Worried about your troubled teen?

Maybe you should be worried about your troubled teen

Coloured image of young black teenager appearing troubled
Worried about your troubled teen? — Image by dreamstime

Have you noticed any recent change in mood or behaviour in your teen or young adult? Has anyone else, like their teacher or a family member, pointed it out? Has your teen mentioned feeling angry, sad or any other negative emotions? Do you talk with your teen about emotions and feelings? No? You may have a troubled teen and you should be worried. But don’t despair, we can work this out.

The term troubled teen is used to define a wide range of behavioural or emotional problems among adolescents. And, while we’re particularly looking at teens and young adults, the suggestions in this post might be helpful for most troubled others.

Was I a troubled teen?

I was a troubled teen — Image from Dreamstime

Do you remember your teens? I do, and things were very different way back in the seventies, but I wish someone had noticed my pain and tried asking about it.

I’m guessing, depending on your age, that your parents didn’t ask you about your emotions either. It just wasn’t done back in the day. No one told you what to do when you felt sad or angry, and how to let go of those negative feelings. We (or I) didn’t really talk about emotions with friends much either, other than if we were angry at our parents or a teacher — that was acceptable and cool even.

Sometimes I wonder how i got through it…

Oh my word, this post just triggered various emotions, mainly one that’s leaving the empty pit at the bottom of my stomach. Oof! — and breathe. You know, when I think back over the traumatic events in my life, I do wonder how I got through it all. The sadness, low self-worth, emptiness, guilt, shame, anxiety and hopelessness — locked in for decades.

However, despite all the badness, there’s been a lot of good and I’ve learned a lot from my troubled teens. I learned how not to parent, how not to teach, and how not to manage teams. I learned how to cope with adversity and how to listen and communicate effectively.

What symptoms might you see in a troubled teen?

Coloured image of female dressed in punk style, wearing red tights, short skirt and DM's - bovver boots
Sudden change of dress style, music or films — Image from Dreamstime

Not every teen is angry or troubled, but most will experience some of the common teenage angst. However, it’s easy to write this angst off as teenage behaviour, and you might miss an obvious sign that something’s terribly wrong. So, now’s a really good time to see and be more aware of what’s going on in your teen’s life. Spot whether your child is into drugs or other risky behaviours —before it’s too late.

What you might notice in your teen

  • mood swings or rapid changes in mood; possibly sad, low and withdrawn or loud, OTT and overly boisterous
  • changes in personality and attitude i.e. not recognisable as your son/daughter, going from timid to tough or bullish
  • sullen, insolent or defiant and dismissive of your concerns
  • isolating, staying away from you and their siblings
  • missing classes, and not completing school work
  • dramatic changes to their appearance; in the way they dress or what films or music they’re into. They might suddenly like all things goth or rap these days, either to fit in with or avoid peers
  • using foul language and disrespecting your house rules
  • hanging around with a different crowd who maybe smoke, take illicit drugs, or cause trouble in the neighbourhood
  • changes in sleep patterns; playing online games, staying up well into the night, unable or refusing to get up in the mornings, early morning waking could be a sign of depression
  • telling lies or omitting truths like if they’ve been stopped by the police
  • red or glassy-eyed, and pupils unusually large or small might indicate drug use
  • unable or unwilling to account for their movements, staying out all hours or running away
  • unable or unwilling to account for expensive gifts they’ve received, and new clothes
  • Stealing, money going missing, or overspending like buying expensive computer games

This list is in no way exhaustive and you might notice a variety other signs that indicate your teen is troubled.

What about when your teen won’t listen?

Pretending she can’t hear you — Image from Dreamstime

You’ve probably witnessed when they

  • pretend they can’t hear you
  • turn their music up or the volume on t.v.
  • stare at their screens and won’t raise their eyes to meet yours
  • refuse to give any eye contact or you get that eye roll
  • give you that “Whatever” condescending sneer
  • don’t acknowledge that you’ve said something or are expecting a reply
  • tut, grunt or huff and puff in your direction

Remember, it’s in their job description, they’re teenagers and they do it because they can. They can’t tell you not to speak to them, they don’t (or shouldn’t) have that control. But they can sure as heck decide where to focus their attention when you’re speaking to them, knowing you can’t force them to listen. So that’s what they do, because they know it winds you up.

