- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2000

The memories bounce around Mona Jones McCammon's head, dates bumping into each other like pingpong balls in a lottery tank. Was it 1990? Or 1992?

Her 27-year-old son, Quincy Jones, sits next to her in her Lanham apartment, head bowed, listening as she recounts the tail end of a teen-age period gone horribly wrong. The drugs and alcohol, the drug dealing, the jail time. How her church-raised son, who spent his elementary school years preaching sermons to his stuffed animals, would one day look at her across a courtroom while a public defender told her her son was being charged with attempted murder.

"I'll never forget the look in his eyes," she says softly. "He was like a little boy all over again, so scared. I cried for five straight days."The story has a happy ending. Years of rebellion reached their nadir in 1994, when Mr. Jones decided to abandon his flight from mother and God and rededicate his life to Jesus. Today he's a happily married family man, a father of four and a youth director at a Hyattsville church. He lives only one apartment building away from his mother.

Many teen rebellion stories, of course, don't have happy endings, and many others have endings yet to be written. Family therapists and counselors all echo the strategy Mrs. Jones McCammon used all those lonely nights of pacing the kitchen floor and reading her Bible: Don't ever give up on your teen rebel.

'I felt like a failure'

The trouble began in the late 1980s, when Mr. Jones was about 15. He and his mother lived in a low-income housing development in Silver Spring, and slowly the lure of the streets pulled him away from everything he knew and held dear. There was no father around to help corral Mr. Jones; his parents never married, and his father was a sporadic presence in Mr. Jones' life until he died several years ago.

"I was lured by the music and the culture," Mr. Jones says. "I used to write rhymes; I wanted to be a rap star. I wanted to be popular and respected. That was a big thing among my peers, the way you dressed and carried yourself."

He started staying out longer and longer. Mrs. Jones McCammon knew some of his activities and sometimes even would follow him and pull him away from his dangerous new friends. But she was suffering from myriad health problems herself, and Mr. Jones admits those problems drove him to some of his behavior.

"I thought she was out in left field, like she was back in the 1800s, treating me like a little kid," he says. "Then she started getting sick, and it turned me even more away. All her faith and belief in God, I thought, it didn't seem real. We were poor, and she was suffering, and a lot of my friends were into drugs, and I thought that was cool."

Not only was Mrs. Jones McCammon battling her own health problems, but her father was suffering from heart trouble, too. Her nights of prayer and Bible reading seemed futile.

"I felt like a failure," she says. "I was doing all the right things, it seemed, but Quincy kept rebelling and straying. I didn't know what I was going to do."

Mr. Jones' self-destructive life-style continued its downward spiral until November 1990, when the 17-year-old was charged with attempted murder in a stabbing incident. The case was dismissed when prosecutors determined he had had nothing to do with the stabbing. Mr. Jones had been at the scene the night of the stabbing, but the victim and other witnesses confirmed his statement that he had not known the teen-ager with him was carrying a knife. He said prosecutors then tried to charge him with aiding and abetting, but that fell apart, too.

It wasn't until four years later, however, when Mr. Jones was about 21, that he gave up dealing and using drugs forever.

"Everything my mother had taught me [and] had said to me came back to me like a flood," Mr. Jones says. "I haven't had a taste for drugs or alcohol since that day. God had a plan for my life; that's all I can say. I heard the Lord speak to me and ran into the toilet to throw all that stuff away and said, 'I'm going to trust you.' "

Conflict is inevitable

Real rebellion, experts on adolescence say, is part of a teen-ager's growth and maturation and should be expected. In fact, Brian Cross, a family therapist in Washington, says he's more worried by teen-agers who never rebel than by teens whose rebellion sometimes seems impossible for parents to handle.

"Conflict is almost inevitable," Mr. Cross says. "It's absolutely a developmental stage. Sometimes it's louder in some families than others."

Kay Abrams, a family counselor in Garrett Park, says some teen rebellion is a form of "practice" for teens as they move from childhood to adulthood.

"Our teens are practicing from 12 to 18," she says. "That's six years of practicing. Sure, they're going to make fools of themselves. It means they're practicing. How does it feel to make a bad choice? What if I mess up? I get so many families that have lost their parenting ability and authority because they've forgotten that working a child's conscience is the best parenting you can do. Our job as parents is to teach, not just ground and punish. There's a time and place for that, but teaching means getting a kid ready for the society we live in."

