As parents, we're constantly learning, adjusting, and doing the best we can with the resources we have. Whether you're here for an ounce of prevention or you're in a challenging situation with your child and need a lifeline, I am honored to bring you this interview with Aaron Huey.
Aaron is an internationally known speaker and the host of the #1 parenting podcast, “Beyond Risk and Back.” He's also the Co-Founder and President of Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center for troubled teens, based out of Colorado, and as he says, best of all, he is a happy husband and father of two young adults.
With over two decades of experience in working with troubled teens, Aaron outlines the four things that we can do as parents to either prevent our children from participating in risky behavior or help get them back on the right track.
We also talk about the self worthiness conversation that parents have when confronted with a challenging situations with their children, how to step out of emotional parenting, and how to take on difficult conversations with confidence.
*Warning: Conversation includes discussion of drugs and self-harm.
What are the most important things a parent can do to shift the path their child is on or prevent their child from following a troubled path?
I think this is one of the most important questions. This is why I call my podcast Beyond Risk. Our facility works with teens who were showing at risk behavior three years ago and now have had multiple suicide attempts. We're looking at the dependencies on drugs or alcohol or self harm or video games or social media. But what I have found in all this work, in two decades of working with teens and families, is that there are four most important things you can do for a child. All the universities and all the research has shown that these four things are the most effective things you can do to either get your kid back on track or to keep them off and out and away from risky behavior.
The craziest thing, Bethany, is that these things are free! That's the craziest thing. One of them could potentially have a cost associated with it, but you'll know which one that is when I say it. But the other three are 100% free of charge to a parent because what I know about offering treatment, as a treatment provider, recovery is expensive. First of all, because you're putting your child into a clinic 24 hours a day for an effective time period, which research shows to be an absolute minimum of three months long. Our facility is four months long. If you can imagine how much a doctor's office visit costs, treatment is expensive. Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and financially, treatment is tough on a family. The whole family has to go into recovery. Children are the trickle down effect of a broken system. Children are not responsible for a family falling apart. Children are reflecting, a child is not responsible for a family system that's dysfunctional, they're reacting to it. A child's reactions, their behavior is their language.
So the four things that we can do to keep our children out of treatment:
It has shown to be the number one deterrent to risky behavior in teenagers. Regular family dinners with no media and no TV. Home cooked meals, connecting with meaningful conversations and again, absolutely no media, unless you're playing low background music.
Get to Know Your Kids’ Friends and Parents
Bethany, I'm not gonna try to assume I know how old you are. I'm 50, but I'm not 50 years old. I'm level 50. I've decided I'm calling them levels and not years old. I'm level 50. So at level 50, I come from a time period where we grew up with schools that were neighborhood schools.
I went to school with the kids in my neighborhood. They were my childhood friends. I grew up with them and my parents knew their parents. When I did something down the street, that was unseemly, my mom knew about it before I got home because the moms and dads in our neighborhood were connected, right?
Now we live in these houses with very tall fences and we don't even know our neighbors and our kids go to school that's 15 miles away and we have to drive them there. Then when we take 'em away from their social circle, we're mad that they're on the phone, connecting with them still.
Well, that's what happens when we're allowed to put our kid into any school and don't have to raise them in the neighborhood school. So getting to know your kids, friends, parents, and having conversations and barbecues and getting people reconnected.
You need something for your child to do between the hours of 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM. I'm talking about your child needing an extracurricular activity after school, that could cost money, but idle hands do the devil's work. That's one of the most traditional and oldest sayings for people who struggle with addiction. The moment I'm bored, my cravings show up. Bethany, I've been sober for 22 years, but the moment I'm bored, I have cravings, idle hands do the devil's work. Your kids need to have something to do. Yes, you can over-schedule your children. Millennial parents have been accused of over-scheduling their children. Gen X parents have been accused of over-scheduling their children, but there is the right amount of things to have happen. If they aren't with you, they need a unique community and that usually takes place between three o'clock and seven o'clock.
Another extremely important thing that we can do to keep our kids on track with their behaviors is to talk about the real, honest to goodness, absolute truth of how drugs, alcohol, self harm, and social media affect the developing brain. Not the old dare to keep your kids off drugs stuff, not that crap. I'm talking about what really happens to a developing brain. We have found in our facility, after two decades of research on this, that when you teach kids what drugs really do and have honest conversations about alcohol, cutting, and pornography, they tend to avoid it because they know what's really happening to them.
Something that my son told me was that he found out that shrooms make your brain bleed, that it actually causes brain bleeding, that kept him off of it through high school and college. That information came to him from a teacher who had knowledge about the truth of what all the other kids were telling him. “Oh, it's totally cool. Nothing happens. It's not addictive, blah, blah, blah.”
