Parenting a Troubled Teen
The adolescent years are full of change, and those changes can be hard to manage for the teen and for his/her parents. But there are some changes that are more than just the normal teen angst. ‘Troubled teen’ is a term used for a youth that is displaying a number of negative behaviors that could impact their ability to develop into a successful adult. If you are not sure whether your teen is ‘troubled,’ please read our previous blog Typical vs. Abnormal Teen Behavior. You know your teen better than anyone else, so listen to your gut. If things don’t seem quite right, then you are probably justified in your concern.
Parenting a troubled teenager can be overwhelming for you and your family. Teens who are defiant, failing school, depressed, running away, violent, withdrawn, or otherwise struggling can fill your home with chaos and tension. Troubled teens absolutely need professional help. You cannot deal with this alone, so if you have not already contacted your doctor and gotten a therapist for your child, you should do that first. Family therapy can also be very helpful – see our previous blog Why Family Therapy Might be a Better Choice for Teens. This is a great way to role model to your teen that when things get tough in life, smart and responsible people ask for help.
Although getting professional help is the first big step on the road to recovery, you still have to live with your troubled teen while you work through these problems. Here are some tips to handle this difficult time with grace.
Avoid the blame game.
There’s no way to know exactly what factors have contributed to your child’s current problems. Even if you do think you know why the problems are occurring, you cannot change what has already been done. Blaming yourself or your spouse will only place more tension and pain in the home. There’s nothing to be gained by beating yourself up over the past. Instead, focus on the present and try to make things right now.
In addition to therapy, you may need additional support. Talk to relatives or friends you trust. Although it’s important to respect your teen’s privacy, you can ask friends to spend time with your teen to give you a break, or to plan some time away from the house to escape the tension. Dealing with a troubled teen can exhaust you, so be sure to take a break when you need it.
Focus on the child you love.
When teens act out, they become difficult to like. You may not want to be in the same room with them and you might wonder how your sweet, innocent child has grown into this stranger you don’t understand or know. Instead of these negative thoughts, you must make a conscious effort to focus on the things you do love about your teen and on every one of your teens’ positive traits. Try looking at your teen through the eyes of someone who has never met them before – you may be so engrossed in your child’s problems that you have forgotten how fun or thoughtful they can be. Don’t become rigid in your thinking about your teen (such as “I already know this is going to be a problem”) as this can limit your ability to help them move forward. Identify their strengths and be sure to communicate those positive traits to your teen. Positive reinforcement is an incredible motivator.
Behind the troubling behavior is usually a child in pain. Perhaps they are struggling to deal with feelings or situations they don’t understand. Try to see things from their point of view and remember what it felt like when you were a teenager. Find ways, despite their behavior, to express your love for them. Acknowledge their pain and let them know that the problems they are having are painful for you, as well.
It’s easy to want to offer advice to help a teen who is struggling but sometimes what they need most is for the parent who loves them to simply be with them. Remember to be an active listener when they talk, and try to engage in an activity with your child that he or she loves (not an activity of your choice, but something that is important to your teen).
When life is hard, we want everything to hurry up so that things can be better. But these types of problems take time to treat. Be patient with your teen, be patient with yourself and your ability to manage your own frustration, and be patient with the healing process because therapy takes a long time.
Studies consistently show that hope is an important component in helping humans heal. Your child is more intuitive than you realize, so you must believe that your teen can get better. You need to believe it for your own healing and for your teen. You need to tell your teen that you believe in his or her ability to make changes, choose positive decisions, and take control of their lives. Your hope will feed their own.