How to help a troubled teen

By: Christine Langlois

Author: Canadian Living


How to help a troubled teen

By: Christine Langlois

Most families move through the teen years with some stretching of limits but safe within the boundaries that they and their teens continually negotiate. When one teen's behaviour becomes erratic or dangerous -- not coming home at night, abusing drugs, stealing, being promiscuous, or dropping out of school -- your pattern of gradually letting go of the strings may end in abrupt rupture. And it doesn't matter whether the crisis is about substance abuse or an unwanted pregnancy, there are specific steps you can take as a parent to mend the rupture.

When your teen is in crisis

Your first job is to assess whether, in fact, you are dealing with a serious crisis. All adolescents go through periods of experimentation and risk taking. But when the dangerous behaviour becomes frequent, your child may be in serious difficulty. Coming home drunk or stoned once or twice isn't a crisis; coming home drunk or stoned almost every night is. Also consider whether your daughter's erratic behaviour in one area of her life is interfering with other aspects of her life. Has her interest in attending dance clubs meant she has broken off contact with former friends and dropped out of activities she used to enjoy? Is your son's behaviour preventing him from moving forward with his life? Is he skipping so many classes that he's in danger of failing a grade and dropping out of school altogether?

The teen crisis quickly becomes the family crisis. As you deal with your teen's problems, the needs of your other children can get shoved aside, and everyday life clouds over with the constant dread that the teen's trouble may turn into tragedy.

Big kids can get into big problems

Gone are the days when the consequences of misbehaviour meant no more than a carefully worded note from the teacher or a request to pick up your child early from a birthday party. The problems that a teenager can get into may threaten not only his health and well-being but also his life opportunities from now on. You may even live in fear for his life, worrying whether your child will survive the crisis. If you are dealing with fears like these, you shouldn't hesitate to get immediate professional help; many families attempt to work through major crises on their own when they really need professional support. The first step may be as simple as talking with your family doctor who can help you assess the situation and counsel you directly or refer you to another professional.

Then there's the pressing question that all parents of troubled teens face: How did this happen? Kids are a barometer of family tension. Almost all troubled teens are reacting to some kind of stress at home. Hard as it may he to acknowledge, her life at home may have played a role in her current distress. But the flip side is that her family relationships can also play a role in helping her get back on track.

The task of adolescence is to establish a separate identity, which means establishing a few degrees of separation -- even from the people who are most important to him. Although separating from one's parents is a necessary step in a healthy adolescence, it soon becomes complicated if family relationships have gone wrong somewhere along the way. Is there an alcoholic in the family creating a climate of constant uncertainty? Is your troubled teen the child you never really connected with? It could be that difficulties in your child's early life are unresolved. An early trauma, such as the divorce of his parents, that seemed to have been easily dealt with may have been buried only to surface again in adolescence. Sometimes when a teen is acting out, the behaviour masks another problem in the family But as long as the teen is the one on whom you all focus, the deeper family problem remains untouched and unresolved.

Parenting through a teen crisis

The best way to reconnect with a teen who no longer accepts your authority is simply to listen, "What's up?" is a good opener. Fight the urge to interrupt and criticize. It's not unusual for parents to become verbally abusive when a child rejects their authority. If you hear yourself making cruel accusations ("You're so lazy that you'll never get a job") or hurtful criticisms ("No wonder you and Jack aren't friends anymore, the way you're acting these days"), pull back and get a grip on your emotions. You need to set a good example of handling stress. Your role is to act as a solid anchor in the storm. Besides, criticism doesn't motivate any teen to make positive changes. She'll just defend herself and reject you, and she may eventually refuse to talk to you at all.

Listen. Your daughter wants you to know why she loves going to park parties, not only why she started drinking excessively. From you, your daughter needs to hear -- repeatedly -- that you value, accept, and appreciate her. She also needs to know where you stand on the crisis. If you think drinking underage is wrong, state your point of view again, but in a calm voice. If you are concerned about her safety and her health, let her know. Explain how worried you are.