How should I react?

Stay calm, don’t raise your voice, and never get into an argument or power struggle with your children. What you say goes and while you can inform them of why you’ve set particular rules (like to keep them safe), don’t debate them. Otherwise, they might think they’re debatable.

State what you mean clearly, and mean what you say. Let your troubled teen know you will only say things once, so if they don’t pay attention and break the rules because they didn’t hear them, there will be consequences.

You must ensure you follow through with the consequences. If they whine on or start banging around huffily, repeat that they knew the rules and the consequences, then leave the room. Your troubled teen will soon start listening. Your teen knows that tutting, eye-rolling and banging about, winds you up — so don’t let it — remain calm and leave the room.

What you can must do to support your troubled teen

Coloured image of african mum and teen sitting in front of laptop
Mum and teen daughter — Image from Dreamstime

Here are some suggestions that will help you get your teen talking about what’s going on in their life

  • Ask them every day how they are, how was school or work. Even ask about their friend Holly or Daisy and how’s she been, what she’s up to. You might find out Daisy’s being a pain or she’s in trouble at school, which may give you a clue as to how your own child feels about Hayley’s problems and behaviours.
  • If they come home in a bad mood and storm straight to their room, give them space. Sometimes the more you go on, constantly asking “What’s up?” or “What’s wrong with you?”, the further they retreat or clam up. Allow them some time to think things through, and you might find they’ll approach you to tell you what’s going on in their lives.
  • I know how easy it is to think that we, as parents, have upset them in some way. What I used to do if one of the boys came home in a mood, is ask “Have I upset you Sunshine?” If the answer was no, all I could do at that moment was accept it to be true, and be happy it wasn’t me he was cross with. He’d spend some time in his room and over dinner, he’d tell me what was bothering him — in his own time and when he was ready.
  • Ask them directly if there’s a problem like “you look unhappy/angry lately, do you want to talk about it?”, “Have you ever been bullied?”, “What do you do when you feel sad/angry/scared”, or “What do you think about safe sex, teen pregnancy?” Don’t be afraid of asking the hard questions, an open chat over your evening meal might get the ball rolling, and your teen might start talking. Let them know they can always come to you, and that you’ll listen, without judgement.

How to move forward

  • Always listen, really listen, without interrupting, scoffing, or laughing inappropriately. Be encouraging and supportive, let them know you’ve got their back.
  • Help them develop strategies for problem-solving. Sharing some of your life stories and mistakes with wisdom is a great way to introduce your teens to problem-solving. If they’ve got a problem, ask them how they plan to fix it. Help them devise problem-solving plans, breaking the problem down into small steps so your teen can manage them.
  • Foster independence! Just as we helped them when they started cycling as toddlers, we eventually stood back, letting them try on their own. They slipped and wobbled for a bit, but they eventually mastered the art of cycling, by themselves. Teens are going to make mistakes but by standing back a bit, they’ll learn from them and thrive.
  • Of course, your teens are going to push the boundaries at times. Your job is to stay calm and focus on the incident, rather than shouting about them not listening, not caring or doing things deliberately to wind you up. Stick to the topic, and calmly remind them about breaking the rules and the consequences.

What else can I do to support my troubled teen?

Coloured image of african mum trying to talk to her teen who has turned away
Teens can be difficult at times — Image by Dreamstime

Of course, there are many more ways you could support your teen, I’ve just given you a few more up-to-date suggestions to get the ball rolling.

If you’ve been parenting in the old way, you might need to think about changing your parenting style. It probably won’t be easy for you, and it won’t be easy on your teen either. It’s a good idea to sit them down, tell them you’ve been making mistakes like being too easy-going about the rules and you need to make changes.

Tell them that things are going to be different from now on, explain how and why, as in you’ll set be setting boundaries and you expect her to adhere to them. More importantly, you must stick to these new rules and consequences. Children need consistency, not confusion.

“Mama, I like it when you tell us about the rules and why, because it makes me feel safe and I know you care about me.”

My now adult son

Over to you

Large red question mark with a little white character man leaning on it.

Any thoughts or suggestions for readers? Do you think some of these suggestions could be helpful for others i.e. with troubled partners or friends? I look forward to your comments and any questions, as always.

Related: Reaching out to “Troubled” Teens (1). Help for parents with troubled teens (2).

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