Parents struggle, too

Gerry Phelan
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There was no Christmas tree that year. It was like a death in the family.

It was a death, not of a person, but of a relationship.

It’s hard to grasp another family’s pain.

For a middle-aged couple in

St. John’s, a recent report from the child and youth advocate triggered memories of what happened to them and why action is needed, not just for young people, but for the caregivers of troubled children.

“Sixteen” is a must-read for anyone concerned about child welfare. The report is an investigation into the case of a 16-year-old boy charged with setting a fatal fire in St. John’s. Carol Chafe wanted to determine whether services provided by the various government departments met the youth’s needs and respected his rights. Her research identifies real issues with the way troubled youth are cared for in the system.  

It is often said in situations involving troubled young people, where were the parents? Sometimes their stories are as gut-wrenching as the teens’.

As Chafe’s report notes, “Mom talked to the social worker about the long-standing behavioural issues with her son; she said she was at her wit’s end.”  

The story is one of dealing with a child who was using drugs, threatening suicide and bringing a family into turmoil.

Sadly, the story is not isolated.

Let me tell you about Derek and Sue (not their real names). It has been more than a decade since they had to have their son removed from their home. They had been watching the teen steadily decline from a  straight-A student to one disinterested in school and most anything else.

Still, Derek and Sue were shocked and took exception when a teacher dared ask if their son was doing drugs. When another teacher pointed out that he seemed to be off sick a lot, they realized the boy was simply not going to class, forging their signatures on sick notes.

Confronting him proved fruitless. Things escalated to arguments, damage to their property, thefts from their home and, ultimately, violence.

Even close friends would never know the things Derek and Sue endured. It was more than a son’s “acting out.” The holes in the walls were visible signs, but there was also the constant worry that this person they loved would harm himself or someone else.

The couple sought professional help and attended counselling sessions. Derek was surprised but heartened to know that parents facing similar upheaval included lawyers, doctors and business people. All the advice was that the time would come that they’d have to tell their child to “get out.” Who wants to throw their own kid onto the street?

But like the mother in “Sixteen,” it reached the point where being at “wit’s end” was putting it mildly. After one particular incident, their son was removed from his home by police and taken to a shelter, where he lived in the system for a time.

Derek and Sue were on their own. Every morning, they had to look in the mirror and take responsibility for saying their son had to go. There was little post-counselling for them. There was one meeting with the addictions people who had guided them to their decision, a session where they were told they had done the right thing, and “it will get better in time.”

They didn’t celebrate Christmas that year.  

Over the years, the family has patched things up, but it hasn’t been easy. The scars remain. Their son is doing better now. Somehow he found his way.

Derek and Sue suggest, and I agree, that more has to be done to help and support parents and caregivers in these situations. There is no book or online video that can tell you how to be a perfect parent to a child who falls prey to the scourge of drugs or mental illness. You can only do your best, seek advice and do as your heart tells you to do.

And for the gossipers and others who are quick to judge the parents in such situations, remember, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster. He can be reached


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Recent comments

  • Courtney
    December 13, 2013 - 15:45

    Extremely well put Mr. Phelan. In our society, there's an awful lot of lip service paid to 'compassion' but not nearly enough evidence of it being practiced. Sad. We need to do a whole lot better.