The first thing parents of rebellious teen-agers must do, one counselor suggests, is to separate in their minds the difference between "control" and "influence."

"Realistically, parents don't have control," says Tim Sanford, a family counselor with Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo. "But it is our job and our responsibility to influence our teens."

He says parents do that in three main ways: teaching (through lectures or sharing pithy "pearls of wisdom"), making consequences clear (letting children reap whatever fallout results from their actions or inactions) and modeling desired behavior through their own lifestyles as parents.

"When parents get to this point, where they want to throw up their hands and say, 'I give up, I quit,' I say 'no, no, no, no, no,' " Mr. Sanford says. "It is my job to influence my teen-ager."

He advises parents to state clearly the rules and consequences in their home ("healthy rules for healthy reasons," he says), enforce the rules when they're broken and let the consequences fall, even if that means having a child repeat a class in summer school or pay the penalties when he or she runs afoul of the law.

"A lot of times, a teen won't let on that that hurts," Mr. Sanford says, "but that is influence and impact. It's like if I roll through a stop sign. Forty dollars isn't going to break me; it's just kind of an irritant. But if I get 25 of them, hopefully that will sink through my head. So you can be influencing your child even when you don't think you're influencing them."

Thea Hambright, a counselor with the Family Therapy Institute in Alexandria, says rule No. 1 should be safety.

"You as a parent choose what the nonnegotiable rules are, but for me, I try to encourage all my clients to put safety as No. 1," Ms. Hambright says. "So when a kid comes home late after curfew, you don't yell at them, you're not angry at them, but you are crying and in a heap because only death would keep them from using a phone and telling you why they were late."

She says parents also need to pick their battles with their teen-age children.

"For me, a kid's room is not important; it's not worth the battle," she says. "If you don't pick up your clothes, I don't care. I want the big stuff. The big stuff is safety, respect, going to school, having some after-school activity or being safe and off the streets, having goals, all the things that make for a good life. I can work around the rest. If I can help my kid get through these years, the small stuff is definitely workable."

It's never too late

Gary Lydic, director of Focus on the Family's "Life on the Edge" tour, says "50 percent to three-quarters" of the parents who come to his seminars feel helpless and hopeless over their teen-agers' rebellion.

"It's why they come," he says. "For some, it's a last resort. For others, it's not that far gone. They don't know what else they can do. Every time they start to talk [to their children] all they hear is the slamming of doors."

Focus on the Family started the "Life on the Edge" tour three years ago as a response to founder James Dobson's book of the same title, in which he posits that most of life's major decisions are made between the ages of 16 and 26. "Life on the Edge" seminars are unique in that parents attend the weekend-long events with their children and listen to the same speakers and music.

Mr. Lydic says many parents of rebellious teen-agers simply need a little encouragement and some practical tools, but many of them don't know where to begin.

"Young people are listening more than anything," he says. "They want us as adults to be real and transparent. That's not easy for adults and parents to do that. They get scared of being asked certain things."

Mr. Jones recalls that the peer pressure he endured during his teen years was almost unbearable.

"No matter who you are, the pressure is there to conform," he says. "You end up doing what you must in order to be accepted by your peers, or you stand alone with low self-esteem, most likely."

Kay Abrams, a family therapist in Garrett Park, says she has encountered the feeling of parental helplessness in her sessions with clients and attributes much of it to society in general.

"I have a lot of powerless parents who are intimidated and afraid of teens," she says. "I hear a lot of people in general laughing and saying things in a humorous tone like, 'Well, he's a teen now; he's going to do what he wants.' It's almost become an accepted norm in our society people decide when [children] hit adolescence, you as a parent don't have control anymore."

But the dirty little secret of parenting teen-agers, the experts say, is that no matter what kind of front children put up, they still need their parents' love and involvement.

"I try to have parents remember what it was like for them [as teen-agers], if you can remember that age," Ms. Hambright says. "How did it feel? What did you need? What did you wish you had? Kids are looking for that same thing today. They're still listening to you. I say to the parents, 'Sit down and find out who this kid is first. From there, you can work gradually with him.' Because that age is so fragile. They want to be loved so badly."

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