Parenting Articles

Struggling Teens

Struggling Teens

The teen years are rife with difficulty. If you think back, it is likely that you will remember your own teen years as times that included painful scenes and a certain level of unhappiness. This is quite natural. Teenagers are dealing with rapidly developing bodies. Growth and development of the kind not seen since the earliest years of childhood are taking place. Even the brain is still developing at rapid rate.

In order for normal teen growth and development to take place, hormones must be released into the body. The hormonal and chemical changes that take place in a teen body can be sources of frustration, confusion and a myriad of other emotions that are normal during the teenage years. With all of this going on inside a teenager, it is little surprise that what goes on outside the body can affect teenagers as well.

Stresses related to schoolwork, extracurricular activities, a possible after school job, social pressures and anxiety about the future can all combine to push a teenager into troubled territory. Teenagers with challenging family situations, or who deal with a major upheaval in life (such as moving or a parent’s job loss), are even more likely to struggle.

Problems common to struggling teens

Struggling teens are those that are having a more difficult adjusting to what is going on in their lives. Struggling teens are beginning to act out undesirable behavior with increasing frequency. A certain amount of anger, withdrawal from family, mild rebellion and tension is to be expected during the teen years. However, struggling teens tend to exhibit such behaviors on an escalating scale. While normal teens might have mood swings and bad days, struggling teens tend to grow progressively worse in their behaviors as the struggles deepen.

Some of the problems that are common to struggling teens include:

  • Hopelessness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety attacks
  • Violence
  • Substance abuse
  • Disdain for authority
  • Withdrawal from all family life
  • Falling grades
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Increase in unsafe sexual activity
  • Drastic change in sleeping habits
  • Change in eating habits, leading to dramatic weight gain or loss 

If you see signs of the above with increasing frequency, there is a good chance that you are dealing with a trouble teenager. It is important to be on the alert for signs that your teenager may be struggling. This is because struggling teens can turn to illegal activities in order to attempt to fulfill some perceived need, or to help them deal with the problems of life.

Another concern is actually to do with health and wellbeing. Not all struggling teens lash out at their parents, becoming rebellious and turning to extreme sports or illegal drugs. Not all struggling teenagers turn physically violent toward others. Indeed, some troubled teens become suicidal, sure that the only way to escape the problems besetting them is to take their own lives. It is vital that you watch for signs of depression in teenagers, since it could lead to death.

Another health concern might be an eating disorder. Some teenagers turn to food for comfort during times of trouble. Overeating can result in a number of health problems now and in the future. The social consequences of rapid weight gain can also contribute to the complication of depression as a teen’s self image plunges. Anorexia is another eating disorder that can cause health problems. Some teenagers deny themselves food, or engage in bulimic behaviors, as a sign of struggle. These disorders come with their own set of health problems, some of which are long term.

The teen years can be tough on everyone. However, as a parent, it is up to you to watch your teenager for signs of struggle. There are programs that are designed to help struggling teens. Check with your local social services to find out about local support programs. You can also look into residential facilities and programs that specialize in helping struggling teens. The important thing, though, is to get help for struggling teens before the problems get completely out of hand and affect a teen’s future.

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]