Help for Teens Who Are Headed in the Wrong Direction

Your bright and capable son or daughters grades have dropped, you’ve noticed that they are distancing themselves, possibly hiding things or are disrespectful, even defiant. Perhaps they are sneaking out at night, seemingly lost interest in extra-curricular activities that they used to enjoy, seem miserable or depressed. I’m not talking about ‘normal’ adolescent attitude but more risky behavior.

Having worked with teenagers professionally since 2008 as a counselor at a treatment center and having had personal experiences with friends in high school I’ve been approached by parents asking what options they have, or what they can do to improve their situation.

In many cases, behavior hasn’t reached the point where wilderness or residential interventions are necessary and there are often buttons parents can push that can prevent risky behavior and improve family dynamics thus preventing further deterioration.


Take These Steps

Below are a few critical questions parents can ask themselves that may spark ideas that they can do.

1) Evaluate your attitude towards your son or daughter. Often parents find themselves in a power struggle with their child that is always a lose-lose situation. Grounding, punishing and restraining can be appropriate at times but are not effective long-term strategies. It is only a matter of time before your child realizes that they don’t need to come home after school or that they will turn 18 soon and won’t have to do what they’re told.

Rather than war with your child, ensure they know that you love them and are trying to understand them. Read The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute for great instruction on how you can move towards a peaceful approach.

2) Assess the relationship between your child and their father. This is a critical relationship. In some cases fathers are physically or emotionally AWOL, in some cases, they are the enforcer but not really connected. Sometimes well-meaning mothers can get in the way of the father-child relationship. Check to make sure that your child is receiving healthy, consistent doses of physical and emotional affection from their father or another male authority figure.

3) Develop a support team that can positively motivate them. In most cases, parents can’t do it alone. “It takes a village” and you may need to alert the village that you need help. In many cases, it is the community or an individual on the support team that will have a profound impact on your child. Enlist the help of some or all of the following encouraging them to naturally become supportive without your son or daughter feeling like they are a project.

  1. Mature peers (peers can have the strongest influence)
  2. The parents of their friends (often kids will listen to anyone other than their own parents)
  3. School counselors/teachers
  4. Religious leaders
  5. Therapist
  6. Psychiatrist
  7. Athletic coaches

4) Ask your child for their help. We all like to feel needed. Finding a way to help your son or daughter realize that their talents and abilities are valuable is a great way to boost their feelings of self-worth. What is your child good at? What projects can you work on that will help them feel useful and, as a bonus, provide a way to bond during the process. Does your teenager like to work in the yard? If your family typically hires help to do the yard work, stop and use gardening as an opportunity to be together. If there are no projects around the house create one, break something if you need to!

5) Spend time with them. Spending quality one-on-one time with your children is essential. Mom and dad should take turns taking their children on dates. It doesn’t necessarily matter if it is something they love to do, it is more important to them to have your attention. When is the last time you just went for ice cream or went to the baseball game?

At this point, your child might be skeptical and you also might not feel like they deserve this type of reward. Stop. Because your son or daughter is going to be skeptical of your intentions during a time of friction you will probably need to be more conscious of making the activity something they are very interested in as they might be mad at you and need the incentive to spend time with you. Make it a priority, make it genuine and don’t talk about their problems. Your goal is to open or keep open the relationship and potential for honest communication when it is time.

6) Evaluate their social status and screen time. Are the majority of their interactions on social media? Too much screen time is directly linked to increased levels of depression and anxiety. Help your son or daughter by setting limits on screen time, monitoring activity and facilitating personal social interactions and friendships.

7) Are they getting enough exercise? Physical exertion can work wonders for depression, anxiety and almost any neurological or psychological challenges we have. If you’re son or daughter isn’t getting consistent exercise find ways for them to do so. We recommend reading Spark! How Exercise Will Improve the Performance of Your Brain by John Ratey.

If your son or daughter is engaging in risky behaviors now like experimenting with drugs, expressing suicidal ideations or are a danger to others you may need to get the police involved or take your child to a therapist of a psychiatric hospital.