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Sue Scheff Parent Advocate for Parents of Struggling Teens
Sue Scheff has spent the last 18 years helping parents of struggling teens. She has based her business (Parents’ Universal Resource Experts) off of her own experience as a parent of an at-risk child, and is motivated by the goal of helping other parents who find themselves in the same situation she was once in.
By listening to the problems that their teens are facing and providing a voice of reason, she is able to help parents better understand the needs of their teens, and identify programs that they can turn to for help. Sue has also written a book on the topic, and has told her story on many programs including Dr. Phil, Anderson Cooper, The Rachel Ray Show, and CBS Nightly News with Katie Couric.
Sue was gracious enough to share her story with us, and we hope that it will be inspirational to you as think of ways that you could turn your own life experiences and passions into a career.
When someone comes to you for help, what is the process you go through to help them identify the best resources available to them and their teens?
Parents will usually fill out an intake form or call us on the phone with information regarding their teen and what issues they are having. Depending on what they have stated we can discuss local resources versus out-patient, and their last resort being residential therapy.
If they have come to the decision they need residential therapy, we will help educate them on the different types of programs there are such as Residential Treatment Centers, Therapeutic Boarding Schools, Wilderness Programs, Military Schools, Boot Camps, etc. Many times we have to explain that Military Schools are not for troubled teens, they are a privilege and honor to attend. We also help parents understand that when teens are acting out negatively, placing them into a negative environment such as a Boot Camp, can build anger and resentment. I personally don’t believe in Boot Camps or recommend them. We believe in building kids up, not breaking them down.
Understanding their needs is very important and helping them to understand that their teen is in need of help can sometimes be more difficult. I have found that although a parent will call or request help online, they will also be in denial. Parents will tell me how their teen is smoking pot or using drugs, as well as drinking and other risky behaviors, failing in school and sneaking out frequently, yet in the next breath I hear is their teen is so smart and really a good kid. I believe they are smart (academically) – but if they truly were (common sense anyway), would they be acting like this? They are folding under peer pressure, usually struggling with low self-worth and wanting to fit in. Yes, they are hanging with the wrong crowd, but you can’t blame it on the friends – it is your child’s decision to hang with these kids. Many parents tell me that it is the friends – not their child.
How do I know this? I as once this same parent. I always blamed the other kids. In reality it was my daughter choosing to make these bad choices. Good kids making bad choices is what most of these teens are today.
So getting parents to understand the resources can sometimes be more difficult than giving them the resources. This is why I think my organization, Parents’ Universal Resource Experts (P.U.R.E.) has been so successful for so many years – I am a parent that has been there and I know firsthand what parents are going through. When they talk to me about feeling like they are being held hostage in their own home – I get it. They can tell me things that only another parent that has been here can understand.
When it comes to asking about resources, I made it my mission, especially after what happened to us, to find out what is available to families in our country. Believe it or not, there are more good programs than there are not so good ones. I just happened to find one of the not so good ones. I believe it was all meant to be – since we have helped literally thousands of families over the past 16 years.
Your interest in this subject was fueled by your own personal experiences. Can you talk a little bit about the frustrations that you went through, and what prompted you to turn your experience into a business?
Parenting teens is not easy. In reality I think parents today have a more difficult time than I did 13 years ago simply due to all latest in technology gadgets, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t struggle with my teen that had entitlement issues as many have and still do today. I did. I reached my wit’s end. I tried local therapy, I tried help from my relatives, I tried it all. I finally got on the Internet, which was not as sophisticated as it is today, and started searching keywords such as Military Schools, Boot Camps, Troubled Teens, etc. What I found was the same group of programs kept coming up. I called a toll-free number and within days I was on my way to being scammed into my darkest nightmare that was the beginning of years of hell and otherwise. I can’t say it is all bad since there has been plenty of good, such as my organization that has come from this.
Though my story was dark, it has a bright ending because I took all the negative and decided I could create an organization so that parents like myself, who at their wit’s end and vulnerable (prey for these sales people), wouldn’t be at risk of being duped. Not only was I duped, my daughter suffered the consequences by being placed in a program that was both emotional and physically abusive to her.
Parents’ Universal Resource Experts, Inc. (P.U.R.E.), my organization, is about educating parents who are researching schools and programs for their teenagers. My website has helpful hints and questions to ask schools and programs. Many questions that parents don’t think to ask as they are in a panic mode. I also want parents to remember, their child is not for sale. I caution parents to stay clear of all these marketing arms that scammed me.
I have learned so much from our experiences. I took a few years and traveled to many schools and programs to see how healthy, quality and safe programs operate. I knew that not all programs were bad. The fact is, parents need help – and so do our teens. They are crying out for help and if we don’t give them sound options they may end up in abusive programs.
My motto is learn from my mistakes and gain from my knowledge.
What would say is the number one most important thing that parents should consider when they’re evaluating options for their struggling teens?
I always tell parents that residential therapy is their last resort. They have to exhaust all local options first. That would be local therapy, possible out-patient programs, maybe even having the teen live with a relative (it rarely works, but again, exhaust all avenues).
Once you have determined that residential therapy is the only option it is important to understand that it didn’t take 4-6 weeks to get to this negative behavior and it won’t take 4-6 weeks to get out of this situation. In other words, don’t get fooled into thinking these short-term programs (Boot Camps or Wilderness Programs) will either scare your child straight or punish them into appreciation for what they have at home. It simply won’t.
