their child and perhaps what they are going through. When the child does go back home they can operate differently. Quite honestly one of the biggest challenges is not the kid it’s the parents. It is very hard to get parents to change their ways because they have built a life around them that accommodates how they live and how they want to live. To get them to shift to something different becomes somewhat difficult. That’s where I spend most of my time. My mustache is white because of Megan and those kind of things.
I spend more of my time working with mom and dad to help them understand why things need to change. The tendency is to send the kid off and get them fixed and then we’ll send them back home. Well, nobody is fixed this side of heaven.
Bob: Moms and dads have to stretch a little bit as well don’t they?
Mark: They do.
Dennis: Regardless of where our children are we never need to forget that as parents we are in process.
Mark: We are always in process.
Dennis: We are always in process and my children have taught me a lot about myself and my need to continue to grow and maintain a teachable spirit and never fail to admit when I’ve made a mistake. Ask for their forgiveness. The process of parenting is one of the greatest risks. I think earlier Bob as we were rolling into these broadcasts you mentioned parenting being like an Olympic sport with there being a level of difficulty. I don’t know of anything that has challenged me maybe with the exception of marriage.
But raising children where you nurture them and ultimately pull back on the bow string and let go. Truly let go. It is one of the more challenging assignments God ever gives a human being on the planet.
I want to say thanks to you George, Livia, and Mark for being on the broadcast and allowing us to peel back your hearts and to hear of God’s work. It’s a great story. Thanks for sharing.
George: Thank you for giving us an opportunity. We hope this makes a difference to other parents that are in the same situation that we were in.
Bob: I think what you’ve shared has provided a lot of hope and encouragement for the parents who have been listening. As you said Dennis one of the hardest assignments we face is parents is when a teenager is struggling and we’re trying to figure out what we can do. Sometimes there is nothing we can do and we need help. We need hope. We need to wisdom of others to come alongside us and help us through the parenting challenge.
One of the resources we want to provide for families is the book that Mark has written called
When Your Teen is Struggling. One of the things I like about the book, Mark, is that it helps parents determine what’s really going on it the heart of your child and how to look beyond a teen’s behavior and see what’s really going on in that child’s heart to reach the heart of your child.
Again it’s a tough assignment for parents but you’re book is a great resource in that regard. We have it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com. There is information about Mark’s book When Your Teen is Struggling. Or call toll free 1-800-FL-Today.
So either go online at FamilyLife Today.com or call 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-F as in family, L as in life, and then the word TODAY. Either way we can make arrangements to have a copy of Mark’s book When Your Teen is Struggling sent out to you.
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We hope you have a great weekend. We hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend and we hope you can join us back on Monday when we’re going to talk about your marriage and your money. Ron Blue will be with us to help us understand how to better navigate the financial challenges we face in marriage and how to do that together. I hope you can join us for that.
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