Between raging hormones, sketchy friends, and the defiance that comes with yearning to be more independent from their parents, teenagers could learn from the patience of Job. Here are 10 ways parents can help their at-risk teens.
Learn About Teen Development
Teen brains are still developing and aren’t fully formed until young people reach their 20s. That means parents are dealing with young people who want very badly to make independent choices but may not be intellectually and emotionally equipped to safely do so.
Pile hormonal changes on top of rapid brain changes, and you get a volatile mix that can frustrate parents as teens behave impulsively and seem to push back on everything.
This behavior is normal for most teens. But there are some behaviors that indicate something more serious than growing pains is going on. These include:
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Self-harm, depression, severe anxiety
- Criminal acts (stealing, violence)
- Premature sexual activity
- Eating disorders
- A sudden plunge in academic performance
These worrisome behaviors indicate that parents should seek professional help for their teens, and perhaps for the family as a whole. However, there are things parents can do to help an adolescent teetering on the edge of making serious mistakes. Here are 10 ways parents can help their at-risk teen.
Parents can easily fall into the trap of giving advice before they’ve even heard the problem. Teenagers want to be heard, not judged. Several times a week, sit down with your teen and offer your undivided attention. Teens are sensitive and quick to assume that no one understands.
Ask open-ended questions like, “tell me more about how you feel about that” (or what, or why, you think about that) instead of jumping straight to “this will pass” or “it’s just a phase you’re going through.” It doesn’t feel like a phase to a teen—whatever is bothering them is very real and possibly truly painful.
Teens will try on many different looks as they grow and try to find their place in the complex and often excruciating social hierarchies of high school. Before you jump down their throat about their wardrobe and adornment choices, ask yourself, “Is it actually hurting them? Is it dangerous?”
A new hair color, some dark eyeliner, or a pair of ripped jeans isn’t likely to cause severe peril. Stick to the more alarming changes that may have consequences that teens don’t consider—like the fact that tattoos are permanent.
Having high expectations for a teen is a way of telling them that you believe in their abilities. Just remember that your expectations are for your teen, not for you. Help your teen establish goals that relate to what they actually want to accomplish, and accept that those goals might be, “I want to make the tennis team” rather than “I want to win every tournament I ever play.” Or maybe their goal is “I want to go to a college with a great videography program,” despite the fact that your goal for them is “You must get into an Ivy League school and become a lawyer.”
Other expectations are more mundane: show up to dinner on time, no phones at the table, get your homework done before you spend hours playing video games.
Establish Reasonable but Firm Boundaries
Establishing boundaries is the other half of setting expectations. Impose consequences consistently if your teen fails to follow the rules by not coming home by curfew on a weekend night, showing up to dinner late, playing video games before finishing their homework, or failing to help with chores around the house. Be willing to listen to explanations, but don’t be a pushover.
Provide Necessary Support
A request for an extra $20 for a night out with friends or a lift to a sporting event or performance isn’t a lot for your teen to ask. But if they want you to drive them to a club to hear a band play on a school night, despite the fact that the performance won’t be done until 1 a.m., it’s not unreasonable to say no.
Show your teen that you trust them to make good choices. Assume the best from them. If they disappoint you, have a frank talk with them about the impact on you and your ability to trust them. Listen to explanations, but don’t back down on consequences.
Unless you have a strong suspicion that something harmful or illegal is going on, respect your teen’s privacy. Don’t snoop on their cellphone or try to read their emails. Teens learn by example, so if you snoop on them, they may get the message that it’s okay to do the same to others, including you.
Your teen should keep you informed of where they’re going, who they’re going with, what they plan to do, and when they’ll be home. Don’t get into the minutiae unless they violate the trust you’ve placed in them. If you discover they’ve lied, impose pre-established consequences like cutting off cellphone or internet use or impounding their car keys for a specified time.
Connect Over Common Interests
Most of what you suggest in the way of shared activities may elicit an eye roll, but give it a shot. Your teen may surprise you. Or reverse the situation and surprise your child by learning everything you can about their favorite video game, film director, or band.
Don’t make a big deal of it, but do let your teen know that you’d love to spend some time with them. It’s normal for teenagers to prefer their friends to their parents, but somewhere inside them, there is still a kid who craves parental attention.
Accentuate the Positive
Nothing is more discouraging to a teenager than the feeling that they’re never going to be good enough. Make sure they know that you are proud of them and praise them for the things they do well rather than harping on failures.
Don’t Go It Alone
Seek mentors other than yourself for your teen. This person could be a coach, music instructor, job supervisor, favorite uncle, or another trusted adult who has skills or wisdom that can be useful to your teen. However, be very alert to any signs that your teen dislikes spending time with other adults. Make sure they feel free to talk to you immediately if another adult does make them uncomfortable.
Finally, if your teenager is showing signs of real distress in the form of violent outbursts, isolation, addiction, self-harm, or eating disorders, get professional help from a licensed mental health professional.
If you’re a teacher, counselor, or juvenile justice professional, consider ARISE Foundation’s evidence-based life skills curriculum, which provides evidence-based lessons and activities that help at-risk teens gain the behavioral skills necessary to a successful life.