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Posted at 9:15 AM ET, 06/20/2010

A father's story: Saving a troubled son

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is Kenneth S. Stern, director of antisemitism and extremism for the American Jewish Committee, and a father.

By Kenneth S. Stern
Today is Fathers Day. Three years ago on this day, I took my out-of-control 15-year-old son to True North, a therapeutic wilderness program in Vermont. Before that, I didn’t even know what a wilderness program was. I did know, however, that he was depressed, anxious, refusing to go to school, drinking, and erupting in rageful outbursts. In short, he was turning his life, and our family life, into hell and we had to act.

Since then, as my son and our family have journeyed through two different wilderness programs and a therapeutic boarding school, I have learned how to be a better father. In the process, I have had to sacrifice several Fathers Days with my son. That first one was the toughest.

Despite the relief of having finally intervened, I felt fearful for my son. I also felt, along with the relief that our home would no longer resemble a war zone, a profound sense of loss.

Fathers Day 2008 was only marginally better. By then our son was enrolled at a therapeutic boarding school, the John Dewey Academy in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

He had rediscovered his passion for learning with the help of its remarkable faculty (which includes a Rhodes Scholar and a former UN Ambassador), but did not want to do the emotional work.

The school decided he needed a second wilderness stint, and in March 2008 he went to RedCliff Ascent in Utah with an email from us saying, in effect, that he was not taking his life and education seriously, that whatever money we had left would go for his sister’s education, and that if he didn’t straighten out we would find some place to keep him safe until his 18th birthday, and then wish him good luck. It was the hardest message I have ever sent anyone.

As a father, I found it almost unimaginable that I was telling my beloved son I was done with him; such a message went against everything I had been taught about being a parent.

And I was not sure, that Fathers Day with our son newly back at JDA from the woods, whether our tough stance had finally, truly gotten his attention.

I had learned, however, that sometimes being a father requires doing things that are very difficult, acknowledging our own failures, and taking a leap of faith when others (as JDA staff did) encourage you to try something outside your comfort zone. I had been doing my son no favors by excusing his poor, entitled and immature behaviors. I was selling him short by not expecting his best.

By Fathers Day 2009, I was cautiously optimistic. Our son still had a lot of work to do, but there was measurable progress. And I had become a better father too. A large part of that change was being totally open, especially about what our family was going through.

Whenever anyone asked where my son was, I said, matter-of-factly, “a therapeutic boarding school.” Some people seemed stunned that I shared that information. But a surprising number would open up about problems they were having with their teens.

Anger. Depression. Substance abuse. Cutting. Mentions of (or attempts at) suicide. Eating disorders. Promiscuity. Criminal activity.

The common denominator is that these kids have a deep psychic hole that they have been trying to fill up with some manner of self-destructive behavior, legal or illegal. Some parents (we were among them) had hoped that traditional therapy and maybe some medication would be enough.

But talk therapy was merely another way to manipulate, and psychotropic drugs told the kid he or she could fix their problems by popping a pill rather than facing who they are, deciding what to change, and making those changes.

I had also been an enabler for too long, trying to fix messes, hoping that there wouldn’t be a “next time,” focusing on my son’s numerous strengths and avoiding looking squarely at his actions, which were really cries for help. And my wife and I, in the stress of the regular crises with our son, would react in the moment, individually, rather than make sure we were on the same page. Give a smart manipulative kid a division between stressed-out parents and the game is lost.

This Fathers Day, my son is a newly minted graduate of JDA. I will be spending the day with him, bringing him home. Yes, he’s still the same bright and talented and bit quirky kid, but he now has the tools to manage his life, and thrive.

After a summer at a prestigious internship (arranged completely by him), he’s going to a top-flight college next year, eager to study theoretical physics and neuroscience, and maybe philosophy too. More importantly, our 15-year-old terror is now a caring, thoughtful and morally grounded 18-year-old mensch.

I’m thankful to have my son back today; and I am also tremendously grateful for the changes I have made (our relationship is better than I had ever dared dream).

I’m also a deeply appreciative member of the community I’ve discovered: parents who help each other not only by sharing what they’ve learned, but also by being brutally honest; and the dedicated staff of these programs whose mission is to help self-destructive teens turn their lives around.

Having known and worked with them is the gift I will cherish every Fathers Day.


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By Valerie Strauss  | June 20, 2010; 9:15 AM ET
Tags:  american jewish committee and ken stern, john dewey academy, redcliff ascent, schools for troubled children, schools for troubled kids, therapeutic schools, therpaeutic boarding schools, true north, wilderness programs, wilderness programs for troubled teens  
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This is beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: aby1 | June 20, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

I hope this reaches the many parents who need it. Please continue to share your experiences. I am a teacher who has seen children slip through the cracks because parents haven't been able to reach out for the help their child needs.

Congratulations to your son and wishes for a great future!

Posted by: Jutti | June 21, 2010 12:23 AM | Report abuse

I would be interested to see the son's account of this same time period, if he is inclined to disclose such things.

Posted by: | June 21, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

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