What to do when it turns out your perfect family is not so perfect

What do you do when you find out your teenager has been lying and taking drugs? Psychologist Ilona Boniwell, mother to four teenagers and a baby, is appalled to face this exact challenge in her family


What to do when it turns out your perfect family is not so perfect

What happens when your perfect family turns out to be the exact opposite of perfect? Take, for example, the infamous sunny afternoon, when my step-son didn’t return from school. I was working from home that day and could see the other three arriving. ‘Where’s Hugo?’ I asked, but was met with a disinterested: ‘Don’t know.’ I eventually tracked him down. His lessons had finished early so he’d spent the last hour smoking weed with his friends, followed by throwing up and collapsing at his mother’s instead.

It took us months to recover from what we discovered – that this was not a one-off, that it was both cigarettes and marijuana, and that it applied not just to one boy, but to all three of them (aged 13, 14 and 15). In fact, the close friendship between the three step- and blood brothers had the downside of them experimenting together.

This nearly tore our newly formed family apart. Despite all the positivity, educational investment and attempts to stretch them culturally, we hadn’t avoided the pitfalls of adolescence – rebellious behaviour, lying, cheating, negative attitudes, disobedience and disrespect, drug and alcohol abuse and succumbing to peer pressure. Is this one of the late bills of divorce, we asked? Are they depressed but trying to put on a brave face? Is one of them more responsible for this than the rest? 

First, we decided to change schools (to shift the established social circles), then we grounded the boys for two months and – back to age-old wisdom – we increased the hours of sport.

An exercise in happiness

Psychological research shows exercise may be the most reliable happiness booster of all. Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar often notes that ‘not exercising is like taking depressants’.

A famous study compared three groups of depressed patients. The first was prescribed anti-depressants, the next – aerobic exercise, and the third, a mix of both. Independently of the regime, most patients had improved four months after taking part.

Unexpected results came six months down the road when 38 per cent of those recovered patients from the first group relapsed into depression, 31 per cent of the third group went back to ill health, but only nine per cent of those who’d exercised became depressed again.

So we asked our boys to do a minimum of two hours additional physical activity per week, not counting the school provision and sport-type games they do in their spare time. Between the three of them, in different combinations, they chose tennis, golf and biking.

They still smoke cigarettes, but my 15-year-old says they made a rule of ‘no buying under any circumstances’, which leads to about five cigarettes a week on average. I guess this is reasonable. I also believe (though I may be wrong) that smoking drugs is confined to the past. Fingers crossed…

More inspiration:

Read Positive Psychology In A Nutshell by Ilona Boniwell (Open University Press, £12.99)

See uppitysciencechick.com/babyak_dep_exercise.pdf for research on exercise and depression

Visit positran.fr/products?lang=en to brainstorm with your teenagers on how their strengths can be matched to physical activity ideas

Read Lessons for my teenage son by Sam Cleasby on LifeLabs

Photograph: Plain Picture