01/22/2011 02:19 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Need for Authority in Relationships with Troubled Youth

I work with teenagers who are in trouble. I have been at this work for 29 years, now in Vermont. These teens are tagged with various labels: at-risk; disconnected; addicted; mentally ill; developmentally disabled; oppositional defiant; and on and on. The labels change over the years. But in the end, these teens are, to me, having very real and serious difficulties navigating life.

When parents ask me for advice on what to do with youth such as these, I say there is no one answer. But, I add, while every situation is different and every adolescent different, I do notice patterns. And one pattern that is painstakingly obvious is that too many parents are not setting limits for their kids. They either don't want to set limits, or they don't know how to set limits, or some combination of both. But they aren't setting limits, and kids need limits. Desperately.

One of my great mentors was Poul Jensen, a child development expert, who was fond of saying "authority without relationship equals rebellion." Over time I created my own twist to it: "relationship without authority equals chaos." It is what I witness time and time again in everyday life and in my work life.

Here's an example. In the early 1990s I became director of a coed 72-bed residential treatment center for adolescents aged 14 to 17 and located a few miles outside of New York City. We had six cottages, 12 kids per cottage, located on an 18-acre campus. These were primarily kids from New York City ghettos who had been involved with gangs, caught committing a crime or who had been transferred out of multiple foster homes due to troublesome behavior. The previous director had been fired, after being there for more than 10 years, because the program was out of control. My job was to get it back under control.

My first day of work was a Monday. During the course of the day I noticed very few kids on the grounds, certainly not 72. "Where are they all?" I asked one member of the staff. "Most haven't returned from their weekend pass home," was the answer. "When were they supposed to be back?" I asked, and of course the answer was Sunday evening. "What's the consequence for this, will those kids who are late not be given a pass next weekend?" I asked. "Oh no," was the response, "everyone still gets to go."

I discovered this kind of thing over and over again. The adults at the program had set up rules and boundaries for kids, at least on paper, but when the kids violated the rules they still were rewarded with trips home, outings to the movies, allowance, etc. At one point one of the boys there actually said to me, "Mr. Redmond, why should I or anyone else here follow your rules, because the kids who don't do so are getting the same nice things as us anyway."

It was hard to argue with him. The adults were trying to run the program entirely on the basis of relationship, and that wasn't working. For whatever reason, the adults had a long time ago given up their authority to the kids. We began the long and arduous process of helping them claim it back. And let me tell you, it wasn't easy. We had several riots on grounds; a staff member had his jaw broken in two by a boy and had to have it wired shut for three months; I had dozens of confiscated weapons locked inside my file cabinet; one boy came on grounds with a gun one night; big problems like that. But in time we prevailed. We, the adults, systematically took back our authority, but it took us well over a year. There were staff who had to go, who actually liked it the way it was before (principally because they weren't required to do much under that old system). In the end, we succeeded and created a program that actually helped kids to become functioning, thriving, happy adolescents.

I want to add that while we were installing the needed authority, we simultaneously beefed up the nice things we offered. We created sports teams for kids to join and compete against area schools. We fixed up the cottages where the kids lived, which had been dumps. We hired a new chef and gave kids decent meals to eat.

But there is no doubt in my mind that a huge part of the transformation of that program was the willingness and ability of the adults to reclaim their authority. I believe that is what is missing in a huge way in our culture right now, whether it's a program like the one I was running, or in schools, or sports teams or families. Too many adults are trying to make things work entirely through relationship; but while relationship is essential, so is authority. When relationship and authority are in balance the child feels it, the family settles down and the community benefits. We can reclaim our troubled youth when we reclaim our authority over them.

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