Monday, the last day of September, 2019 will rank as a high point for my son and us as a family in so many emotional ways. He will be graduating from his step down program after 27 months away from home and we will all drive home from Utah together. It is a truly amazing journey!
It’s been 821 days (as I write this blog post) since we sent our then fifteen year old son to wilderness, way back at the end of June 2017. Fast forward to this coming Monday, the last day of September 2019 and he will be heading home for good! To recap: he will be graduating from his step down program after eight months in southern Utah, along with seventeen months at his residential treatment center near Salt Lake City and before that, 92 days in his wilderness therapy program in southern Idaho. 823 days away from home! Can that even be possible? WOW!
This has been a tremendous journey, as cliché as that may sound. He is ready to begin a new chapter of life facing many of his previous challenges and plenty of new ones as well. Isn’t that what life is about? Yet, what is different for him and for us as a family, are the tools we have gained and the experience of all the hard work that comes with treatment in general. He is one of the lucky ones, and so are we!
We couldn’t have done this alone. We have been fortunate to have been helped by a host full wonderful therapists, advisors, mentors and top notch professionals in this field. They truly care. The programs have tons of experience helping teenagers with their personal issues and work hard to get them back on track. It is a true team effort and is not for the faint of heart, not to mention the unimaginable cost families have to bear.
One good person led us to another good person to another and so we learned to navigate this treacherous sea of “what shall we do next?” with trust and hope and our “gut” feelings. We didn’t know what we didn’t know and with each new interaction we picked up a phrase or new tidbit of information that took us down another trail to where we are today. The road can be long as we can attest.
We are so proud of our son. He is happy again and reports no anxiety or depression. He still faces the challenges of technology use as do we all. He is now finished with high school after taking the CHSPE exam (similar to the GED) and wants to work for a year before heading to the college experience. He is a good kid, not perfect, not fixed as people want to ask, yet a better communicator and compliant to rules and boundaries. We have repaired our relationships and continue to work at it. At 18 years old, his future direction will be up to him.
I don’t want give the impression that our lives resemble a “package all tied up neatly with a bow on top”, but rather, a chance to see what opportunities lie ahead for all of us! This is a chance at a new beginning. And so we begin a fresh chapter with our now adult son living with us again, back home in Marin County and the SF Bay Area, CA. Thank you for reading and for your constant support in our heck of a journey! I will continue to blog and ask you to come back often to check our progress!
Most gratefully and filled with love,
A lot has happened in the eight weeks since my 17 1/2 year old was enrolled in the step down co-ed boarding school in Southern Utah. He is doing well and according to his advisor, he is not only compliant and respectful, he has become a favorite of the staff and fellow students alike. He is friendly to everyone, continues to make new friends and has stayed out of the normal drama which can frequently happen in a high school setting.
Isn't that wonderful?
You bet! And with the good news and his positive progress, comes more responsibility and privileges. After his initial two week orientation, my son was able to request privileges towards more independence and "freedom". Every Friday there is a staff "board meeting" where the advisors and administration consider the requests of the students. The students have to fill out forms with info of what privileges they are asking for and why they should be granted.
At this boarding school, there are of course rules, but it's not just "one size fits all", as it was at the Residential Treatment Center before. Along with parent's input, the student's off campus therapist's comments, teacher's recommendations and their advisor's observations, the student moves forward at a pace that is tailor made for each of them individually. If the privileges are broken or rules disobeyed, then the consequences are given as learning opportunities rather than strictly punitive, giving the student a chance to learn from their mistakes in a healthy way. It's like a built in safety net, which can be very positive and still instructive.
So far my son has earned many privileges: trust walks in the neighborhood surrounding the campus, dorm alone time, time off campus without staff AND the use of a cell phone. The cell phone we chose to re-introduce him back into the electronics world is an old fashioned "flip phone". It can of course make phone calls, but has a lot of limits to texting and other uses that "smart phones" have made common place. Many have commented that this "retro" style phone is becoming popular again!
My son's therapist says that he likes to "front load" the electronics use for kids at the boarding school, so the patterns of usage and potential problems can be addressed right away. For my son, he jumped back into the use head first. It was actually surreal when I purchased a new phone from the AT&T store and sent it to Utah initially. It took me right back to a time before my son went to wilderness that was not pleasant to remember. At that point, his iphone use was constant. He kept the device by his bedside all night long. He texted non-stop and was on social media too frequently.