What marijuana does to a developing brain? How it affects your system's aide receptors and neurotransmitters and how the THC molecule mimics the neuromodulator in your brain and what that does when your emotions are heightened, when you can't produce it on your own anymore, because you're replacing it with a copy. That's what happens with cocaine, heroin, meth and it happens with marijuana as well. When kids really understand, they make different choices. But see, that's not something you're gonna Google. When you Google, how does marijuana affect the body? And your teens are gonna come to you with 7.9 million pages on Google about how awesome marijuana is, but it's not the truth of what takes place in the brain.
So those are the four things, family dinners, getting to know your kids’ friends and their parents, having something to do between three o'clock and seven o'clock and real honest to God conversations about what really happens with the developing brain and addiction. That's it.
While I have you, Aaron, I have a couple more questions about what I've heard you call emotional parenting. Can you explain a little more about what that means?
Emotional parenting, the way we describe that, is the way that parents tend to confront the most important and critical moments they have with their teen, who is struggling, when they're extremely emotional. We have a saying that when emotions go up, intellect goes down. The emotional place when you're exhausted because your teenager has been ditching school and smoking pot has been dealing with depression and maybe tried to commit suicide a couple times, or their anxiety is so bad that they're actually not going to school. Now they're in ninth grade, they're being bullied at school, and instead of trying to engage in a recovery process, they're spending 12 hours a day, into the late night playing video games, or maybe they're addicted to social media and we get so stressed out that we don't sleep, we don't eat, we don't take care of ourselves.
Then, our child does something that we've been anticipating and we’re really just worried. That's when we have these extremely important conversations or we level consequences at our kid, when we're angry at them, because they smoked pot and ditched school and got in trouble by the resource officer. That's the worst time to be a good parent, when you have big emotions, when you're stressed out and exhausted, when your whole family is wrapped around the behavior of one child who is struggling.
That's where we talk about this emotional parenting piece. When the kids are little and we don't like what they do, we can get the big dad voice or the mom voice. The little kid gets afraid of the big voice and does what we want, but now, we have a teenager, we say something and they have a snappy comeback. We get angry that they have a snappy comeback so we say something even more provocative and they come back with something completely asinine and off, off subject. When we’re this angry, that’s the worst time to come up with a consequence. That's the worst time to create a consequence that's actually gonna make any positive change in the child's behavior.
The most important aspect of this is that when we are highly emotional as parents, and we are trying to teach a life lesson through consequence, the child's gonna focus on the emotion, not the consequence. They're not gonna regard their actions and say, oh, I should do better and make better choices. They're gonna be like, my mom's a jerk. My dad's a jerk, he was screaming at me and yelling at me. So that's why dealing with these emotions as an adult is absolutely key to this work. So when we teach parents at our facility, that's a big piece of it, learning how to get our own nervous systems regulated and getting our prefrontal cortex back online so that when we offer a consequence or try to have an important conversation that we're really coming from our best place as a parent, which is the part that still loves them and is worried, but is also going to make a logical decision.
I've heard someone say that before. When you discipline out of your emotion, when you're hot in the moment, it can make your child feel that it's not really the action they did that is wrong, but it is them as a person. You're compounding the effect of the struggle they're already having and shaking their confidence. Like the example you used of being bullied at school, you're compounding what they are already feeling, which is that they are less than, not good enough, different in an unacceptable way.
You know, that's interesting because we like to say to adults, and especially in the seminar industry and in motivational work, and even in the therapeutic world, that we as adults are the sum total of our behaviors. And that's certainly true because we're dealing with belief systems that lead to thoughts that lead to feelings that lead to actions that lead to results. When our child is lying about their homework and then they fail the test, they come home and say that the teacher hates all children in the universe, they're a terrible teacher, and everybody in the class failed.
As a parent, you know that this isn't true and all you're dealing with is the actions and the results of your child. We parent based on what we call the tip of the iceberg, right? The stuff that we see and some of the emotions and not taking into account that the child’s undeveloped brain can only act based on its emotional experience of the world.
What's underneath those feelings are thoughts. They have those feelings because they think the world is a certain way. They think the world is a certain way because of their experience of the world. As parents, we're still only very in a shallow way, dealing with their actions and their results. We're saying you did this and now this happened, you smoked pot, you got in trouble, and now you've been kicked outta school. Why are you making bad choices? Certainly that's an appropriate reaction for an angry parent, except we're not really addressing the experiences, the thoughts and the feelings going on.
When we teach parents, we teach them that every action is an expression of need. As a parent, if you're only dealing with what the kid did and the results, then if they want different results, they have to do different things and make different decisions. We never step into a place of being analytical about what need did this action fulfill. There are five basic human needs: power, freedom, safety, worth, and connection. Let’s think about when we’re yelling at a teen about making a bad choice, and they hate those words, “bad choices” because when we're yelling at a kid about bad choices, the kid truly thinks they're a bad person. Why do they think that? Well, probably because their brain is not fully developed and they only can do what they feel is developmentally appropriate for a child. We have to remember that a child's brain doesn't stop developing, if they're female till about 24, and if they're a male 40, I dunno, but they're saying it is as much as 30 years old for the male brain, it's still developing.
