They may be hard to live with, but argumentative, moody and authority-resistant teens are totally normal. So when teen behavior threatens to cross the line from annoying to problematic, should parents get tough, or get professional help?
Both, says Segundo Ibarra
, MD, a psychiatrist with Menninger’s Adolescent Treatment Program
. Most parents of teens would benefit from being tough on their teens by enforcing appropriate limits, and
getting help from books, parenting classes, support groups or a mental health professionals to guide them in their parenting efforts. Here are Ibarra’s suggestions for dealing with troubled teens:
First, be curious
Before enforcing an action plan to change your teen’s behavior, attempt to understand what’s behind it.
“Acting out can be a signal that your child is struggling with something, and it may be a way of coping,” Dr. Ibarra says. Acting out can run the gamut from mild to severe and include disrespectful behavior, failing school, eating disorders, self-harming behaviors (such as cutting or burning the skin), promiscuity and substance use and abuse.
Keeping an open dialog with teens and expressing curiosity about their lives in a non-judgmental way helps build trust and gives parents insight into what’s driving their teen’s behavior. When teens feel safe and trusting enough to become genuinely vulnerable, crucial moments of change and understanding often happen, Dr. Ibarra says.
The teen years are an intense time of physical and emotional growth, he emphasizes. Teens struggle to find their identity and attempt to fit in with their peers. At the same time, their brains are still growing—lacking impulse control and critical decision-making skills. Many psychological problems may also emerge during the teen years, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Next, get help
Seek immediate help from a mental health professional if your teen is acting out in a way that is especially concerning or potentially dangerous. A trained therapist that pays attention to the importance of relationships can determine if your teen has an underlying psychological disorder contributing to behavior problems and then outline a treatment plan. Look for psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers who specialize in adolescent mental health.
Some teens with severe behavioral and psychological problems may benefit from long-term psychiatric treatment
. When considering a facility, look for ones that emphasize understanding your teen’s behavior, rather than “fixing” unwanted behaviors—like being disrespectful.
“Some parents send their children away thinking, ‘This problem will be fixed once they go to this program,'” Dr. Ibarra says. “But problems may continue if their acting out is not completely understood. Beware of trying to find a quick fix. Be prepared to stay in ‘for the long haul.’”
In less severe cases, consulting a family counselor can be a good first step, especially when teens and parents can’t communicate without conflict. A family counselor can help facilitate discussion and suggest what steps to take next.
Books are also a great resource. Dr. Ibarra suggests looking for ones that focus on understanding the teen mind and fostering communication, rather than a single problem-solving solution or strategy.
On getting tough
When balanced with compassion, validation and understanding, getting tough (setting limits and being consistent with consequences) provides teens with the stability and safety they desperately need. Teens need limits—and they actually crave limits to guide them through their teenage years, Dr. Ibarra says.
That doesn’t mean teens won’t argue against them. Validate teens by acknowledging that the limits may come across as controlling. Then, explain the reasons behind setting those limits (you are concerned about their safety if they stay out past curfew) and the consequences for ignoring those limits (taking away privileges).
“Power is something kids want, but it is also something kids fear,” he says. “Even though kids want power, they also need a mom and a dad who will take away their car keys or computer when they stay out past curfew.”