He even recently shared that as he was being told he was heading to wilderness that fateful middle of the night, that he texted a friend to "Please keep my string of texts going on SnapChat for me!" That's how out of control he was: as he was being sent away, his texting "string" was still his biggest concern.
As a family, we have discussed these old and often negative patterns in many conversations since the time he's been away (end of June 2017). We talked about the anxiety and depression that the phone has caused for many, including him. We came to an understanding that while we as parents really thought of his electronics use as an addiction and he didn't, there would have to be a balance of use/non-use in the future. We know that we are not going back to the "string tied to tin cans" kind of communication of the past and that the cell phone is here to stay, in all of our lives. Yet, that balance is so essential for our minds, bodies and overall health. That goes for kids and us adults alike!
So when my son came home for his Spring Break, five weeks after beginning the "step down program", he had his phone with him as he came off the plane. The list of his approved contacts were only a handful at that time. The list has been growing, as we continue to talk about who should be added and who should not be. Though it is somewhat limited, he is able to be in contact with his fellow classmates at the boarding school. He has reached out to some boys from wilderness and the Ranch and a few old friends from back home. We will see which ones rise to the top quickly enough. We are encouraging positive connections moving forward!
Well, as you have guessed, it was super easy for my son to resume using his phone, even a flip phone, for more time than we wanted to see. This was expected, especially after twenty months without having one to use at all. We were able to set boundaries of keeping the phone on the charger downstairs in the living room at night, so his sleep wouldn't be interrupted. That was an improvement! We did see some old patterns come back, but we talked about them in family therapy. Part of our agreement is making sure that he is active and participates in family duties and chores, when he is visiting at home and does his homework and other obligations while he is at school. He has been agreeable to those terms. Even my son's therapist says he is working on those same balances with his thirteen year old. It is a common dilemma these days and one we knew we were going to face!
As the newness of the phone wears off, it will be up to him, to make these choices of amount of use and who he can call or text. In the meantime, we have received very good weekly calls from him. It's always good to hear his voice when he's away. Our week long visit was good overall, and we want to continue the conversation of balance as we move forward with this part of our journey. It will be an important topic for many families, I suspect!
Next up, adding a computer, internet and approved social media to the mix. Privilege by privilege we are heading down the ROAD TO EIGHTEEN when he enters adulthood officially near the end of July.
As challenging as re-introducing the phone has been, we are glad he has jumped back in! The question remains: How well will he balance it all?
"The future is ours to see, Que Sera, Sera".
I remain ever grateful,
This post is a bit different, but a very important one, none the less. Have you seen this article from The New York Times? It's titled: "A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley" by Nellie Bowles. After reading this piece dated October 26, 2018, I was reminded of our old life, when my young teenage son was on his phone, computer, playing video games and watching TV, ALL of the time. It was a big part of what ruined our family life.
"It's time to get off", I would say to him.
"Okay, I will, I will, I just have to finish this game....post....video....text....movie....coding....fill in the blank. It didn't matter that I turned it off or took it away, he found a way to get it back.
Over and over I would ask for him to stop and he wouldn't or couldn't. Part of it was our fault for letting him have the devices and part of it was his fault for using them. However, according to this article, it is becoming well known in the tech community that part of the problem lies with them too! Most of the big wigs in the industry do not let their own kids have much screen time and have at least monitored it. Steve Jobs' young kids weren't allowed to use Apple iPads! Bill and Melinda Gates wish they would have waited longer to give their four kids cell phones.
What positively changed for us was my son's forced absence of screens. In the Wilderness Therapy Program my son went to last summer, at fifteen years of age, there was no screen use at all. Period. Cold turkey. Nada. What that did for his brain was let some "green" in and allow nature to cleanse and let his mind mature on it's own. His mood became better. He actually could participate in conversations without constant distraction. Without the use, mis-use and over-use of screens, it made him a better person. He became less isolated and ultimately happier.
