Teens Who Commit Crimes: What Can/Should Parents Do?

How do we know when normal teen acting-out is a preamble to something far more sinister? Is it our parental responsibility to expose our children's suspicious activity and turn them over to authorities, or do we defend and protect them at all costs?
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When Hurricane Sandy left families without power this week, some parents worried that dark streets and restless teenagers were a recipe for more disaster.

Even under normal circumstances, most teens push boundaries. They talk back, break curfew, lie and sometimes cheat and steal as they navigate their way into adulthood. But these behaviors are a far cry from the serious juvenile crimes that concern some parents -- and the kind that have recently hit the headlines.

How do we know when normal teen acting-out is a preamble to something far more sinister? Is it our parental responsibility to expose our children's suspicious activity and turn them over to authorities, or do we defend and protect them at all costs? Most important, are there things parents can -- and should -- do to avoid this dangerous trajectory, whether in stormy times or everyday life?

Those were among the challenging ethical questions that television host Michael Coren raised while interviewing me for CNN's Sun News. We were talking about the two moms who recently turned their children in after learning about their criminal behavior. One, Anita Saunders, a South Jersey mother of 15 and 17-year-old boys, provided information from a Facebook page that ultimately helped police find the body of Autumn Pasquale, a 12-year-old who had vanished while riding her bike. Allegedly, Autumn was strangled by one of the boys, her backpack and bike left in a dumpster near their home. The teens are now in custody.

Two days later, Mindy Sigg, a Colorado mother of a 17-year-old boy, turned in her son after he shared details about his involvement in the case of a missing 10-year-old girl, Jessica Ridgeway. According to police, Ms. Siggs said, "I made the phone call, and he turned himself in. That's all I have to say," breaking down in tears as she hung up the phone. The call resulted in her son's arrest for the murder of the young girl as well as the attempted abduction of a jogger earlier in the year.

Are they courageous mothers who decided to do the right thing? Or is this the ultimate maternal betrayal made by desperate parents? I responded to my interviewer's questions, saying that regardless of their motives, these moms made heartbreaking decisions that raise serious questions about the role parents play in managing teen behavior.

Saunders and Sigg's actions reminded me of how often I read about parents who do the opposite -- defend their children -- after their sons or daughters have been found guilty of serious crimes. "It's not possible that my kid could have done such a terrible thing," they protest. They remain convinced of their innocence -- sometimes even after watching their child commit a crime on surveillance video. While family loyalty is a natural reaction, it makes you wonder how often parents actually know about their children's deviant behavior but fail to report it. How many actually understand the important line between actions that require authority intervention and behavior that might not?

In the case of the mothers in recent news events, most would agree that turning their children in was the correct, if very difficult, thing to do. But would we all feel the same about reporting illegal drugs found in a teen's backpack? Or items in a child's bedroom closet that appear to have been shoplifted? What if we become aware of cyber-bullying or online chatter that suggests violence to others or themselves?

Surely, it is the responsibility of parents to teach kids right from wrong. Children are not born with a built-in set of the rules of morality, nor do they suddenly wake up one day as criminals. Lessons in ethics and manners have to start at home -- and early. They need to be clear and reinforced by the examples parents set, as do the consequences should those rules not be followed. At best, these guidelines are fostered throughout the child's life -- at schools, among friends and during religious and extra-curricular activities.

But with moral lines so blurred in today's culture, children need extra help to distinguish between rules that are condoned in violent video games, rap music and films that glorify criminal behavior from those that apply to real life. Bottom line: It's the family's responsibility to watch for signals when those lines are dangerously crossed and to decide if authorities should be notified when real life rules are disobeyed. It's a decision that depends not only on the age of the child and the severity and chronicity of their crime, but on parental attitudes as well.

You see, I find some parents believe that unconditional love is their child's right and that you protect your child no matter what -- at any age and under all circumstances. The role of the parent is viewed as a mediator between children and the outside world. Family loyalty comes before all else. Others parents believe in tough -- or tougher -- love. They view their primarily responsibility as teaching their children life lessons and the consequences for not following them. Most parents try striking a balance between nurturing and teaching, but these attitudes strongly influence family dynamics when it comes to reporting teenage criminal actions.

Let's take some commonplace teen 'bad' behavior to see how this works. Imagine you discover that your daughter has copied a friend's essay for a high school English assignment. Parents have to decide how to proceed; do they scold their daughter, but dismiss the behavior as typical teen acting out, viewing it as an aberration not worthy of outside attention? Or, what if your son repeatedly skipped school and lied about it? Ground the child and write a note to the principal creating a reasonable excuse for the absences, hoping to avoid it being written up on any permanent record? Or, do parents take a different approach, reporting these crimes -- plagiarism and truancy are against the law -- letting their children suffer the consequences that authorities place on them. Will the former inaction lead to more cheating and lying later in life? Or is the tough love approach too tough, with the negative consequences unnecessarily cruel?

Clearly, when it comes to a child being a danger to themselves or others, there is no debate -- the behavior has to be reported to authorities. But for all the in-between offenses? This is where families must play an active role early on creating clear guidelines for both child and parent. Unacceptable behavior needs to be clarified. Consequences need to be unambiguous. Follow-through must occur in a loving, caring atmosphere.

Clarity about lesser "crimes" helps kids avoid committing more serious ones. By the time a teen is capable of murder, parents must turn them in, of course. But, perhaps if children are raised dealing with the more gentle "authorities at home," these kinds of tragedies would be avoided.

Do you have advice for parents whose kids show signs of potential unlawful behavior? Would you turn your child in to the police if he/she committed a crime?


Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.

For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter at DrVDiller.

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