The developed prefrontal cortex can make bad decisions, but I truly believe a child is only making a decision based on survival, to have one of our five needs fulfilled - power, freedom, safety, worth, and connection.
Let’s walk through an example. Smoking pot. You can argue about whether it's good or bad or addictive or not. I run a treatment facility, so I know what it is, but let's go deeper than that and let's say, what need does that fulfill? Well, they have this group of friends that like them because they smoke pot - connection. Mom and dad don't like smoking pot so this is giving them a sense of power. When you get high, you certainly step away from your emotional state, it's like emotional ibuprofen. You step into a numbness which is a sense of freedom and maybe you start selling drugs and people think you're important - worth. When you're high, you feel like you can be part of a, a collective, a tribe, a group, well, there's safety in numbers. You've just met all five needs just by smoking pot. If you can meet five needs with one action, well, that's not a bad choice at all.
So when I heard you say, Bethany, a child can look at themselves when you're yelling at them because of something they did or did not do, it actually can harm the development of self concept. I really think what we're missing is the actual thought process that an adult has to figure out why that decision was made in the first place and to see the absolute. It's not brilliant, but it certainly makes sense. If someone's gonna make sense of this child's behavior, I find it ironic that adults expect the child to make sense of it and justify it to someone who has a developed brain. This is asking a child to justify a risky decision to someone with a developed brain. So that's kind of where I go. Yes, it messes with self esteem, self confidence and most importantly self concept, which is the root of esteem and confidence.
I'm interested from a parents' perspective. What is the mindset that you're coming from in these examples? I could feel myself going into “fixer” mode, like, oh, my child has this problem. One of her five needs are not met. How do I fix it? I would want to be the fixer versus trying to support them and help them learn and grow through that challenge.
Well, I mean, that's amazing because you're probably the only parent on the planet who wants to fix their kid's problem and keep 'em safe. So there's probably something specifically wrong with you. <laughing> As a father of a 23 and 24 year old young adults who I'm watching navigate a much bigger world, my wife and I constantly have to pull back to say, uh, is this a safe lesson for them to learn? What you're talking about is the difference between protecting your child and preparing your child. Quite frankly, if your child's behavior is not life and limb, if life and limb is not at risk, what are you doing? Taking the opportunity away from that child to solve it and learn from it, from life experience.
As adults, we've learned what works and what doesn't work. We try to impose that knowledge upon our children in lecture and oratory format, but no adult that I have ever asked this question to can give me a satisfactory answer. Can you name one really important life lesson that you learned from your parents from a lecture and not from what your parents did or did not do? We are creatures of experience so we can’t solve all of our children’s problems. One of the things we train parents and also the staff at our facility is to hand the problem back to the child. Just give it back.
Like I was saying before, if it's life and limb, take it on, you are the goalie, the referee, and the coach, by God save that child's life. If it's life and limb, get in there. They lose their vote.They lose their choices. The adult has to come in and fix this issue. That's the rule for life and limb, where that gets fuzzy is when, as adults, we are not clear on what life and limb is. Failing school is not life or limb. We'd like to try to justify that having a dirty room is life or limb. Now we could rationalize that it could become well, they're leaving food there and it's growing mold and children's brains are very sensitive to mold. Yes, that's true.
You can certainly set up some consequences around that, where we say my love, I am not willing to live in a house that has moldy food in it. So here are two options. Number one, I'll clean your room and I'll go ahead and pay me out of your allowance, but just know that I will clean your room with trash bags and I clean everything. I will not discern what you consider valuable and what you don't, or you can clean your room. I'm okay with either option and would you like to do this on Thursday or Saturday? I'm good with either option. That's a really logical, and loving approach. I'm acting as an ally. I'm offering to share choices. I'm offering to share power. I've set down clear boundaries. I've made my willingness and unwillingness very clear, which establishes my value system, but I've handed the problem back. I'll clean your room, but you're not gonna like how I do it. We set a date so you have plenty of time to consider your options.
We're going to add as much responsibility as you can, especially when they're younger. Give them the problems to solve. It teaches them the most important lesson that you can give them as a parent, which is, I believe you can figure out life. That's where problems with self-esteem and self concept really take root and grow into something unhealthy. If we are constantly bulldozing the path for them so that they have no problems. At some point, they're gonna realize you're doing it and realize that you don't trust them to figure it out for themselves and fix it, that they can't handle it.
For more insight from Aaron Huey, be sure to follow Beyond Risk and Back wherever you listen to podcasts.