Troubled Teen Issues

Delinquent Teens

Teens are the group most at risk for delinquency, and parents with delinquent teens may quickly feel like they are in over their heads. Luckily, there are ways parents can help delinquent teens, and resources for families who need help.

The teen years are a time when young people experiment with their identity and try to achieve independence from their parents. Most teens do this is relatively harmless ways, but there are some types of behavior that are illegal and may have negative long-term consequences for teens, such as:

  • Truancy or skipping school
  • Underage drinking
  • Using or selling illegal drugs or abusing prescription drugs
  • Vandalism
  • Shoplifting
  • Burglary or theft
  • Fighting
  • Breaking curfew
  • Running away
  • Arson
  • Less commonly, sexual assault and homicide 

Some parents may think these problems are confined to kids who are poor, male, urban, or from racial minorities, but in fact delinquent teens come from all kinds of neighborhoods and families. There are, however, some risk factors that make it more likely that teens will engage in illegal or delinquent behaviors:

  • A history of anti-social or aggressive behavior
  • Abuse of drugs or alcohol by a family member
  • Illegal behavior by another family member
  • Problems or stresses at home, such as loss of a family member, divorce, or family conflict
  • Not feeling attached to or secure in their family
  • Having friends engaged in illegal behaviors
  • Doing poorly in school
  • Lack of positive goals and activities
  • Unsupervised, unstructured time, especially right after school
  • Rules and consequences that are too strict or too lenient
  • A history of abuse
  • Having a mental illness or traumatic head injury 

The most important way to help a teen who may be at risk for delinquency is to help him or her feel connected to his or her family, school, and community. Though many families and parents are very busy and have trouble finding time to spend on positive activities, even spending a small amount of time talking to a teen every day can help. Some things that may help a struggling teen or delinquent teen include:

  • Spend at least a few minutes everyday talking to your teen and listening to what they have to say. They may not always open up to you or agree with your opinions, but this will help show them that you care and may encourage them to talk to you if they have a problem later.
  • Tell teens often that you love them, and try to accept them for who they are as they experiment with different identities and interests.
  • Eat at least one meal together as a family every day, with the TV and cell phones turned off. This has been shown to reduce teens’ risks for delinquent behavior and improve their general health and well being. This may mean having breakfast or a late dinner together if parents’ schedules are not convenient for other meals.
  • Get help for teens who are struggling in school. Many schools offer after school tutoring for students. Emphasize the importance of getting a good education.
  • Encourage teens to be involved in positive activities. This can include clubs, sports, community groups, church groups, music, theater, a part-time job, volunteering, or even unstructured activities like art. This is especially important for teens who spend time unsupervised after school.
  • Set clear rules and expectations with reasonable consequences and enforce the consequences when the rules are broken. A good way to do this is through a behavior contract that clearly states what the rules and expectations are and what will happen when a rule is broken. The parent(s) and teen both sign the contract. Make sure rules and consequences are reasonable and not overly harsh, and pick your battles – don’t try to make a rule for everything, just the things that are important for a teen’s or family’s well-being.
  • Ask questions when a teen goes out about what they are doing, where they are going, and whom they will be with. Require them to call you if their plans change.
  • Monitor a teen’s use of electronic devices, such as by keeping TVs and computers out of bedrooms or installing parental controls. Don’t do this secretly – tell teens that you can see what they are doing online and that you want to make sure they’re not posting things online or visiting web sites that might cause problems for them.
  • Get treatment for any illnesses a teen may be suffering from, including ADD/ADHD, depression, or drug or alcohol addiction. 

When teens have already gotten into serious trouble or have developed patterns of illegal or delinquent behavior that are not easy to change, parents should seek outside help for their teen and family in addition to the above suggestions. Delinquent teens may have problems that parents cannot be expected to handle on their own. A doctor or counselor is a good place to start, and most communities have programs to help families who don’t have insurance to cover the costs of counseling.

Teen Delinquency Sources:

MassGeneral Hospital for Children, Adolescent Health, “Delinquency” [online]
WebMD, “5 Teen Behavior Problems: A Troubleshooting Guide” [online]
Nemours, KidsHealth, “A Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Teen Years” [online]

Parenting Articles

Preteen Help

Preteens, children aged 9 to 12 and also called preadolescents, can have many of the same issues as adolescents, but because of their age and stage of development, a different approach than that used with adolescents may be more fruitful. For that reason as well as because the influence of older kids with the same problem may not be conducive to recovery, preteen help is offer provided separately from help for teens by organizations that assist both children of both age ranges.

There are a variety of issues that can affect preteens to the point that their parents seek help for them and a variety of types of help. Matching the assistance to the issue starts with a clear identification of what the issue is, if the root cause is not clear.

Because health issues and mental health issues can have so many and so varied results, from bad moods to failing grades to acting out to defiant behavior, it’s always a good idea to have a preteen seen by his or her pediatrician when a problem arises without a clear cause.

If a child’s pet dies, and the child acts moody and sad for several weeks, parents can feel fairly certain about the cause. But things are not always so clear-cut. Nutritional issues, a mood disorder, or a debilitating physical condition can have results that look like an attitude problem, and jumping to a conclusion about the origins of what looks like laziness, uncooperativeness, or moodiness could lead punishments or other actions that a parent would later regret when the true source of the problem became known.

You can alert the pediatrician in advance to the issue in order not to have to discuss it in front of the child. Even if the cause is not a matter of physical or mental health, but something like bullying, an experienced pediatrician with whom the preteen is familiar may be able to get an explanation from the child.

Types of Preteen Issues

Here is an overview of some of the types of issues for which a parent might wish to seek assistance for a preteen:

• dramatic change in mood or demeanor
• social withdrawal
• trouble sleeping
• change in appetite
• insufficiently explained injuries
• smelling of alcohol or tobacco
• sudden desire for privacy and secretive behavior
• unexpected failures to be where he or she says he will be when he or she has promised to be there
• a sudden change in dress in which the child’s body is quite a bit more or less covered than it used to be or in which style of dress or any slogans on clothes are worrisome
• dramatic change in the amount of time spent texting or using technology, including the telephone
• objects or clothes in your child’s possession that you didn’t purchase and that he or she cannot satisfactorily explain the origins of
• behavior that leads you to believe you are not being told the truth
• breaking of house rules with insouciance
• the presence of any clues of sexual activity
• reports from teachers that do not match the attention to schoolwork that you are seeing at home
• obvious difficulty in completing school assignments

Usually, the first step is a conversation with the preteen about the change or behavior that you’ve noticed. There may be a perfectly legitimate explanation and the behavior may be passing. It may also have a health-related source, as noted below. It may be something you can deal with as a family, or something for which you need or want outside help. If you do want outside help, keep reading.

Types of Help for Preteens

Besides your preteen’s pediatrician, these are some other sources of help for preteens:

• the preteen’s guidance counselor
• the school special education teacher
• the school psychologist
• a social worker
• your minister, priest, rabbi, or other spiritual counselor
• a leader of any organization your child attends regularly, such as a coach, mentor, or scout leader
• a therapist, such as a cognitive behavioral therapist
• a psychologist
• a psychiatrist
• organizations that provide counseling and education and healthcare, alone or in combination:

  • hospitals
  • boarding schools
  • residential treatment centers
  • outdoor therapeutic programs
  • specialty psychiatric and behavioral hospitals
  • wilderness programs
  • small residential programs