Josh Shipp should have grown up a thug.
Abandoned at birth and shuttled from one abusive foster home to the next, he was suicidal and addicted by the time he hit adolescence. Instead, thanks to the intercession of his final set of foster parents who took him at age 14 and allowed him be jailed for forging checks, Shipp defied his demons and became a leading interventionist for families and teens in crisis.
In Lifetime’s sobering new reality show, Teen Trouble, the now 31-year-old father of two travels to the homes of kids on the brink to help them and their parents confront the root of their issues, provide an unvarnished look at the future if they cling to destructive habits, and offer all a chance at a happier outcome. And while he’s grateful for the space to bring his message and methods to a larger audience, Shipp cautions that his focus remains on the kids — and demonstrating that the rehabilitation process is a series of baby steps that begins with one critical moment.
“I never make any promises, nor would I want to be perceived as, ‘I’m here and doing all these crazy things and in a week I’m going to change your life,’” Shipp says. “That’s completely unrealistic. For me, the goal is to really give them that wakeup call — which is why I fast-forward their choices and bring them face-to-face with where they’re heading.”
That includes subjecting his charges to makeup that simulates the horrific facial deterioration brought on by chronic meth abuse, and frightening nights spent on the streets — and even in the morgue.
“For me, it’s not enough to just sit down and have a chitchat about, ‘Do you realize that if you keep using drugs, that this is going to happen to you?’ but to really bring them face-to-face with what’s going to happen,” he says. “And also bring them face-to-face with the good side of it — with what could happen if they do change. Then ultimately the choice is up to them.”
Channel Guide Magazine: As we see on the show, even with the best of interventions and caring people and really great opportunities for the future, the urge to continue destructive behavior is shockingly powerful for these kids.
Josh Shipp: In every teen, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is not developed, which is essentially the part of the brain that sort of interprets and thinks through long-term consequences. As adults, we have that part of the brain, so we realize, “If I make this choice, this is going to inevitably lead to this. This is going to change my life for the better, or for the worse, in this way.” But for a kid, they don’t have that developed.
I care about these kids. I care about them having a wakeup call — an “a-ha!” moment. And that’s why I’d rather simulate the a-ha moment than actually have them have to experience it — because unfortunately a lot of kid’s wakeup calls can be six feet under. So it’s not enough to say no to the destructive behavior. That’s only going to last for a certain period of time — our willpower is only going to stand up for a certain period of time. The key is not only saying no to what I’m going to stop, but kids also need to go find — and I would say all of us, when we’re struggling to overcome something — we need to go find something to say yes to that is good for us.
CGM: Is every situation different when you go into an intervention, or do you have certain methods and techniques that form a sort of groundwork for how you approach these teens and families?
JS: I think No. 1 is you have to become aware that there is an issue. Because unfortunately when a lot of teenagers are struggling, they tend to spin some sort of lie in their mind that their behavior’s OK. Otherwise, they would wake up everyday and hate themselves. They would wake up every day and feel horrible. So we tend to lie to ourselves and say, “Oh it’s not that bad. All of my friends are doing it. This is normal behavior.”
And for some of the parents I work with, too. To me, it seems shocking and crazy! To you, as you watch some of these episodes, it seems shocking and crazy. But to the parents, they’ve been dealing with this for so long that they just reach a point where they go, “It’s not that bad. It’s not as bad as it seems. It’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be. This is just normal teenage behavior.”
So getting to that a-ha moment is crucial. Otherwise change is not possible — because you’re not owning it. And then from there, it’s having baby steps in place. You know, the idea that “I can be one thing today and a whole different thing tomorrow” is optimistic, but not realistic. You can decide to change your life in literally one second. But the process to change your life takes a while. This is a big thing for me — and why I agreed to do this show.
CGM: How important was it to you, then, that the show not be all about the fairy-tale, perfect family, happily-ever-after ending?
JS: I was pitched that version of the show many times and I always said no. Because everyone really wanted to make it Hollywood — always a happy, perfect ending. And I said, “You’re doing your audience an injustice if you say that there is always a happy ending. What are you saying to the mothers and the fathers across the country if you say to them, ‘Well you know, all you have to do is bring in someone like Josh and it’s going to end perfectly.’ No!
Like you said, sometimes you can have the best intervention plan, the best wakeup calls, the best experiences and at the end of the day, if the kid doesn’t want to change, the kid is not going to change. And I wanted parents to see that. Because I would never want parents to feel guilty or to feel like, ‘I’m not good enough,’ or ‘If I was better at this or if I was more like Josh, then my kid would change — then something would happen.’