Wilderness Programs can also be a step that is costly and not always necessary. Many parents don’t realize that the majority of kids that attend Wilderness need to go on to a Therapeutic Boarding School. With this, they now have to start all over again with a new therapist, new schedule, new location, new enrollment and whole new set of fees! I always share with parents try to locate a program your teen can start and finish with. Consistency is key to recovery and healing. We rarely, if ever recommend Wilderness Programs.
This is where my organization can truly help educate a parent about the teen-help industry and the big business it is. Parents need to consider at least 6-9-12 months to have any sort of results. They need to realize that any program they select should be licensed and accredited.
I recommend parents look for an ACE Factor. A for Academics. C for Clinical and E for Enrichment programs. I list this all on my website. You can ask the school for a copy of their accreditation. Be sure their therapists are LCSW or psychologists and so many parents neglect to find programs with enrichment programs. Enrichment programs can be music, sports, animals, fine arts, or any activity that will inspire your teen. Finding a program that will stimulate your child in a positive direction helps build their self-esteem. Many of these kids are lacking this and that is where much of this negative behavior is stemming from. Build a child back up again – not beat them down.
You have played a big part in bringing attention to the issue of online defamation. How have you seen that impact people, and what are some of the things you do to help when that happens?
This is something I never signed up for and would never wish on anyone. After winning the landmark case in 2006, I was soon recognized and applauded for being one of the few and first that fought back against Internet defamation.
I was on many national media airwaves and newspapers (online and off). I found I was someone that many people looked up to. I didn’t realize how many people are silently suffering from online defamation/slander. How many people had lost their jobs from it or couldn’t get a job because of it. How many people are emotionally paralyzed from this. From housewives to teacher to principals to lawyer to dentists to dog groomers to nurses – I literally received emails from all walks of life and all of them praising me for sharing my story. This is major problem today.
My book still continues to be a big seller and offers tremendous tips for people for fighting Internet defamation. I think my story hit a nerve with so many people because no one was talking about it. There is a lot of shame attached to it when you are being called the most vicious and vile names. Many were thought they were alone in their feelings until they heard my story. I couldn’t help but feel like I did when I first created P.U.R.E . – until you walk my shoes, you don’t know what this is like – to be vilified and you can’t defend yourself against the World Wide Web. It seems so hopeless at the time. Your life being destroyed one keystroke and click of a mouse at a time.
What many people don’t realize, unless you have read my books, is that this lawsuit stems from my experiences with my daughter and the teen help program. When you can’t silence people through litigation – the next best legal lethal weapon is the Internet! It almost destroyed P.U.R.E. as it almost destroyed me. I was fortunate to be able to rise above it – fight it and win it in a jury trial.
It sounds like there are a lot of things that you find rewarding about your job, but what is the one thing that gives you the most satisfaction?
The calls I get from parents when they say “I” saved their child’s life. I am literally speechless. I just received another one of these calls last week. It was from a mother that was truly at her wit’s end. She had searched all over the Internet and all over the country for a program for her daughter that was seriously crying out for help. I did what I do – I gave her some resources and now her daughter is happier than ever and has a bright future. The mother called to thank me over and over again. She had tears of joy – asked to be a parent reference, as she wants to help other parents too. I am very proud to say I get many of these calls and emails. Parents have often referred to my website as a Godsend when they have reached their wit’s end – that to me is very rewarding too. I feel like we have done our job. I say we since I do have a fantastic colleague that works with me. The testimonials on my site are only a fraction of what I receive.
There are a lot of people out there who dream of doing something that will have a positive impact on the lives of others. What advice would you give to them?
I firmly believe the success of my career is based on my firsthand experiences. People can relate to what I have been through and they know from the moment they start telling me their story that I understand – I have walked their shoes. If you have something unique to offer people, something that can help others from going through a difficult time, my advice would be, as hard as it may seem, you have to share this experience. There are so many people that will appreciate your unselfishness and benefit from it – you will be rewarded in so many ways you will never imagine. Initially I wasn’t sure I could do this. After all it meant reliving my daughter’s pain and mine. Recognizing how I was duped over and over again – how stupid could I be? That, however, gave me strength and determination to make sure that other parents didn’t go through what we did. Especially if you have a dream that will impact people in a positive way – you owe it to yourself and to the many others that are waiting for you to make it a reality.
What is a typical day at the office like for you?
Like with many people, answering emails and phone messages is always the first priority of the day. I still speak to parents however I decided to split my time with community service functions. I sit on the Board of Directors for Communities in Schools and on the Committee for Education Foundation of St. Johns County. With these organizations I am bringing my knowledge of educating parents and students about Internet safety, online reputation, as well as speaking about at-risk teens and options. I also spend time Blogging and updating social media such as my Facebook and Twitter pages. Depending on the day, I always try to write an article or two a week about parenting teens or teens in general. Whether it is about a latest trend or Internet safety, peer pressure, bullying or anything that I feel could benefit parents with raising today’s tweens and teens. So my days are filled with always something targeted around parenting and helping others have a easier time with raising today’s kids.
What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Never give up. Don’t stop, even when you are completely burned out. Take a break but don’t let it go. When you are given something you are passionate about it is a gift, don’t take it for granted.
During the time when I was being slammed online and going through the litigation, as many people that have been through lawsuits would know, it is emotionally draining. I wanted to take down my website – shut off my phones and just stop. Whenever I was about to close the organization, a parent would call me and tell me about their child and how my site just gave them so much hope. I can’t count the number of times I was on the verge of closing P.U.R.E. and there will be a call from a parent it was like a nudge telling me…. not yet, there are still more families that need help.
Thank you so much for your time!