Another plus from no screen time, was that the majority of his anxiety went away. Bingo! What a concept. If we as adults, who already have formed brains, have a problem, how is a young person supposed to put down the screen? This article points out that the developers know how to program their content to go right to the pleasure centers of our brains. We are at a severe disadvantage that allows the devices to win every time, just like the casinos in Las Vegas, the house (the screen) will always win!
This article is eye-opening to the degree that those in Silicon Valley understand what their products are doing to the people they are selling to (us parents). One tech magazine higher up calls it closer to "cocaine than to candy" as to effects on the brain. Is anyone paying attention? I hope so! It's all around us, and we are paying them to do it to us!
As far as our story goes, my son is able to use a computer to type some school assignments at the RTC. He still has no phone use and no internet use. When we visit with him, we talk about how we will move forward with technology in the near future. The ironic part is that technology is an area of interest and skill for him. We will continue to explore and examine the pluses and minuses of that use. In the meantime, read the article and ponder why Silicon Valley is keeping this dark secret?
Below is an important article written by Cecilia Kang and published last week by The New York Times. It is quite alarming to see what Facebook has up its sleeve for our kids and social media. I hope you join with me in letting Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, know how harmful it could be for the development of our youngest members of society. You can snail mail letters to him at Facebook's headquarters: 1 Hacker Way, Menlo Park, CA 94025.
Full disclosure: I am on Facebook. I am an adult. My brain is already fully developed. I do enjoy sharing comments, links and stories with friends and family. I am aware of the risks of overuse and addiction concerning social media and technology. I know limiting its use can be challenging for me and other grown-ups.
"Turn Off Messenger Kids, Health Experts Plead to Facebook"
The New York Times Technology Section
By CECILIA KANG JAN. 30, 2018
WASHINGTON — At the age of 6, a child is full of imagination and may not distinguish reality from fantasy. She is beginning to read and can’t grasp nuances in written communication. She also doesn’t understand privacy. Citing those reasons and more, dozens of pediatric and mental health experts are calling on Facebook to kill a messaging service the company introduced last month for children as young as 6.
In a letter to the company, they said the service, Messenger Kids, which pushes the company’s user base well below its previous minimum age of 13, preys on a vulnerable group developmentally unprepared to be on the social network.
The letter was organized by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group that has successfully pushed companies to abandon marketing like a Pokemon Go app that sent children to fast food and other stores, and McDonald’s advertising on the envelopes of report cards in Florida.
Facebook’s new app for young children opens greater concerns, the group said. “Younger children are simply not ready to have social media accounts,” the experts said in the letter. “A growing body of research demonstrates that excessive use of digital devices and social media is harmful to children and teens, making it very likely this new app will undermine children’s healthy development.”
The opposition to Facebook’s app adds to growing societal concerns over digital media and devices. Some big Apple investors called on the company this month to work harder to make the iPhone less addictive, and some former Facebook employees have warned about how effectively the service hooks users.
And academic research, including a study released last week, shows that the rise in smartphone and social media use tracked with greater unhappiness among teenagers. Messenger Kids is a texting-type service that a parent sets up for a child. The parent uses his or her own Facebook account for the child, but the app is otherwise not a part of the main Facebook service. The app doesn’t have News Feed or a “like” button, which some mental health experts have linked to anxiety among teenagers on social media.
But many elements of the social network are there, including emojis, selfies, video chat and group texting.
Facebook says Messenger Kids provides a safer environment for children than many online experiences. The app has no advertising, for example. The company said it had consulted with the National PTA and several academics and families before introducing the app. “Messenger Kids is a messaging app that helps parents and children to chat in a safer way, with parents always in control of their child’s contacts and interactions,” Facebook said in a statement. But many health advocates say the app is still engineered to hook users, and that it is giving Facebook early access to its next generation of users.
“Facebook is making children into a market, and the youngest children will be more likely to get hooked even earlier,” said Michael Brody, a former chairman of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
A version of this article appears in print on January 30, 2018, on Page B5 of the New York edition with the headline: Turn Off Messenger Kids, Health Experts Plead in a Letter to Facebook.
How can the use of this new App not be of concern to parents everywhere? Why do kids need this? We have seen the increase of anxiety in our teens? Do we need to push it down to elementary aged kids, too? Will babies be next? This is insane! Please feel free to comment below. I will be sending a letter to Zuckerberg this coming week. Please join me!
