Jill’s parents noticed she seemed extremely distracted. Schoolwork reports showed that she hadn’t been turning in work regularly, and had missed a few major assignments. Prior to this, Jill hadn’t been the most motivated student, but relatively consistent. On top of that, Jill was spending an increasing amount of time in her room. Getting her to participate with the rest of the family at meals or around the house was nearly impossible. Lately, she seemed to be glued to her computer and social media.
Was this just a teenage phase? Or was it time to get help?
I’m a therapeutic and educational consultant, and parents enter my office when they are not sure what to do about their teen’s behavior – and they need a plan. Many of my clients have watched their teen shut down when it comes to schoolwork and relationships, resorting to and engaging in maladaptive coping behaviors like video-gaming addictions, drug use, cutting, eating disorders, school failure or isolating. Classic parenting techniques, local therapy and boundary setting have not been enough to ensure progress. Something must be done immediately. And so we intervene. By that time behaviors have gotten so out of control, residential care and intensive treatment are often required.
The most common questions parents ask me after intervention are: Could we have done something earlier? Could we have seen this coming? We thought it might have just been a phase.
Simply put, phases are stages of development and change that either lead to positive or negative outcomes. Your teen is trying new behavior to see how it works for them. The green hair, the fascination with piercing and tattoos, the attitude and eye-rolling, and using the latest buzzword that replaces the children-of-the-80’s “cool” are all indicators that your teen is trying to find themselves. New behaviors are attempts to express emotions and try on new ways of being. If they are not hurting anyone, damaging relationships, or impeding school progress to any significant degree, very likely, your teen is fine.
But when phases trend toward and become negative behavior patterns, it is time to pay attention. In the case of Jill, what seemed like reticent teenage behavior phase became, when unattended, a growing addiction to social media, school failure, and drug use. It had seemed benign on the surface.
On the flip side, no mom or dad wants to be accused of being the ever-hovering helicopter parent that at first glance of any trouble, jumps in to rescue their teen against his or her will. And certainly, in other cases appearing similar to Jill’s, nothing more was lurking under the surface than a two-week hormonal bad mood or fight with a friend.
It is hard to say exactly what is or isn’t normal teenage behavior, but what I can tell you from working with teenagers for over a decade is this: There are always three present trends that if, left unattended, could lead to trouble:
1. Avoidance. The function of a teenager is to be learning pre-young adult life skills, such as taking care of his or her very basic responsibilities such as keeping up with homework to the best of their ability. This also means being accountable and responsible for chores or commitments (to varying degrees based on parent expectations). But when a teen seems to be actively avoiding new situations or responsibilities, seems reticent to start activities, and overall seems to avoid anything slightly difficult that should be developmentally appropriate, it is time to pay attention.
2. Break down in relationships. Lucky is the parent who has an open, wonderful dialogue with his or her teen. It is normal during this life phase for a teen to be a bit more withdrawn from his parents and their point of view. But what is not normal is patterns of disrespect, yelling, withdrawing, and not being able to tolerate discipline. Also, outside the family, if friendships seem to never last, or are on the rocks, it is time to pay attention. A basic skill that teens must master is how to give and gain respect, and construct lasting relationships with supportive people.
3. Maladaptive coping behaviors. Emotionally healthy teenagers cope with stress and problems with behaviors that help them adapt and grow. For instance, a teen with a good sense of himself might turn to a coach or friend when experiencing something difficult, and take and use the advice given. Maladaptive coping behaviors are very much like avoidance, but they include taking an action that directly helps avoid emotion and/or dealing with the basics of life. Drug abuse, computer/media gaming addiction, skipping school or hurting oneself are obvious examples of maladaptive coping, but even subtle behaviors like hanging around with negative peers, listening to negative music excessively, lashing out at others or causing drama are examples of what teens do when their emotions are overwhelming and they can’t find better ways to move past the situation. In fact, any behavior that over time becomes harmful can be considered maladaptive.
Ways to intervene with your teen:
1. Start with a conversation. I often hear teens tell me that they had no idea their parent was so concerned about them. So, I suggest to parents to sit down with your teen and explain your concerns. Be very specific about what you are seeing him/her do, and how much you care. Ask specific questions such as, ‘What are you dealing with in your life right now? I’d like to understand better’. Wait for a response.
2. Increase your teen’s support system. If your teen is reluctant to talk with you about their struggles, recruit a few other adults that care about your teen, such as a coach, aunt, or family friend, and ask them to reach out and spend some time with your teen, and give their viewpoint of the situation.
3. Increase family time and structure. On the surface, teens appear to hate spending time with their families and siblings. However, what teens have disclosed to me over the years is doing simple things with their family during times of stress, was actually very helpful. Cooking, movie watching, game-playing, doing chores together, all give your teen time to be a part of something more than isolating in their room, and gives them the chance to be witnessed and loved. Forge past the eye-rolling and sighs – this is your teens way of testing whether you can really handle being with them. It can take a lot of energy at first but is worth the payoff if done consistently.
4. See a therapist. Offering your teen the support and counsel of a therapist is a great idea when your teen is struggling to find the words to say or needs someone outside the family who is more objective, to give them guidance.
5. Formal Intervention. If your teen persists with avoidance, is not able to manage relationships and is not taking input from others, and you are seeing maladaptive coping over a consistent period of time, don’t wait. Contact a therapeutic and educational consultant who can help you formulate a long-term plan to get your teen the treatment and help he or she needs.