Indifference is an even greater rejection than criticism or verbal abuse. It's important not to act as if you just don't care, to imply that you've given up on her. You may have thought you'd be finished parenting by the time your kids reached their teen years, and that you wouldn't have to be at home as much anymore. But teenagers still require your time and attention. In fact, your teen may be rebelling just to get your attention.

A teen still needs your help with problem solving, and she needs practice recovering from failure. When she gets caught up in a stressful event, take positive action, don't just react. Your teen will watch you carefully as you respond to the situation. You are still the most powerful role model for your teen, although you may think she emulates her favourite pop star or other teens. While watching you deal with stress, she learns how to solve problems. When she stumbled into this crisis, you may have tightened up on rules and become dictatorial, grounding her for weeks at a time. But try to put the crisis in perspective, and after she has dealt with the consequences of the crisis, move on. We all need a second chance, if not a third, fourth, fifth, or more.

Keeping the family strong

In the midst of any crisis, your family needs the security of its regular routines. Whenever possible, continue with plans for family celebrations, rituals, and vacations. Also, maintain your expectations of your teen's behaviour so that she knows her life and your relationship with one another do not begin and end with the current crisis. Don't define your teen only by her problematic behaviour.

Show your teen that you still value that she's part of the family by asking for her input in family decisions. She may have just been caught shoplifting, but she can still have good ideas about what Grandma would like for her birthday or where to go on a family holiday. It will strengthen your daughter's role in the family to have you act on some of her ideas.

Family meetings may not have worked when the children were young, but they may work now if your family is trying to pull closer together. When kids have a strong sense of family, they're less likely to go from one crisis to the next. Teens still need to find part of their identity in family; with close family ties, they're unlikely to seek part of their identity with a gang.

Sibling alert

The brothers and sisters of the troubled teen may seem to show little interest in the problem, but you can be sure that they're upset. Explain to them what their sibling is going through. "Your brother has so much anger, he can't control it" might be explanation enough. If you don't have a solution for the crisis yet, don't pretend that you do. "Right now, we don't know how to help," you might begin, "but we're doing everything we can to find the best way to help your brother."

The teen with serious problems can easily, take over and unbalance the family. If this happens, siblings may lose themselves in a dream world or develop attention-getting behaviour. Although the crisis with your teen may demand a lot of your time and energy, continue to share activities with siblings and listen to them, too, in order to prevent future problems with them. If you just don't have the energy, ask for help. A good friend or family member may be willing to make sure that younger siblings pull through the crisis, too.

Some parents with one troubled child react by favouring their other children. If you find yourself saying something like "One of my children is very well-adjusted, but the other has caused me nothing but trouble," you know you're favouring one child and need to reassess your behaviour toward both your troubled child and his siblings.

Some teen problems may be embarrassing, but even if your son has been arrested for joy-riding, don't order your other children not to tell "the family business" to their friends. Kids need to work out what's happening, so don't deny them the opportunity to talk about it with their friends.

Bad timing

For the parents of a troubled teen, all sorts of emotions bubble into consciousness. If you are in your forties or fifties, you may be at a fragile life stage yourself. These decades are a time for introspection. You may be questioning what you've done with your life, or perhaps what you should have done. For some people, this is a time in their lives when they are prone to depression. As a parent, you may feel as if you're suffering from burnout, which some professionals define as situational depression. The crisis may have uncovered a red-hot anger you didn't know you were capable of. You may go from denying the problem to being consumed with guilt to being preoccupied with the troubled teen. On any one day, you may swing from feeling numb to being resentful, then ashamed. You may feel so vulnerable that you become distressed over the smallest well-meaning suggestion of a friend. At a time when you've lost your self-confidence, to make matters worse, your teen seems to be turning against you. You're the one on whom he vents his anger, because you're the person with whom he feels safest. He may criticize everything from your hair to how you handled his first day of kindergarten. Worse yet, he may blame you for the crisis: "If only you hadn't been so strict (or permissive, or busy, or too involved), I wouldn't have a problem today." Your teen's crisis may even raise unresolved issues from your own adolescence, and it may also add financial stress.