It has been a little over six months since my son went to a Wilderness Therapy Program and then a Residential Treatment center after that. He celebrated his 16th birthday in the Idaho desert. He has been sober for that whole time and without using any electronic devices, so his brain is getting a chance to not only re-boot, but to thrive. It has been completely worth the enormous expense, financially and emotionally. We are now living in a place of strength instead of fear.
People have called us brave as parents. Some have said they could never do what we did. But, last June were at the end of our ropes and frankly, life wasn't a bowl of cherries during our son's early teenage years. We had no more options. It is tough to be a teen these days. There is so much going on: instant communication and news, pressures about one's future, social anxiety, depression AND digital addiction. We worried about what he was watching, what he was playing (video games), who he was texting, who he was hanging out with......the list goes on.
We tried keeping the "conversation" going. We tried to meet his friends, get to know their parents, provide activities that we could do as a family, eat dinner together. As things went south, we knew things were getting "unsafe" for our son. His local high school wasn't helping matters either. There was an abundance of marijuana and other drugs. My own fear escalated on a daily basis. I sought help to feel better and learn new strategies to cope.
The more I shared about the situation, the more I discovered that I am not alone. I met parents in the same boat, school wise, drug wise, technology wise. The more I opened up, the more others shared their similar stories with me. Wow, there is a BIG club out there! Layer by layer, as we found our way with the help of many professionals, our lives began to lighten up. We sent our son away, which led us to begin the process of amazing self discovery. We can flip this boat around! We can do it. We don't have to be afraid. We will get stronger. And stronger. And stronger.
Yes, there are days that aren't as good, emotionally. But there is strength in numbers. We met some great parents at the Wilderness Retreat. We met some great parents at the RTC (residential treatment center) Parent Days. We have learned that there are phases one goes through in this CLUB. Yes, there is relief initially, then it turns to acceptance and then it turns into strength. We are so much better for having been through all of our challenges. It's called living! We love our son. We miss our son! But we have him back as our son! And he is alive! And he is thriving!
No situation is perfect. We aren't perfect. He isn't perfect. We will make mistakes, he will make mistakes. We can learn from them. We can discuss our feelings and emotions. We will grow! Of course, no one knows what the future will hold for any of us. We take steps forward and a few steps backwards. That's okay. We have a lot of information we didn't before. We are not alone. Our journey continues. One day at a time. One step in front of the other. Breathing! Being grateful for what we've been through.
I am strong! I am no longer afraid.
I am standing tall!
He walked towards us, a bit scruffy and a bit dirty but he was wearing a million dollar smile. We hugged. It was so nice to see him. He actually seemed happy to see us. He had been in the wilderness program for eight weeks. It was a long time.
He was a little shy at first. His pack was giant and really dirty on the outside. His hair was getting long. There was a coat of dirt and grime over all of the boys, even though they did take a shower every week. For some reason, this week they didn't get one. It was the high desert after all and not the Hilton! We showed him to our tent. He was very happy to be given a cot for a couple of days and not have to sleep on the ground.
He seemed very relaxed. We could see in his clear eyes that nature had a positive effect on him. It replaced the omni present technology world he left two months prior. Our son answered our many questions about the camping and other activities the group did every week. There was lots of hiking, but they also did equine therapy, white water rafting, mountain biking, canoeing and rock climbing. Every activity had a purpose of how it related to self improvement, introspection and getting along with others. Positive behaviors replaced negative behavior in thoughts and deed.
After about one half hour the entire group of parents and boys joined in a circle to kick off the first of many circles. One of the boys led us on a mindfulness and breathing exercise. Another led the introductions so we knew why each teen was there at wilderness. Each parent then explained what reasons brought their family to this place as well. We were beginning to feel each other's pain. And we were certainly not alone.
As the sun was setting, we reflected on the "highs" and "lows" of the day. Each person took a turn sharing and when they were done, they "passed" to the next. We heard a word shouted out every now and then by members of the circle, "Aho!" It means "I agree" with what was just said. Most of the boys chimed in and we parents added our "Aho's" as well. When it came time for me to express my "high", it definitely was seeing my son smile. Something so simple, yet so powerful and beautiful, made me happy and teary at the same time.
