Tips for Working with Troubled Teens
Almost every parent of a teen has some sort of horror story to share.
Molly will no longer smile for the camera. Joey comes home late every night. Suzie rolls her eyes at everything her mother says. Adolescence is a time of breaking away from the parents and experiencing a bit of freedom, so even the most mild-mannered teen is likely to exhibit at least a small amount of bad behavior when the teen years come around.
There are some teens, however, who exhibit extreme cases of poor behavior during adolescence. Seemingly overnight, the once smiling and happy teen delves into sullenness, disobedience or absence. Some teens even steal, lie or threaten their parents. Living with a troubled teen like this can be a challenge, pushing parents to the end of their wits, as well as their patience.
Open the Lines of Communication
There’s no question that adolescence is confusing for parents, but it’s also quite confusing for the teen. Allowing the child the opportunity to talk openly, expressing thoughts honestly, might be a good place to start. While it’s unclear why some teens become troubled and others do not, experts agree that teens who have close, honest relationships with their parents tend to exhibit fewer troublesome behaviors. For example, a study in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy found that families with high levels of conflict and low levels of parental involvement tended to produce children with problem behaviors. The researchers don’t explain the cause for this, but it’s possible that the teens bottled up their emotions until they exploded in unhealthy ways down the line.
Talking with a troubled teen can be difficult, especially if the relationship has been adversarial up to this point. According to an article published by Psych Central, following a few basic guidelines can help:
- Open with an expression of love.
- Admit that the relationship hasn’t always been constructive, and you’d like to change it.
- Ask the teen to describe his or her mental state, inner feelings or concerns.
- Listen while the teen talks. Do not interrupt.
The teen may not open up right away. Sometimes, this conversation must be repeated daily until the teen begins to trust that things have truly changed and speaking up is both safe and helpful. Once the teen does open up, you may be surprised at the thoughts that come spilling out.
Following Through on Mental Illness
As the adolescent brain grows and develops, a window of opportunity for mental illness appears. These illnesses can make a teen feel so uncomfortable and off-kilter that acting out seems reasonable. Some teens simply can’t help themselves.
- Bipolar disorder
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Tourette’s syndrome
Teens also face a real and present risk of depression, and some teens sink so low that suicide seems like a reasonable option. Teens who claim that life isn’t worth living or that their families would be more successful if the teen weren’t around aren’t just being melodramatic. In fact, according to Mental Health America, these teens are at high risk of suicide and their comments should be considered urgent.
Parents can’t be expected to hold degrees in mental health, so it’s not reasonable to suggest that parents should diagnose their children with mental illnesses based on their comments.
However, teens who express thoughts that are somehow bizarre or out of character, or teens who talk of death or suicide, need an intervention with a medical professional. A doctor can work with the teen to diagnose the problem and provide appropriate therapies to help the teen heal.
Since open communication is the key, this step must be taken carefully. Springing a mental health visit on a troubled teen could cause the teen to experience such anger and hostility that the teen doesn’t participate in the visit. It could also destroy the fledgling relationship between the parent and the teen. Using a statement such as, “I am worried about your mental health, and I’d like for you to see a doctor. I’ll make an appointment and come with you,” can be much more positive. Notice that the teen isn’t given the opportunity to refuse this help. The parent must be firm here.
Following Through on Drug Use
If the teen reveals drug or alcohol use during conversation, the parent is faced with another tough choice: Should that use be chalked up to mere experimentation, or is a serious intervention needed? It’s important to remember that the parent’s role is to provide support and guidance. The parent shouldn’t play the role of hip best friend. Any and all drug or alcohol use by a teen should be addressed.
Parents of teens who abuse drugs or alcohol should attempt to determine:
- What the child is taking
- How often
- At what dosages
- Where the teen is getting the drug
- Whether or not the teen has tried to stop using, and what happened
Some teens experiment with drugs on a recreational basis, and they can stop if they’re told to stop. Setting boundaries with these teens is ideal. They should know that drug and alcohol use is simply not allowed, and if the teen breaks that rule, consequences will follow. Parents may need to take a few moments to think about the consequences they’re prepared to hand out if the teen breaks the rules, and they may need to outline those consequences in a later meeting. Parents should be prepared to act on those promises if the teen decides to test the boundaries.
Other teens may have moved from mere experimentation into addiction, and they may find it difficult to stop using drugs or alcohol. The Partnership for a Drug Free America warns that teen addiction is serious, and it’s a chronic disease that the teen often needs outside help in order to control. Teens who take high doses of drugs every day, teens who have tried to quit using and cannot, and teens who are obsessed with using are all good candidates for addiction therapy. These teens may have developed chemical changes in their systems that require medications, or they may need to participate in therapy sessions with a counselor in order to change their behavior.
Setting boundaries won’t work, as the addiction has progressed too far.
Once again, it pays to tell the teen about your thought process. Suggesting that the teen could benefit from a counseling program, and the parent will help the teen choose one, could be helpful. If the teen won’t agree to treatment, a formal intervention that includes the whole family might be a good step to take. At Newport Academy, we can provide the tools families need to hold a successful intervention.
Contact us to find out more.
If the teen expresses no symptoms of mental illness or no symptoms of addiction, there are still some steps parents can take to help the teen improve behavior. For example, according to an article published by the American Academy of Family Physicians, parents of teens often spend their energy criticizing the teen’s behavior. Parents can begin to listen closely to their own speech and try to find ways to flip negative comments into positive comments.
An article on the website Parents: The Anti-Drug suggests that families hold a formal meeting each and every week. Each person is allowed to speak, without interruption, and only positive feedback is allowed. The family can air grievances, ask questions, discuss projects or share compliments. It might sound awkward, but this is an informal version of a technique used by counselors in therapy.
In family sessions, all members get together with a counselor and they work together to improve the group’s communication styles and promote cohesion.
Finally, parents of troubled teens should do their best to stay involved with the teen’s day-to-day activities. They should know where the teen is going, whom the teen will be with and when the teen will be back. It might seem like babysitting, but in fact, it can be perceived as an expression of love. Parents who are involved with the teen’s life demonstrate that they care and that they’re invested in the teen’s well-being. Sometimes, this is just the sort of validation a troubled teen needs.
Here at Newport Academy, we can offer guidance to trouble teens and their parents. Call us today for more information.