Even healthy, well-adjusted teens go through mood and behavioral changes that can lead to odd or explosive behavior. But how can a parent determine if these changes are becoming truly problematic, possibly requiring therapy?
Within a family, it is often easy to get caught up in small issues that are irritating, but have little long-term impact on our teens. We need to learn how to assess our child’s level of struggle and determine what is considered a core (root) problem that could require therapy, and what might only be a symptom or something typical of all teenagers. As parents, we want to make sure that we are addressing behavior with the right approach, and getting to the root of the problem if behaviors are unusually problematic for the child’s future.
Here are five strong signals that teens have become unsteady and are potentially headed for a fall.
Root Issue: Guilt, shame and lack of open and accepting communications with family members.
When a young person desires independence, the family must somehow deal with that request. If parents are unwilling or unable to adapt to these expectations, the family will probably experience increased levels of stress and even more distancing. To deal with the developmental changes that are occurring in the life of an adolescent, balanced families will allow for autonomy, whereas extreme families will resist change.
For many reasons, teens that are struggling will distance themselves from their best support. Often guilt and shame push them into isolation and secrecy. They know what they are involved in is unacceptable to the beliefs and practices of the family, so they distance themselves, avoiding the need to explain or defend the disparity between actual behavior and expectations.
To combat this slide away from the family, parents need to find ways to build cohesion through improved communication and activities that connect members of the family. Positive communication skills include sending clear and congruent messages, showing empathy, using supportive statements, and practicing effective problem-solving skills. Parents that build structure, routine, and positive communication skills into their families are more able to adapt and flex under the pressure of a distant teen.
Should a parent not be able to turn this around, they may want to consider looking into a program that will help facilitate the needed changes both with the teenager and relationships among the family.
Root Issue: Lack of perceived recognition and acceptance from family.
Acceptance builds healthy soil for the growth of deep powerful roots through self-confidence. When parental leadership becomes absent, too strict or erratic, teens will often seek outside support. They will become increasingly attracted to other teens that are more rebellious (kids who are more “free” from parental control). They may even become obsessed with keeping these new friends happy or showing them how much they can be like them. It can show up in the form of less commitment to school (loss of normally higher grades) and dropping out of extra-curricular activities (sports, clubs, etc.), increased “sick” days, being late to school, or skipping classes altogether. This can often be the beginning of substance misuse and the teen trying other risky behaviors that are new to them but not to their newfound friends.
This struggle is especially difficult because it often comes after water has already gone under the bridge. For the parent to now set ever increasingly restrictive boundaries will often cause the teen to interpret these new limitations as a further lack of acceptance of them, and greater proof that parental authority must be challenged.
Parents tend to “over control” when they are feeling “out of control.” But working on setting boundaries too late creates a unique bind that can become even more restricting and damaging to the overall relationship. The point is, don’t just put the squeeze on your teen. Instead, work on opening up your communications first, and find new ways to give him or her more freedom in healthy ways. They may not be the same ways your teen is requesting (which can be negative), but work hard on rebuilding your relationship and giving them positive outlets, one step at a time, to curb their appetite for more freedom.
In order to slow the mounting tensions within the home, parents may want to seek counseling support to gain some perspective on their unique situation and learn better ways to communicate with their teen. A counselor can help the parents better understand what is going on and how to defuse the situation. At the beginning stages of this struggle, it is often better to attend counseling without the teen, in order to gain some guidance without the tension of the teen being in the room or the challenge of bringing him/her into therapy.
Forcing therapy on an oppositional teen often results in greater distancing because he or she resents being seen as the “patient” or the problem. However, if parents are unable to curb the trajectory of the teen’s negative behavior through improved parenting skills, it often becomes necessary to increase the intervention and include the teen in therapy. Outpatient therapy would be the first step. If that fails, placement in a secure residential setting, a therapeutic boarding school, may be called for, as this would allow teens some space to look at themselves and identify issues without the distraction of home life and the influences of their familiar peers.
Root Issue: Lack of trust by the teen in how their parents will react to the truth.
Lying about significant issues damages the connection between parent and teen and greatly impairs the parents’ ability to help their teen through life. Without honesty, it is almost impossible for parents to provide effective direction and support or leadership within their family. And, of course, this is the teenager’s purpose in lying — to provide a distraction from effective intervention, enabling them to continue their destructive behavior and attitudes unchecked. When parents don’t get the right information, they both feel slighted and become fearful for their teen.
When your teen lies, you start to see them as “sneaky” and you lose trust. Even so, parents need to be careful not to give their teenager’s lies too much power. Find other ways to get to the truth. This takes more work, but it is vital. If you have a teen that believes they can get power over you by telling you a lie, they’ll use dishonesty as a tool to get even more power. They’ll withhold information and lie by omission when you’re trying to get to the truth. They’ll give you little pieces of information, and that makes them feel powerful.
