If you’re the parent of an unruly adolescent who’s actively pushing boundaries, this is the moment you’ve feared. This is when the novelty seeking, the authority challenging, the limit testing, and the roller-coaster ride of teen identity formation comes up against a hard boundary: expulsion from school.
The fun and games are over. There’s no longer anything cute about your teen breaking minor rules and gaming the school system. The threat of expulsion carries serious consequences for everyone in the family, not just the teenager. Changing schools after expulsion can strain relationships and alter the family dynamic. It can shake up everything from daily schedules to college plans to short and long-term financial planning.
Practically speaking, it’s one step short of an arrest or getting in some sort of trouble with the law. It’s reasonable and appropriate to be very concerned.
On the Verge is not Over the Edge
If you’re reading this article, we’ll assume you’re not quite at the expulsion stage – yet. Maybe your teen has had multiple detentions, in-school suspensions, or outright suspensions, and none of these consequences have had a significant deterrent effect on their behavior. We’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that you’ve been formally notified by the school that one more misstep will be the final straw. Another disciplinary incident, another truancy, another violation of the school code of conduct, and they’ll initiate the expulsion process.
As a parent, one important thing to keep in mind is that – in the context of a bad situation – things could be worse. For the moment, you can keep your hand away from the panic button. You have time to de-escalate the situation, get your teenager back on track, and repair their relationships within your family and with the school. Things may feel overwhelming, but before you take any action, first take a deep breath and assess the situation objectively.
What You Can Do
There are several steps you can take to pull your teen back from the verge and prevent them stepping over the edge – but you need to stay calm and take things one at a time. In this situation, you need to start closer to home than you may think – with you.
- Check Yourself. Are you freaking out? Are you adding your emotional input to the situation in an unhealthy manner? If your kid is going off the rails, don’t go with them: stay firmly on the rails. A calm, steady hand and a proactive – not reactive – attitude will serve everyone best, and has the added benefit of keeping you less stressed.
- Check Your Family. Is your teen’s behavior affecting your other children? Is it affecting your relationship with your spouse or any primary caregivers? Adolescent behavior is often attention seeking, and if you make the unruly teen the center of the universe – they win. Before you give all your attention to one person, make sure everyone else involved is okay.
- Check Your Child. You probably thought this would be our first piece of advice, but in reality, the big picture things – meaning you and the other members of your family – are essential components of how you can support your child. Once you get those squared away, here’s how you to check your child:
- Talk to them. The first step is always to communicate openly and honestly with your teenager. Try to find out what’s going on with them. Ask them what you can do to help. Be patient, listen without interrupting, and act on what they tell you. This may not work – they may have retreated into an impenetrable teenage shell – but you have to try.
- Cover the Basics. Go all the way back to the fundamentals of parenting: food, sleep, exercise, mental stimulation, social belonging, and emotional safety. In the 21st century, it’s tempting to leave teens to their own devices. However, they’re not adults, and sometimes their own devices only include cell phones and tablets. They leave out the essential components – listed above – that contribute to overall health and well-being.
- Get Professional Help. If your attempts at communication aren’t productive, it’s time to look outside the family for help. If you suspect drugs are involved, get your teenager tested. If you suspect underlying, undiagnosed emotional issues are at play, get a thorough assessment done by a mental health professional. To find a qualified, licensed expert in your area, use this Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist finder provided by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
- Re-establish Family Norms. Many parents stop trying to talk to their teens when they enter the door slamming, foot stomping, and “I hate you” phase. If that’s you, you’re not alone – it’s common because it’s hard behavior to deal with. Now is the time to have a sit-down and make sure your family expectations – in the form of rules and consequences – are clearly and unequivocally established and understood by everyone. Collaborate on these with your teen. Empower them in the process, but in the end, remember you’re the boss and you have final word.