That was really, really important — to be completely honest and completely transparent about that. Because I think honesty is inspiring.
CGM: Tell me a little bit more about your philosophy of baby steps toward recovery.
JS: Once you decide to change, then you need to take baby steps — because otherwise it’s overwhelming. You say, “OK, I’m at A and I want to end up at Z. I know what Z is. I want to be a good person, I want to get off the drugs, I want to find a job or I want to go to college. I want to be a happy, independent, functioning adult.” But when you’re at A and all you know is Z, that is so freaking overwhelming! That would be overwhelming to me at 31 years old let alone the 15-year-old version of myself.
This is why every kid I work with I give an aftercare program and an aftercare team to be there with them day in and day out through the ups and downs of their recovery and their rehabilitation. Because we have to be committed not just to the end result, but to the journey. And the journey of rehabilitation is messy, up and down, good days and bad. So having somebody there alongside these kids to break it down and say, “OK, well, here’s what you really need to do next. First detox. Then rehab. Then counseling to look at the emotional issues of why you feel triggered to use and how can you begin to anticipate those triggers.”
For me, with my challenging family situation, the holidays are a trigger for me — because the holidays are a reminder that I don’t have a [birth] family and everyone else is hanging out with their family. And the thing is, I can never make that go away. What I can do is get better at anticipating it. So when a kid knows and understands their triggers, they can go, “OK, this means I need to hand out with my friends who are a good influence on me, I need to stay busy, I need to be active, I need to be working — I need to be doing things that are positive, good, natural highs for me, otherwise I’ll turn to the negative highs.”
So really breaking down those baby steps is super, super helpful for a kid. And then the third thing — and I think this I would recommend for every parent in America — is for that teen to have a mentor. Someone who’s not the parent, who’s not Mom or Dad, but someone who is older, smarter, been there done that — who this kid can ideally see on a weekly basis. Because as a kid becomes an adolescent, they sort of fire the parent as the No. 1 influence in their life. Even if the parent is a great parent. Even if Mom and kid or Dad and kid have a great relationship. When they become an adolescent, they become independent, and this is a good thing — we want our kids to become independent. Otherwise they’ll be living in out basements until they’re 40 years old. And nobody wants that!
So a mentor is such a subtle but powerful thing because. That’s so much of my strategy — talking to these kids and telling them how I screwed up — not what I did well. A great strategy that any adult can use is that when you sit down and talk with a kid about your screw-ups and your failures, when you’re vulnerable, it leads to vulnerability with the kid. Because they realize that you’re not a robot. You’re not perfect. You’re a human being. And you’ve made mistakes and have been able to come through them, so maybe there is hope for them, as well.
CGM: In one episode, you work with a young lady named Ashley who says she has overdosed more than 20 times. That was so shocking for me to see — that someone isn’t scared straight after coming close to death even 2 or 3 times.
JS: It was. I also remember there was another young lady that I worked with named Chelsea who was a heroin addict, and her best friend OD’d on heroin right in front of her and died — and that still wasn’t enough to snap her out of her cycle of addiction.
It’s interesting, because I feel like in this instance, this is where the television cameras play to our benefit. To be perfectly honest with you, doing this and filming this, there are certainly pros and cons. Some of the cons are that I have to really be overly intentional of communicating to the kid that I’m here for you, this is not about a show to me, that’s not why I’m doing this. If the kid is skeptical at all, the cameras certainly don’t help me in that regard.
But interestingly, no kid that I’ve ever worked with — and I mean no kid! — has ever seen themselves using drugs. Ever. Think about that! We never see ourselves at our worst moments. Your friends see you. Your family sees the fallout of it. But you never see it yourself. So they’re thinking, “Oh no, when I’m high, I’m totally in control and I’m cool and I don’t act crazy.”
Most of the footage that we have of kids doing drugs is sent in by their friends. I do it with almost every kid — I don’t know if it makes it into each episode or not — but with every single kid and their parents, I show them footage of them using. And then I’ll ask the kid — what do you think of that person? And they’ll inevitably say, “She’s an idiot — why is she doing that?” Or “She’s so annoying.” Or “That’s really sad.” Or “Man, I feel sorry for her.” And it becomes a really powerful moment for them, because now they can no longer say that they’re in control and that everything is fine and that it’s not that big of a deal. For Ashley, I certainly know she had that moment.
CGM: I think viewers may be surprised to see that there is a real intelligence to these kids — it’s not simply a case of being too dumb to do better by themselves.
JS: It’s not about the IQ — It’s about the “I will.”
Teen Trouble premieres Friday, Dec. 28 on Lifetime