My 14-year-old son was recently suspended from school. Again.
It's the second time he's been suspended for lashing out at a teacher (the fourth if you count those two times I was told by the head of junior school that he wasn't suspended but they "strongly recommend" I keep him home for a day or two to simmer down…)
When I say "lashing out", what I mean is that he told a teacher to eff off. Most of me is shocked and appalled by this behaviour – and certainly that's the only part of me my son will ever see – but there's a tiny teenager inside my brain that is well impressed. There's no way I would have had the guts to do that when I was at school, even though I'm sure I wanted to at times.
The problem with my son is that I can see him going down a certain path. He's into self-harm and isolating himself from his peers. He's into feeling like he's misunderstood and a bit dangerous. It scares me, because the more that side of him becomes part of his identity, the harder it is to get him to see himself as anything else.
I was baffled at first as to how to punish the appalling behaviour at school. Clearly the school had already punished him, but there was no way I could let it go at home.
But I didn't want to punish my son in a way that would allow him to further isolate himself or see himself as a victim in this mess. I wanted him to do something that would make him feel proud of himself and like he has something to contribute to society.
Luckily, my son sees a psychologist each fortnight for ongoing depression and anxiety issues (the mental health issues aren't the lucky bit, but the professional help certainly is), so I was able to workshop options with her. She's known us for two years now, and she knows how my son's brain works.
The conclusion we came to together was that I would cancel the drumming lessons he was about to start, and replace that activity with something that would encourage him to get out of his own head and work as part of a team.
"Drumming will only allow him to sit in a darkened room for hours on end," his psychologist said. "Give him something useful to do."
Volunteering seemed like the perfect option – "as long as he's working as part of a team," said the psychologist, "not sitting in a room on his own".
When I floated the idea with my son I was surprised to find he enthusiastically embraced the idea from the get-go. Then I was even more impressed when he suggested he could work in an aged care home.
My son is very close with his grandmother, and has always enjoyed the company of elderly people. He likes to tell me it's because he's an old soul, but I suspect it has more to do with the fact that they always give him sweets.
Either way, after a few phone calls, I have lined up for my son a volunteer role at a local aged care facility. He will go in to chat with the residents, as well as helping them with their computers and teaching those who are interested how to send emails and other basic functions.
It's something that will be easy for him, but I'm hoping the delight he provides for those who crave the company, or value the knowledge of a digital native, will show him he has a lot to contribute to society and make him feel good about himself – something he hasn't felt much of for a while.
And beyond that, what I hope the most is that he doesn't tell anyone to eff off.