Dear Dr. Brian

Hi Brian, do you think that no matter what kind of parenting your child grows up with, some will still have problems because of mental problems or whatever the case may be? The society we live in now says its ok for girls to get pregnant (here in my area I know for sure of over 10 girls in one local high school that are pregnant), its ok to have sex, and do whatever they feel they want to. I’m writing to you because I have a friend whose son at 15 is having sex, trying alcohol, and this weekend, cut his arms up real bad and now is in a psych unit for kids. This boy has come from a 2 parent family, church going, instilled in him good morals, etc, went to Christian school, was home schooled til he started high school this year. So many kids are having a rough time and I don’t know why. He is very intelligent and it seems like intelligent, smart kids are the ones I’m seeing getting in trouble or having their own agendas in life, even if they have a great family life.

Worried in Wisconsin

Dear Worried in Wisconsin,

Research tends to show that, while neither is a 100% guarantee, poor parenting is more of a guarantee of a bad outcome than good parenting is of a good outcome, and in either case, our self-absorbed, if-it-feels-good-do-it culture doesn’t help. So, it’s possible that when a kid has a bad outcome, that kid’s parents never parented poorly, but in my experience, it’s generally more likely that they did (parent poorly), at least in some pivotal respect(s).

It’s important to keep in mind that we really rarely know exactly what goes on in someone else’s home. We know what they tell us and show us, but there’s usually more that we don’t know. If a 15-year-old is drinking alcohol and having sex, for example, it doesn’t look to me like good morals have been instilled in him, at least not effectively. I wouldn’t assume that he necessarily has had a great family life, and if he was home schooled (which I’m generally not a big fan of – despite all of the problems in schools, especially public schools, few parents in my experience are truly equipped to provide their kids with education and socialization equal or superior to what’s available in a school setting, especially a private school setting), then you may know even less about this kid than you might know about an average kid living near you, attending your children’s schools, etc.

Maybe this kid is smart but wasn’t socialized very well and has had a lot of interpersonal difficulty adjusting to the high-school setting. Poor parenting doesn’t have to be intentional or neglectful. Sometimes it’s just born of ignorance. And again, there are some times, like when a kid truly has a mental disorder (which self-mutilation, e.g. intentional cutting behavior, would suggest is highly possible), when the parents might not have been able to prevent the bad outcome, at least not without professional assistance (and maybe not even then, but I’m glad that your friends are getting such assistance now).

It’s very hard to tell from a distance why a particular kid had a bad outcome. In general though, I think we’re having a lot more bad outcomes, as evidenced by all of the teen pregnancies in your area (statistically speaking, I’d say that at least most of those suggest poor parenting, although it certainly doesn’t help that we have un-“reality” shows on television glamorizing teen pregnancy) in America right now than we’d have if a lot more parents got a lot more worried about doing a lot better parenting.

Just as I believe that guilt is a good emotion to the extent that it helps people to know when they need to change and/or make amends for their behavior but often doesn’t serve much productive purpose beyond that, I believe that worry is good to the extent that it helps people to take reasonable precautions to avoid unreasonable risks but often doesn’t serve much productive purpose beyond that. So, while I don’t want parents to be worried all the time about bad outcomes that truly are beyond their abilities to reasonably prevent, I think to the extent that you’re worrying – let’s say concerned – to a reasonable degree, about whether you’re doing everything you can to prevent reasonably-preventable bad outcomes, it may put you ahead of a lot of parents who aren’t even worrying about those.

Dr. Brian

(“Dear Dr. Brian” is published for public-interest and entertainment purposes only – it does not establish doctor-patient or attorney-client relationships, and it should not be used as a substitute for psychological, legal, or financial advice from a licensed professional in your area.)

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