We were so happy to be together. What happened over the next few days was life changing and wonderful.
About half way through the wilderness program there is an opportunity for parents to come and spend three days in nature with their kids. It is "comfortable camping". It is better than the kids normally experience in there day to day existence, and for the parents is considered "camping with therapy"!
Our trip to "Family Spark" was full of emotion. We flew into Idaho the evening before our expected arrival. We took a walk and then had a very pleasant dinner at AppleBee's! We were expected to meet a shuttle at 8am. There was lots of anticipation in the air.
In the elevator in the morning we saw a couple that had some new REI looking clothing on. I was about to say "wilderness" under my breath, but as expected they ended up on the shuttle with us! The small bus was filled with 19 parents in total. We shared the hour and a half drive together without much interaction. We soon would be sharing our deepest feelings and emotions.
When we arrived at the wilderness program headquarters, we were given large totes to put our non camping clothing and any electronics we brought with us to go into storage for 3 1/2 days. No cell phones, no iPads, nothing but what was on the packing list. It was camping 101 for some. As a group we formed a circle and introduced ourselves briefly and say what our reason for sending our son or daughter to wilderness was.
People were very emotional and the stories were similar, yet individual too. Then we split into a "boys group" and a "girls and younger boys group". We headed off into the high desert for a reunion and a new beginning. I have never been with a more nervous group of parents, including ourselves.
We arrived at our family retreat area that had six large canvas tents and plenty of shade trees. It also had a barn like structure for cooking and a wooden outhouse situated at the far corner of the property. There was no electricity and no electronics were allowed. Peace on earth! For as far as the eyes could see, there was NOTHING. Nothing but nature. Beautiful rolling hills and mesas and lots of cottonwood trees and other ground cover. You could hear the wind blowing in the distance.
We chose our tent and took our bags and placed them inside. There were three sturdy cots lined up ready for our family to camp together for three days. No wonder we were nervous! Then the parents all gathered under the large shade structure and saw a van in the distance. That van was carrying all of our sons! You could hear a pin drop.
The van slowly drove down the hill to the gate. We saw the doors open and out came some boys who picked up their large and heavy backpacks out of the back of the van. The group looked grimy, yet smiling, most carried long walking sticks. The families all took part in embraces. It had been at least seven weeks since everyone had seen each other. It was eight weeks for us. What was our reunion going to be like?
Check back tomorrow to find out.
Filled with emotion, yet hopeful -
My sixteen year old son is technology whiz. He can code and program with the best of them AND take most things apart. Putting them back together is more of a challenge however. I remember days going to a local thrift store and buying rotary dialing phones and other old fashioned electronics for him to fiddle with, for pennies on the dollar. It seems that he may have some kind of future in that broad field of computers or engineering.
But, in order to be able to get a job down the road, completing school is important. That goal became a problem during the second semester of his freshman year. My son's interests started to change. He seemed anxious and depressed. Something had to be done. He was not himself anymore.
My son has gone to doctors for his ADHD meds since 7th grade. But after going to one for a while he decided that he didn't like that one anymore and would refuse to go to any appointments. Ugh. So I had a brilliant idea. I said to my son, "Find a friend you trust. Someone who likes their doctor and get that doctor's name and I'll make an appointment for you." Agreed, at least their would be some street cred if a friend suggest it! I called and started the process of my son becoming the new doctor's patient. This psychiatrist has his office in the next town from us, so it was pretty convenient to see him. He required a couple of consultation appointments before therapy would begin which seemed fine to me. The only draw back was the expense, wow was he expensive. Gulp. I made it happen.
I filled out the paperwork before we met and gave a history of some of the challenges and problems that we were having as a family and for my son as a teenager. Where to begin? I compiled a laundry list of problems to work on. It seemed so daunting: ADHD and school failure, marijuana and negative friends, technology addiction and just plain 'ole defiance were at the top.