If your teen's crisis is coinciding with a personal crisis for you, acknowledge to him that you're under a great deal of stress, but don't burden him with your angst. You need someone to talk to, but choose a friend or a professional counsellor, not your teen, who has his own worries right now.

The parental relationship

Don't let your son's or daughter's problem absorb all your energy and put too much strain on your relationship with your spouse. More than ever before, you need one another's encouragement and support. Any tension that exists in a marriage can further escalate if you and your partner disagree about the seriousness of the problem facing you and your teen and about how to resolve the situation. In the family life cycle, a marriage may be at its weakest point when the kids are in their teens. Statistics show that divorce is high for partners who have teens.

When dealing with your teen's crisis, take a big step back occasionally. Take time to relax and refuel your marriage; the break will not only benefit you and your spouse but also your teen. This may be the time to do a movie marathon -- to rent your old favourites or the latest movies you missed. Or call a halt to discussions about your troubled teen and go out together. It may mean you have dinner in silence, but you still have each other. You may choose to spell each other off the way you did when your children were younger so that each of you gets a break from the tensions at home and spends time with friends or pursuing a hobby. If you're a single parent, make sure to spend time on your own or with friends. If you can be open with your friends and family both about the nature of the problem and how it's affecting you, they may he able to help.

Getting a break

It's possible you don't feel that it's safe to leave your teen at home alone or in charge of his siblings. You may fear that he'll badger them, do drugs, or have irresponsible friends over and trash your home. Your daughter may be so depressed that you even fear that she will commit suicide. But it's essential, whether as a couple or a single parent, for you to take an occasional break from the tensions so that you can continue to cope. It's important for your teen as well. When her life is in chaos, she needs the reassurance that you have your feet firmly on the ground.

Be creative about getting the help you need so you can leave your home a break. If you're in a parent support group, perhaps you can call on another parent to swap evenings out. You won't have to keep up any pretence with another parent who also has a troubled teen. It's best to drop the pretence with your family and friends, too. If you can trust a few people enough to he honest about the depth and dimensions of the problem, you'll likely find someone -- a grandparent, neighbour, or long-time friend -- who may be more understanding than you had imagined.

To avoid your teen's rebelling at the idea of being baby-sat, have your friend come over under a pretext -- maybe to help younger children with their French homework, or to fix the computer, or to wallpaper the bathroom. Not only will you get the evening off that you desperately need, but your teen will learn that she, too, can turn to people outside the family for help. The knowledge can release her from the feeling that her behaviour is a shameful family secret.

All parents need to know that few adolescents have problems that persist into the future. Adolescence is not a terminal disease; a teen's difficulties usually do subside by voting age. When you're in the middle of a painful situation, it may be hard to view it as an opportunity for growth, but crises are a time for you to take stock and then move on. Traumatic situations are too painful for families not to seek solutions, to try to develop new communication and coping skills, so that members will grow together from the experience.

Handling violence

If your teen is taller and stronger than you and he becomes physically violent when angry, you must seek help from outside the family. If you or other family members are the target of your teen's physical violence, ask a friend or counsellor for assistance in maintaining order and reinforcing zero tolerance for violence.

If you leave a teen's violent outbursts unchecked, you appear to be condoning the behaviour. Your teen must learn that you won't tolerate violence and that physical violence is punishable under the law. If his comments and actions escalate into physical violence, call the police. Usually in a city, the dispatcher will send officers from the youth bureau of the domestic violence department. If you foresee the possibility that when you head for the phone to summon help your teen might pull the phone right off the wall, take the precaution of talking with a neighbour about your fears and ask if you might come use their phone in such a situation.

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How to help a troubled teen