- Communicate with the School. Reach out to your teen’s school and request a meeting with the appropriate members of the administration. This may be an assistant principal, a guidance counselor, or a disciplinary team, depending on the school. Arrange a meeting and make sure the school is doing their part to help, rather than harm, your child. When you meet with school officials, there are several crucial things to cover, especially if there’s a particular incident that precipitated the current situation. Here’s what you need to do:
- Gather all relevant information. Find our the who, what, when, where, and why of your teenager’s problems at school. You’ll often get an incomplete report of events from your child. This is the time to get all the facts from the adults directly involved. It’s also time to get your school’s perspective on your child in general, not just with regards to the immediate issue.
- Know Your Special Services. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed by Congress in 2004 and implemented by U.S. Department of Education soon thereafter, includes provisions binding all public schools to provide appropriate support to children with disabilities. In this context, physician-diagnosed emotional, developmental, and behavioral issues qualify as disabilities. Support typically comes in the form of 504 plans or Individual Education Plans (IEPs). When you meet with the school, make sure they’re doing all the can – and all they’re legally bound to do – to best serve your child. The presence of a disability and the existence of 504s and IEPs dramatically alter the disciplinary actions your school can take. For information on how these federal laws affect students in private schools, click here.
- Enlist an Advocate. As a parent, you have more power in your relationship with your teen’s school than you probably realize. When you meet with school officials, you can bring a friend, a special education advocate, or an attorney*. Special education advocates can help you negotiate with your school with regards to disciplinary actions appropriate for students with special needs. Attorneys can give you legal advice on how to proceed if you feel your school is not meeting IDEA provisions, or if you feel the school hasn’t followed proper procedures before reaching disciplinary decisions. If you attend a school conference and you’re not sure you understand everything that’s going on, do not agree to or sign anything until you consult a qualified third-party.
First Things First: Perspective, The Big Picture, and Love
Teenagers can be maddening. They want – no, they beg, plead, and even demand – to be treated like adults, yet sometimes they act like school-age children. For parents, it seems like an impossible tight-rope to walk. You want to give them responsibility, so they can become independent. You want to prepare them for adulthood, so when they strike out on their own they have the basic skills they need for success. But when you give them more freedom and they make poor decisions that can affect their future, you question everything.
It’s easy to forget that the person living in your house who may often look and act like an adult is still basically a child. They’re learning, growing, and changing. They make poor decisions because they don’t have all the neurons in their brains to make rational, adult choices. Fact: the human brain finishes developing around the mid-twenties, and the last things to develop are pre-frontal cortex feedback mechanisms, which are structures responsible for impulse control and logical decision-making – quite literally, the things that distinguish adults from adolescents and children.
If your teenager is on the verge of getting expelled from school, remember where they are in life. They’re trying to figure things out, and your job as a parent is to help them do just that. You may have let the lines of communication go silent, but now is the time to re-establish them. That’s what we mean by perspective: you’re still the parent and they’re still the child. Don’t be afraid of re-asserting your authority. We also want to remind you that one incident – even a serious one like expulsion – will not determine the course of your child’s life. This, too, shall pass. You and your teen can recover, set things straight, and move forward.
That’s what we mean by The Big Picture.
Finally, if your teen is unruly, acting out, and doing their best to sabotage everything good about their life, we advocate something very basic: double down on the love. Problem behaviors can be the result of mental health disorders, drug use, trauma, hormones, or any number of causes. There’s one thing that helps heal in all these situations: love, and plenty of it. Your teenager is still part of your family, and your family is still the most powerful force in their life. Remind them you’re there for them unconditionally, and you’ll support them as best you can through any challenge they face. On the surface, a teenager may think this is corny – but you never know.
It might be all they need to hear.
*Please Note: Schools typically welcome the presence of special education advocates at parent meetings, but see the presence of a lawyer as confrontational. The school can bring its attorney, too – and when lawyers get involved, it often becomes difficult for both parties to cooperate on finding solutions. Save lawyers for a last resort, when you feel the school is being negligent or not taking you seriously. If you arrive with a lawyer, they’ll know right away how serious you are.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.