Your doorbell rings. You open it to find a large man wearing a police officer’s uniform standing on your doorstep. Why is he there? “Ma’am, we have a search warrant. We suspect that there are drugs on the premises.” What?? What is the police officer saying? Why is he, along with several others who have suddenly appeared, pushing his way into your home? What is going on?

Over the next hours and days you learn that your son, your precious 15-year-old baby, has been selling drugs. After throwing blankets, pillows, clothes and belongings all over his bedroom, the officers found the small stash they were looking for. Where you live, selling drugs is illegal, and the officers have handcuffed and arrested your child. You post bail and bring him home to await judgment.

Shock and Betrayal

At first, you and your spouse are shocked, scared and confused. But as the dust settles and you learn more details, your feelings turn to upset, rage and fury. How could your child do something so stupid and so wrong? What did you ever do to deserve this? What will everyone say? What will this cost the family financially and socially? How will this affect the future of this child and the others in the family? How dare he bring all this upon all of you! How could he?

It will take a while before you’re able to think of the youngster himself. What was going on in his mind? Did he choose this activity, or was he bullied into it? Is he safe, or did he get involved (maybe accidentally) with a dangerous crowd? Is he scared? Is he remorseful? Is he severely depressed or even suicidal? How can you best help him? What does he need from you now?

Expecting the Unexpected

Kids, and particularly teenagers, get into all sorts of trouble. They shoplift. They crash cars. They ring up cell phone bills into the thousands of dollars. They bully. They molest. They use drugs and, yes, they sell them too. Many times they do things because of their “teenage characteristics”: a sense of invincibility, poor judgment, impulsivity, hormonal madness, immaturity and naivety. Those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other mental health conditions are at even greater risk for giving way to impulse rather than considering their behavior carefully. And since it’s not surprising that kids get into trouble, it is imperative that parents know how to help them out of it.

Parenting Under Pressure

Kids may be impulsive, but parents should not be. Parents need to be prepared for those times when their kids will need them most, those times when the child’s world is falling apart. So here are some strategies that can help you when you most need to help your child:

  • Think about what would help you: Remember that your primary goal is to support your child on his developmental journey. If you had done something incredibly unintelligent/wrong/risky/unfortunate, what kind of support would you wish that your spouse could give you? In your state of fear and remorse, would lectures, recriminations and threats help you cope? Probably not. Settle your own emotional chaos (with professional assistance if necessary) before trying to seriously address your child.
  • Do not add unnecessary consequences: Ask yourself, will the natural consequence of this action provide all the necessary education? For instance, is there a financial fine, a prison sentence, community work, a process of judgment or confrontation, a suspension, a failed course or some other consequence that will significantly affect your child and drive the lesson home? If so, do not add anger, rejection and more negative consequences.
  • Provide educational consequences: If there is no natural consequence, you may want to design a consequence that will have educational value. For example, you may want the child to get a part-time job to pay off the cell phone bill or the costs of repairing the car after his bout of drunken driving. You may insist that he take further driver education or volunteer in a center treating motor vehicle accident victims—something that will help prevent a recurrence of this behavior. Let the consequence do the teaching and do not add anger or rejection as these emotions detract from whatever lesson you are trying to teach.
  • Be compassionate: We are all learning all the time. Teens make lots of mistakes because they are too young to have learned from life’s experiences; they are learning right now. Continuing to love and respect them teaches them that they can continue to love and respect themselves even as they are in a process of self-correction.
  • Stay true to who you want to be: Remember that all of life for all of us is a process of growing and gaining wisdom. While our kids are learning how to function responsibly and morally, we are learning how to build and maintain healthy relationships with our loved ones. When they are failing in their tasks, we can still be succeeding in ours! There is no reason to lose the vision of who we are trying to be when we feel alarmed, dismayed, hurt or otherwise emotionally challenged. At all times and under all conditions (not just when things are going well), we are supposed to emulate G‑d—to be loving, forgiving and compassionate, just as He is. Moreover, G‑d reacts to us the way we react to others. Do we take a hard, unforgiving, judgmental line? Then that same line will be applied to us for the errors that we make. Being loving does not mean being weak.

Parents are able to push their children in the right direction without pushing them over the edge. Being prepared helps.