If your teen is being dishonest, explain how honesty is the one thing that helps you give them more freedom and more power, while dishonesty does quite the opposite. Help them to understand that trust is gained over time and through consistent truthfulness, while that trust can vanish with even one instance of untruthfulness. And make sure they know that being truthful is always the best route — lying will lead to greater lesser consequences than if the teen is truthful.
It is important for you as the parent to build trust in the home as well. A good place to start building truth within the home and with your teen is through the consistency of your own rules. Teens thrive when they understand the rules of the game. It hurts their trust in you when new rules pop up without their previous knowledge, or rules are changed without notice. Teens need consistency, especially when their attitude and behavior is anything but predictable and stable. If an issue of impropriety arises, expect your teen to prove their innocence rather than you proving their guilt. Follow through on consequences because that consistency is also important — your teen will love it if they “get off the hook” without consequences, but it will lead them to an underlying feeling of unease due to the duplicity of the message it sends.
Should you not be able to turn around habitual and dangerous lying, you may want to consider a therapeutic boarding school, because there may be other issues involved that could affect the rest of your teenager’s life.
Root Problem: Lack of self-awareness and emotional discipline.
Teens tend to bring their problems home with them. If your teen seems to have developed a terrible attitude at home, it may be that they are simply comfortable venting their frustrations at home, not to authorities at school, which is a good thing! If they are being belligerent at school as well, that is a more serious issue and there might be something behind it such as stress, depression, lack of sleep, hormones, substance misuse, or anxiety. These often manifest themselves through talking back, inappropriate language, or sarcasm.
As long as your teen is displaying his or her bad attitude at home only, a wise parent will try to keep it in check but not give it too much credence or concern. It hurts because it seems like an attack on you as a parent, but it is just an emotionally immature phase and a way for your teen to release steam. However, if it is happening outside of the home and affecting your child’s relationships, then that is another matter altogether and must be dealt with.
Extreme mood swings can make it really difficult to deal with a teenager. One minute they can be happy and loving and the next ranting and argumentative. Explosive arguments between parent and teen are often a result of misunderstanding and miscommunication, or they can be extended by a parent feeling slighted by the teen when the teen had no such intent to be disrespectful. Make sure you pick your arguments wisely and also apologize to your teen if you got overheated, so they understand what is inappropriate and how to apologize if they step over the line.
As parents, we might not understand our teenagers, but often teens don’t really understand themselves either. This problem can be tough. Parents will inadvertently focus on the symptoms, the actions, and the actual emotion. They will try to help extinguish the outbursts, but fail to understand the root cause. They may inadvertently build up walls and cause the teen to stop interacting with them altogether if they fail to be a safe place for the teen to vent.
If you are at a loss what to do, don’t be afraid to consult others. Find out if your teen is acting the same to authorities at school. If not, then their outbursts are not so much of an issue. Teachers, friends, and others can help when trying to gain a deeper perspective and appreciation for the root cause of the emotional outbursts. Use consequences as a tool to stop inappropriate behavior, not for emotional outbursts, since the emotional teen may not even realize why they had an outburst and consequences, in this case, will do no good, leading them to even more frustration.
Figure out where the outbursts are coming from and what issues are causing these moods, and attack them with strategy. Ask your teen-relevant questions that help uncover and open up the conversation. Help them to understand that the words they use can be hurtful to you (and others), since they may not readily recognize that.
Most of all, help your teen realize that no matter how difficult things can become between you and them, nothing they do can make you love them or accept them any less. Let them know constantly that your love is unconditional; you are a safe place for them, no matter what they have done or how they have acted to you in the past.
Root Problem: Feelings of inferiority, shame and guilt.
Self-doubt has an immobilizing effect in all of our lives and especially in the lives of teens who don’t yet have a good idea of what their “self” is or what they want to shape it to be. The period of adolescence is marked by their search for significance and their development of self-worth. They will often hide problems by becoming evasive. Breaking eye contact, changing the subject and defensiveness are all evasive tactics teens use to pull the spotlight off of their own trouble areas. Our job as parents is to compassionately press in during these times while being empathetic. We want to encourage them in their abilities, to help them understand their emotions and how others may perceive them, and to refrain from focusing only on their mistakes.
Empathy is often very difficult to put into practice because it requires us to get outside of ourselves, to set aside attacks on us, and to share in the feelings of others. When my teen acts out, my natural reaction is not to empathize, it is to become defensive. So I tend to become frustrated or start a long lecture. Some of my reaction comes from my own insecurity as a parent; not knowing how to handle my teen’s issues or how to solve “the problem.” So I try to provide answers when the teen is simply wanting a listening ear or empathy. Instead of the “facts”, parents need to stop and ask the teen to explain the emotions behind their behaviors. When the emotions are revealed, the teen and the parent both begin to understand each other and themselves.
