Troubled Teen Issues

Adolescent Development

An Uncharted Path

As much as we know about adolescent development based on research and studies, it is impossible to explain to a pre-teen what the experience will be like. Who can understand before it’s happened what it will mean to adjust to the hormonal changes of adolescence, feel comfortable driving a car, go to college, or fall in love with somebody?

An Emotional Roller Coaster

The emotional experience of adolescence may take a pre-teen with a well-established identity and turn him or her upside-down. The habits and self-image a child has developed may not fit, and trying to integrate new feelings, and new capabilities as well, is more challenging for some teens than for others. It really can be a time of identity crisis.

In part, a teen’s coping mechanisms will depend on those around him or her. An adolescent with a supportive family and a good set of friends, who doesn’t happen to become the target of a bully or clique, will—in general—have an easier time.

But as good as one’s support group is, experiencing, for example, a monthly cycle of hormonal changes and trying to grasp the reality that one can feel upset, not because one is “really” upset but because of one’s hormones, is bound to provide a certain amount of challenge.

Social Changes

In addition to identity issues, adolescents experience a shift from the strong family ties of early childhood to stronger peer ties, especially if they have a romantic relationship. Shifting allegiances put the teen in a new relationship to people, including those he or she has known all his or her life.

And our school structure doesn’t make it easier.

One teen going through the emotional fluctuations of early adolescence is one thing. But in the US, we pack them all together into middle schools where they are separate from the calmer influence of both those who are younger and haven’t reached that stage and those older, who have begun to develop mechanisms to handle it. In other words, we create a problem by putting early adolescents in place where everyone is comparing their own physical development to everyone else, and everyone is, at least slightly, out of control of their emotional lives.

One characterization of middle grade students mentions:

• the erratic, inconsistent behavior,

• feeling shifts between extremes of bravado on the on hand and fear and anxiety on the other,

• hormonal and chemical imbalances,

• extreme sensitivity to criticism,

• exaggeration of their own problems,

• feeling of being the only one who experiences what they experience,

• falling for dubious arguments,

• holding naïve opinions, and

• psychologically at-risk.

These characteristics can also extend beyond middle school. Is it any surprise that there are so many reports of bullying, teasing, fights, and tears among younger adolescents?

Separating the Normal Teen from the Troubled Teen

With all of these factors, it is likely that any teen will act in a disturbed or disturbing way at some point, due to one or more of these factors. A formerly respectful and loving pre-teen may talk back, call a parent names, strike a brother or sister, barricade him- or herself in his or her bedroom, stop confiding and even pretty much stop communicating, and/or break household rules (like curfews) for the first time. You may see appetite changes, sleep changes, tears, anger, and invective towards others as well as self-directed, and amazingly, this may all be within the normal bounds of adolescent development.

Especially is you are dealing with your oldest child, this can be alarming. Here are some hints that, taken along with professional opinions—such as that of your child’s teachers, guidance counselor, and pediatrician—will help you know when to get help and when to let things ride.

• First, if a child mentions, refers to, or takes any action that suggests suicide to you, get immediate help. There are suicide hotlines and other crisis lines that can help you talk your child through the situation while expert help is on the way.

• Try to ensure that your child has adults around—even if not you—in whom he or she can confide, whether an aunt or uncle, a grandparent, a minister, family friend, godparent, etc.

• If you suspect your child is engaging in any activity that is illegal or dangerous—whether damaging the property of others, using drugs or alcohol, or engaging in underage sexual activity—gather information from an expert you trust on how to identify and deal with the particular issue. Apparent signs of illicit activity could be something quite different, and an unfounded accusation could create at least a temporary barrier to trust between you and your child.

• As the characterization of middle school students indicates, students may act in uncharacteristic and even bizarre ways without anything being wrong other than the fact that adolescence is difficult. If you are concerned that there is a deeper issue, consult a professional who can offer you guidance.

If you genuinely can’t tell how bad things are, you could try telling your child how concerned you are and asking if he or she needs help.


Emotional Problems

Self Esteem

One of the issues that can affect teenagers is that of self esteem. Self esteem refers to how one feels about him or herself. Also, it refers to how you think others feel about you. Do you think they like you? Or do you feel like no one values you? There are different factors that go into self esteem, and for teenagers these factors often make a bigger difference. Low teen self esteem can lead to sexual activity (sometimes resulting in teen pregnancy), depression and even suicide. It is important to recognize that teenagers need to feel valued and loved.

Why teen self esteem is important

It may seem unimportant to worry about teen self esteem, but in reality, it can set the stage for one’s entire life. According to a questionnaire given to 90,000 students in grades 7-12, self esteem helps teens deal with emotional stress. Additionally, having good self esteem correlates with success later in life – mainly because good grades and confidence can allow a teen to start out with scholarships and other opportunities.

Self esteem is also important when it comes to making good choices. Teen pregnancy statistics show time and time again that girls who engage in unprotected sex often have lower self esteem than their counterparts. Other decisions, such as those regarding risky behavior and use of illegal drugs, can result from low teen self esteem.

Finally poor teen self esteem can lead to emotional and mental issues. Depression can stem from feeling as though you are not good enough. In some cases, teenagers who cannot overcome their feelings of hopelessness and low self esteem resort to suicide.

What causes low self esteem?

There are many factors that can contribute to a teen having low self esteem. Here are some of the factors that may contribute to teen self esteem problems:

  • Appearance (self image). It may seem shallow, but most teenagers are concerned to some degree about their appearance. This can be difficult to overcome, because in some cases it can be difficult to change one’s appearance. Overweight teens often feel bad about themselves, as do teens that think that there is some sort of irregularity with the way they look.
  • Peers. Teenagers may have peers that make fun of them or put them down. If a teen feels like an outcast, it can have an effect on his or her self esteem.
  • Parents. Sometimes parents or other authority figures put teens down and cause self esteem problems. Parents, coaches and teachers who always criticize can make a teenager feel as though he or she never does anything right, and is never valued. Such constant criticism may cause him or her to feel unloved.
  • Unrealistic expectations. We all want to live up to our potential. But sometimes teenagers feel pressures from unrealistic expectations. Parents and teachers may expect too much of them. Often, a teen can develop low self esteem because he or she is not “living up” to the expectations that one sets for oneself. A teenager can, at some times, be his or her own hardest critic. 

Helping your teen overcome low self esteem

You want to help your teenager overcome low self esteem. This means that you may need to make changes yourself. Look at your behavior, and determine if there is something you can do differently. Teens need to be corrected, but are you always criticizing? Try to say at least one positive thing for each negative thing you say.

If there is an appearance issue, encourage your teenager, if reasonable. If your teen is overweight, this can be done by exercising with him or her and encouraging him or her to lose weight for health reasons. Do not point to the appearance issue in such cases. Instead, focus on the health aspects of the change. If the appearance issue is something that can’t be changed, help your teen gain an acceptance for it. This may require counseling, especially if the issue is of a recent development, as from an accident.

You can also talk to your teenager about failure. Make sure that you don’t express excessive disappointment when your teen does not perform to your expectations. Instead, praise the effort and encourage him or her to work harder next time. Explain that mistakes should be viewed as chances to learn and grow, rather than a measure of one’s worth.

There is a fine line between giving your teen a false sense of complacency and feelings of entitlement and self esteem. But if you are careful, you should be able to help your teenager develop a healthy attitude toward him or herself.