going off the rails

I talk to many parents whose teenagers have developed serious problems with drugs, alcohol, addiction to media, toxic relationships and more.  Mostly this began in the middle school years, and just like a train coming down the track, the parents could see it wasn’t going anywhere wonderful.  Sometimes the situation was ignored, thinking it would go away, and sometimes the parents jumped in with both feet to try to derail what was coming.

Sometimes the situation could be handled and the teen overcame their challenges to envision a healthier future . Sometimes the child went right on to have increased difficulties with these same issues, now with difficulty having a functional young adult life.

I wish I could say I knew what helped one teen and why another teen .  Obviously, individual teens respond in different ways to intervention and we don’t always know what will help a particular teen.  I am not a mental health professional, and do not offer the suggestions below as such, but know these were some of the commonalities I have heard in talking to parents whose teens were successful in getting their lives together.

Open communication and respect for what the child or teenager was going through, even if the parent didn’t understand it all.

Unconditional love, BUT especially for older teens the understanding that you cannot control their choices and  you cannot enable them and protect them through their choices.

Understanding that you, as parents, and the other members of the family, have the complete right to be safe.

Investigation into psychological help, counseling, or residential programs early on instead of waiting.  Yes, you cannot run away from your problems but for some teens a change of scenery with qualified help really is wonderful and a game-changer.  And the earlier this happens, sometimes it can really make a difference.

Sometimes more structure.  This may include things such as changing school settings to a smaller, more structured program.

Increased physical exercise as possible.  Sometimes if a teen is suffering from anxiety or depression, this seems nearly impossible, but it does seem to help if the teen is open to it.

Increased time in nature with family.  Some parents have reported great success with camping, long-term hiking, or other excursions into nature.  Again, the earlier, the better.

The biggest piece of advice I have heard is that if things are going off the rails at ages 12-14 get help right then and there.  Do not wait! Investigate options thoroughly, and see how your child responds.

I would love to hear what you all think.  Let’s all help each other.





15 thoughts on “going off the rails

  1. Thank you for your blog post! There’s strength in solidarity, knowing others are working to overcome the same challenges.

  2. Hi Carrie,

    are you experiencing / hearing the going off the rails phenomenon as much within the homeschooling community? homeschool highschool? homeschool middle school? public schools? private schools? those in religious communities? those with large extended family or friendship communities? those who spend a lot of time with their family?

    I try not to make decisions based on fear , but what you outline below remains one of the reasons I choose to homeschool – the sense that (even before I read Hold on to Your Kids – which really solidified it) that so much time around peers can be derailing for some kids, especially really sensitive ones

    just curious – always interesting to hear from folks a few steps father along the path

    warm wishes Shoshanna


    • Hi Shoshanna – the parents I have spoken with – the homeschooling or generally more insular families no matter what type of schooling seem to be dealing more directly with anxiety, depression, sometimes with accompanied OCD, cutting, eating dysregulation but perhaps less less outward involvement of addiction or toxic first love kind of relationships, but I think the anxiety and depression is across the board unfortunately and is the underlying trigger for much of this. Blessings, Carrie

  3. sorry… one more thing, which is that it is an interesting question: fear driven decisions: when is it a good time to based decisions on healthy fear – you use your intuition , suspecting a path would lead a wrong direction vs. and when is it parenting by anxiety or being ruled by your fear, letting it take the drivers seat ?


    • Hi Shoshanna! I think for the 14-18 year old crowd, a lot of it , at least in this post, is that the bad stuff has already arrived and parents are trying to deal with addiction or truly bad relationships, etc. It’s already there. But I understand what you are saying fear versus what is really happening versus you can see it could go wrong – also versus, at some point for the 17 and 18 year olds I think of you can only help to a point. The teen has to want the changes that would be healthy. You can’t, as the parent, hold it all. Blessings, Carrie

  4. Hi Carrie,
    I especially appreciate the suggestions about structure and outdoor time. I think meaningful work and activities are essential (sports, hobbies, caring for animals). Technology (phones, computers, iPads) are certainly adding to stress in our bodies and our younger pop are so much more vulnerable to these effects. Modeling all of this by the parents is important – we too need to spend time outside, have better balance and reduce time on electronics.

    I’m very distraught by the number children (my children’s friends in the age 9-11 range) I know that are in therapy. Although I suppose that IS a good thing but it just seems to not be addressing underlying issues of stress, anxiety, depression, lifestyle…in our young(er) children that manifests later. WE NEED to address the issues in our families first, then get help outside…

    Important topic and more to think on for sure. Thank you!

    • Totally agree with you and great suggestions about meaningful work and hobbies. Can’t wait to hear more of your thoughts! Blessings, Carrie

  5. Pingback: going off the rails | The Parenting Passageway – Parents Article – Parents Blog

  6. My son is 8 and has had high anxiety since he was 2. Things have gotten better for a time, and then worse, and then better. And now worse as we are in the 9 year old change. It is hard to know with anxiety when it is the right time for outside help or if the child will calm with unconditional love, rhythm, boundaries, etc. I have also heard many parents say they wish they would have gotten help by 12 or 13. I am considering some therapy for him in the summer. It is so hard to know the right path and timing with this… Jen

    • Jen – I think get therapy now. Therapy plus all the wonderful things you mentioned for the home environment. It can’t hurt, it can be episodic care, but what I have found is that going through puberty seems to, at least in my experience, make a lot of the anxiety and such worse. I think having a strong foundation in place could really help during those years. Thanks for sharing. Blessings, Carrie

    • A strong foundation is a wonderful way to look at it that calms my nerves around the whole thing. Thank you <3.

  7. One thing that I don’t think is commonly thought about when getting „help“. Is finding a family therapist for one or more parents. The younger kids are the more I think treatment can often be training parents and finding support for them. Our medical model is get treatment for the kid, but often a one hour session once a week is removed from when a kid‘s anxiety or other root issues is occurring. Plus it is super stressful to be worried about your kid. Having someone to talk to can renew your confidence of helping the situation and likely being more effective if you can deal with your own feelings. If you don’t know if you should get treatment for your kid I say start finding a family therapist now. It can take a while to find some one that is a good fit and maybe it only reassures you that what you are doing is a good Or maybe it means you have the resource in place when you really need it.

    • I should have said these comments are all from personal experience of starting with therapy for my kid because no one suggested a different model, and subsequently finding a different therapist that I just meet with that was way more helpful for me and as a result my kid.

    • Hi SP ! I think you gave great help and I thank you so much for sharing with other parents who may be stuck and wondering what to do. Blessings and love, Carrie

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