Empathizing with my teen might also be difficult because it’s hard to see where he or she is coming from. I fear that if I empathize, I may be condoning their behavior. To be empathetic, a parent can respond in ways such as, “That must be difficult” or, “That sounds like it’s been a struggle.” In using empathizing one-liners (without sounding demeaning), I am opening the conversation to continue; the teen begins feeling as though I am understanding their struggle (and therefore understanding them).
While a parent cannot condone inappropriate behavior, they can seek to understand and care about what is behind such behavior. In doing so, it may help the teen to also understand why they did what they did. Taking the time to listen, rather than reacting in anger or frustration, opens my heart to connect with the heart of my teen. Being empathetic doesn’t mean letting the consequences slide; however, we can even be genuinely empathetic while enforcing consequences, such as saying, “I am really sorry, and I know you were looking forward to it, but as you know, this means that you will not be going to that party Friday night.”
Regardless of whether or not you send your child to receive therapy, be there for them; not to always solve their problems or to set them straight, but to help them learn how to work through them. In doing so you help the teen solve future problems in a better way, and your child will learn from and value your truth and love.
If you are unable to deal with your teen’s behavioral or emotional issues, and their safety or their future is threatened, a therapeutic boarding school should be considered.
TROUBLED TEEN QUICK ASSESSMENT
Worried about your son or daughter, but unsure how bad their issues really are? Mentally put a check mark next to the sentences below that describe your teen today, then add up the number of check marks to score the results.
- EXPLOSIVE: Your teen refuses to abide by anything you say or request, and his or her resulting behaviors or explosive nature put you, him/her, or your family in high danger or risk, leading to constant fear or stress in the home. It is as if you are walking on pins and needles when your teen is home.
- CHANGED BEHAVIOR: Your teen is displaying behavior that is a marked change from what has been normal for the child in the past such as: sleeping too little or too long, forgetfulness (actual or convenient), excessive lack of motivation, aggression, sadness, anxiety, severe mood swings, falling grades, missed school, hating what they once loved or loving what they once hated, or spending most of their time alone.
- UNCARING: Your teen openly displays rebellion or even hatred toward you, no longer veiling his/her feelings nor caring about the future or the consequences of his/her actions or behaviors.
- DEFIANT: There is a blatant ignorance or profound disrespect toward the boundaries, belief system or rules of the home. This can be shown in passive aggressiveness or in open defiance that is unusually excessive for your teen.
- SELF-DESTRUCTIVE: There are outright or veiled threats of suicide or running away, or the teen is self-mutilation/cutting, taking excessive risks, using dangerous drug or he or she is involved in blatant sexual promiscuity. The teen has seemingly lost their conscience, care, or moral compass.
- DISRESPECTFUL: Treatment by your teen of people, pets or his or your belongings is disrespectful, threatening or out of control. Valued items or money in the home are damaged or missing without explanation.
- ENTITLED: Your teen thinks he or she should be served and given more and more things and your time. He/she demands all of the attention of you and other members of the family, showing blatant disregard for other’s feelings, their time, or their possessions.
- OTHER TACTICS HAVE FAILED: Months of counseling, therapy, or medication have made little or no positive improvement in your teen’s behavior.
- HATRED FOR FAMILY: Your teen refuses to do anything family-related and displays a growing hatred and disgust for the family and anything you do or say. He/she refuses to attend family outings or special events.
- BAD INFLUENCERS: You cannot keep your teen away from new friends who are themselves getting into trouble and obviously leading a lifestyle counter to your beliefs. Your teen is mimicking their look, the way they talk, and the destructive behaviors and attitudes.
If your teen exhibits 5 or more of these signs, it is likely that they should be placed in a therapeutic boarding school that can expertly deal with their issues while also preparing them for adulthood. Once your teen is 18, he or she will be out of your control, so get help for them while you can.
Contrast the above list with what should be considered normal teenage behavior and attitudes:
- The teen cooperates with and cares for others
- He/She thinks realistically about their need for family and other people
- They are willing to do what it takes to accomplish positive life goals and prepare for the future
- They bases their actions and behavior on convictions and beliefs rather than feelings and what their peers think
- They take care of their own personal needs without imposing on others or expecting others to serve them
- They treats people, pets and things with respect
- They have feelings of purpose and an excitement for the future
- They maintains relationships with family and positive friends, even in difficult times
- They define who they are without giving in to what their peers or the culture thinks they should be.
If you need help with your teen, please call us toll-free, 24/7, at (888) 940-6278. We will help guide you to the right help for your teen according to your budget or insurance coverage. Our expert service is totally free and without obligation.
John DeVries holds a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology and has over 25 years experience working with at-risk teens and therapeutic programs designed to help them. Exceed Marketing Solutions is a service designed to assist in the marketing of therapeutic programs and schools.