When My Teen Struggled, We Lost Our Village

by Kim McGinty
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It takes a village. I remember hearing those words a lot when my kids were little. Back when it was understood we were all in this together: shuttling kids, killing time at local parks, comparing notes on everything from developmental milestones to the latest parenting trends. Our roles as parents was new and sometimes scary, so like prey in the face of danger, instinctively we banded together.

Then overnight, despite all warnings, our relatively pliable children turned into the rigid teens we never thought we’d have. As a laid back parent, I felt lucky to have teenagers still willing to openly communicate. So openly, there were times I had to resist stuffing my fingers in my ears while singing, la la la la la. After these talks I’d paw through memories of my own adolescence for reassurance that whatever they were up to was normal. Until it wasn’t, and we were forced to reckon it was time to tighten the reins.

Even though we took action in our home, parental guidance can feel futile against the power of peers. So I did what I thought any responsible parent would do and reached out to their friends’ parents. After all, it takes a village. And as a village we could share notes, pool resources, design a solution that would send a message that we’re a united front. It’s not our job to make our kids like us, so we could be, as my son frames it, “assholes” together. According to our kids, nobody else’s parents cared: Why were we making such a big deal out of everything?

What I got was a surprisingly mixed bag. Some parents seemed blindsided by the things our kids were doing—smoking weed, drinking, showing off their cache of stolen prescription pills from grandparents’ cabinets on Instagram. Others got defensive and recoiled. Some tried to do their part, but simply lacked the follow through, or caved entirely to the mindset that, kids will be kids, at least at our house we know they’re safe.

I was offered parenting advice, as if whatever the issue was mine alone. Alternately pitied and reprimanded, too often the presumption became: if I’m the source, my kid must be the problem. It left me feeling frustrated, inept, and like a meddling helicopter parent, which I’d made a conscious effort never to be. My plan not only backfired, it left my daughter, in particular, vulnerable to exclusion and bullying. By calling on parents, I’d unwittingly made things worse, and now my kids no longer trusted me.

I watched helpless as my daughter’s large circle of friends dwindled to a ragged few. Kids she didn’t even particularly like, who assisted in her downward spiral, but were better in her mind than no friends at all. She became a shell of the outgoing, delightful person we once knew. By the time we delivered her to a wilderness program in Utah, she’d been banned from no less than ten previous friends’ homes for behaviors they, to varying degrees, had engaged in together.

Reaching a point of such desperation that you feel forced to seek help outside the home can feel a lot like failure. But it wasn’t just ours. Driven by fear and judgment, my community had failed. I found myself an outsider, holding my breath. As my daughter’s class mates finished up and graduated middle school, my would-be graduate was out in the woods hauling a forty-pound pack and rubbing sticks together.

I’d bump into parents we’ve known for ages who, even as our household was spinning upside down by a thread, behaved as though nothing was amiss. Most didn’t inquire about our daughter, nor how we were holding up. And while I can understand wanting to avoid any awkwardness in front of the dairy section, what hurt was the assumption that by ignoring it, we were somehow being spared.

It’s true, feelings of shame and isolation are a running theme among wilderness parents, a natural consequence of our fear of being judged. But nobody knows better than a wilderness parent that any young person can go from 0 mph to 100 overnight. No matter how smart, sensitive, athletic or otherwise accomplished, or how well we think we know them. Some teenagers, like mine, don’t just toe the waters of adolescence, they cannonball from the rooftop. And whatever teens confide to us, you can bet it’s just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t know squat.

For months, I lamented the loss of my village. But then over time, and consequently due to the circumstances, certain friendships deepened. Neighbors who’d watched from afar and guessed something was up, came forward with kind words. Through our educational consultant and word of mouth, we came in contact with a network of parents on the same journey. As another wilderness mom pointed out, this is our village. As for the other, some words of advice.

Unless space is requested, give support when a family is dealing with a struggling teen. Equally hurtful is the misinformation that spreads, when all anyone has to do is ask. Talk to us, not about us, and try offering a hug before pointing a finger. If our kids notice, wouldn’t it be lovely that they learn to do the same.