The first thing the doctor said to me was, "Let's talk about Plan B". I replied, "What's that?" And he continued.........(find out more in tomorrow's blog post)
This is Day Two of The Ultimate Blog Challenge for October. If you are a new reader, welcome. My story is simple: I am a mom of a sixteen year old teenager. That's it in a nutshell. You might be thinking, "Okay, that's nice..." but a blog about that? Well, if you haven't noticed lately the world is becoming inundated with technology and it's causing a few problems. That is seriously true if you are a teenager with an iPhone, iPad, computer and TV. There is way too much screen time AND social media! A young person's brain is filled with so much information and instant communication, there is NO down time to just hang out and be bored.
And for my family it has put us into crisis! Our once fun-loving interactions have become tense and no fun at all.
To pick up where the last post left off, my son was on strike, with silence and school truancy. He decided not to attend any of his high school classes for a week. It was also so abnormally quiet it felt like an Egyptian tomb in our house. My son engaged in NO conversation at all, not even a grunt. UNTIL, caught off guard in the basement while he was building something with wires, he answered a question about how it worked. He began explaining what he was trying to do, until he realized that he was talking and he clammed up once again. Darn, almost got him!
The difficult part is that I needed him to go to the orthodontist to get his braces checked. He was so close to getting them off and that part was something he was looking forward to. So I had to make a deal. "You go to the orthodontist and return to school and you can have your computer back with certain time restrictions." We drew up a contract and he agreed to it....for the moment. I had a need (getting him to see the orthodontist and going back to school) and he had a need (to get his computer back again). Plus, by this time of two weeks away from friends, he was certainly missing them (and the marijuana, I'm sure, too).
So things returned to back to normal pretty quickly. No homework, no chores and minimal engagement. My frustration level put me on a mission of how we were going to get through this teenage mess. But at least for now, the braces were checked and school was being attended.
Hanging in there,
As I shared the story of what daily life with our 15 year old teenager was like, with friends and family, we received responses and comments like, "Oh, this too shall pass" or "That's typical of a teenager, don't sweat it" or "Don't you remember how you were as a teen?". Frankly, after hearing those lines repeatedly, even their well meaning intentions became hard to take. We were zooming into unchartered territory and choppy seas. Seriously, we needed dramamine in our house on dry land just to survive.
Our son's moods were controlled by the digital contact he had with his friends, by phone or computer. If he received good texts, he was somewhat nice. If the texts or posts were not, he was somewhat mean. If you asked him to do anything resembling a chore or household task, "I will, I will, later" was the response. Or with very good manners, he would often reply, "No thank you." He also would grunt and roll over while laying in bed, binge watching any number of Netflix shows. Occasionally, we could bribe him to go see a movie like "Rogue One" or out to eat at our favorite Mexican restaurant. But no sooner would we get home, his moodiness began all over again.
One particular holiday weekend we took him to do his favorite activity: play paintball. Not an inexpensive hobby, in reality. Even if you have your own paintball equipment, the paint balls themselves aren't cheap and that's what you need in order to play! We thought we were connecting with him, doing the fun things he liked, eating the food he liked, going to the movies he liked. You get the idea, all about him, just to keep him engaged. During this period of time, for some reason he had the door to his bedroom back on the hinges. (That wasn't always the case, because if a door gets slammed over and over, parts of the house start to fall apart, truly. So we removed his door a year earlier.) Can you say, trust factors?
Well, after what we thought was a good weekend for all of us, we smelled something unusual coming through the vents soon after we went to bed. We marched into a room filled with smoke and our son was just sitting there smoking pot. And what was shocking was that he totally denied it. We SAW it with our own eyes! WE SMELLED it with our own noses! And he said he WASN'T doing anything. I couldn't believe it. Really, right in our own house? You've got to be kidding me. All I could muster to say to him was that I was really disappointed in him, and turned around and went to bed.
The next morning he acted as if nothing had happened. I was still realing and very upset. He went to school and I called a therapist, for myself. Now to put things into perspective, I know many kids do this behavior and some can handle it, but not my son. He was also failing in school but never want to talk about how to improve the situation. So the only way left to get his attention was to take the computer AWAY. And what happened after that was surreal. The saga continues.......
Anyone else out there have difficulty with teens and their moods? How did you handle it or get through it? I would love to read any comments you have.
Hanging tough! Thanks for reading!
I am Warrior Mom. I am a self proclaimed Techy and I'm NOW calling a halt to the excess use of it! Let's put some balance back into our lives, especially our teens!
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