10 Tips for Parents of Out-of-control Teens

Watching your teenager spiral out of control is scary.

Parents are full of hopes and dreams for their children. They may imagine their daughter becoming the first female president, or their son finding the cure for cancer. No parent holds a newborn and wishes that the child will become a troubled teen. Unfortunately, despite parents' best efforts, it's possible for a teenager to exhibit some terribly frightening behaviors. An out-of-control teen may be verbally or physically abusive, dive into dark worlds of drugs and alcohol, drop out of school or run away from home. He or she might acquire a criminal record. Parents may feel helpless and hopeless when it comes to the troubled teenager in their family, and it's unlikely that there's a quick fix or a cure. Still, we can provide you with some tips for helping a teen in crisis.



10: Take Control

The title of this article refers to the belief that troubled teens are "out of control," but in fact, the most dangerous teens are often in control of the entire family. They hold their homes hostage with their disturbing and frightening behavior because parents may be too fearful to assert their power. It's important to remember that you, as a parent, control the home. You set the rules and the consequences for breaking those rules, and you are responsible for ensuring that your home is a safe and secure place. If you've been too permissive with your children in an effort to be their buddy, you may have to make some changes in yourself. Parenting classes or parenting coaches who specialize in teen behavior can help you learn how to modify your behavior. Don't allow yourself to be held a prisoner in your home; take control for what happens within it, even if you can't control what your teen does outside of it.


9: Underlying Issues

Medication or therapy may help depressed teens.
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There are many different reasons why teens have behavioral problems. Medical problems like bipolar disorder, depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be present and inadequately treated, as the symptoms of these conditions affect behavior. Teens may be troubled by problems at home, both present and past. If divorce, sexual abuse or violent death lurk in your family's past, that might be an issue. Drug use will also affect his or her behavior. Addressing these concerns may make a real difference for your teen, which means you'll need to see a doctor and consider a range of solutions, including medication and counseling. While working on these issues may help your teen, you shouldn't consider them an excuse for bad behavior, but rather as one of many factors in your situation.



8: Pick Your Battles

Parents of out-of-control teens can usually make a long list of things they want to change about their child. It's normal to want to completely reform a troubled teen so that he or she resembles the good child you once knew. However, parents aren't going to be able to get everything they want, so it's important to distinguish between the issues that need to be addressed (such as drug abuse, risky sexual activity and criminal acts) and those that really aren't important. Parents may have to accept that they'll never like their children's friends, appearance or grade-point average again, but these issues are secondary to teenagers' safety and security. Parents should avoid nagging their teenagers about the superficial things and save their ammunition for the big battles.


7: Consult a Therapist

A family counseling session
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A therapist or psychologist can play an important role in getting your teen and your family back on track. Regular therapy gives your child a space to work out his or her issues with an objective third party, and therapists can teach your teen how to recognize and change destructive behaviors and how to find better ways to solve problems. Parents may also benefit from having someone to talk to about their problems, and it's possible that family therapy, in which the teen and the parent see a counselor together, may be beneficial. When choosing a therapist, parents need to do some homework. Research the counselor's background to ensure that he or she is familiar with the kind of issues you face as a family, and you may want to interview the professional before commencing therapy. And trust your gut -- if a therapist doesn't seem like a particularly good fit for your family, try another one.



6: Clarify the Difference Between Rights and Privileges

Many out-of-control teenagers believe they're entitled to things such as a car, a cell phone or the ability to watch television or play video games. It's important for parents to teach their teens that such things are privileges, not rights. In treating car keys, a substantial allowance or a cell phone as rights, parents may play a part in enabling their teen's destructive behavior. Privileges can be rescinded if certain rules aren't met, and sometimes these privileges will be so important to a teen that going without them will provide a wake-up call. Parents need to be consistent in their rules and the privileges associated with them so that teens see clear cause-and-effect relationships between their behavior and the consequences.


5: Let Your Teen Experience Consequences

Police intervention may be necessary to get your teen back on track.
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Parents want to protect their children from the bad in the world, and that instinct doesn't cease even when the child in question is destructive and dangerous. As a result, parents end up sheltering out-of-control teens from the consequences of their behavior; for example, they may not call the police when the teen runs away, or they may put up bail money over and over so that the teen doesn't have to spend a night in jail. At some point, parents have to stop shielding their teens, which means they may have to sit back and watch a black mark go on the teens' records. Don't try to negotiate with school officials or law enforcement officers if your child has done something wrong -- instead, let your teen face the music.


4: Consider a Wilderness Program

Therapeutic wilderness programs are a popular option for troubled teens. These programs, which may last anywhere from two to 12 weeks, combine therapeutic techniques with outdoor activities. Teens are expected to take responsibility for tasks like preparing their own meals and camp sites, but they also learn how to work as a team with the other people in their program. Researchers have presented differing reasons as to why nature is such an effective therapy locale; some theories include the idea that the wilderness can be a humbling place, allowing teens to experience vulnerability, or that the wilderness is free of distractions of the modern world [source: Russell et al.]. There are many wilderness programs available, so parents should do their homework to ensure that a program is reputable and appropriate for their teen.


3: Consider Long-term Residential Placements

Residential programs for your out-of-control teen may be necessary to protect the other children in the home.

Sometimes, out-of-control teens shouldn't stay in their homes. It may be beneficial for them -- and for their parents and siblings -- to be placed in a residential program. Options abound for long-term residencies, including boarding schools, military-style or religion-based schools and treatment centers that focus on issues such as drug and alcohol abuse. Parents should expect to conduct quite a bit of research before deciding on a placement. The quality of these programs can vary widely, unfortunately, and some programs that take a "tough love" approach have been criticized after teens were injured or killed. Parents might want to retain an educational consultant who specializes in these programs to aid in the selection.



2: Stop Looking for Shortcuts

In this article, we've talked about therapists, residential placements and wilderness programs -- and families on a budget might be getting nervous. It's true that programs for troubled teens can get quite expensive, but unfortunately, trying to take shortcuts that make things cheaper or quicker won't work. Parents can't necessarily pick the least expensive residential program for just a few weeks and think everything will be better. And though it may be expensive, parents should seriously consider working with educational consultants and lawyers when trying to decide on an out-of-the-home program. Consultants are trained to find the right program for troubled teens, while lawyers may be able to get the teen's school district to cover some of the costs of alternative education. Parents shouldn't expect to have instant peace just because they've sent a troubled teen away, either. Many programs require hard work from the parents as well, including family therapy and parenting classes. It may seem like you've been walking this hard road forever, but dig in -- the journey is not over yet.


1: Don't Give Up

You may be mad, but you'll always be her mom.
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Out-of-control teenagers aren't pleasant to be around. They say rude, nasty things to their parents and cause the people around them interminable grief and heartbreak. Though it may seem like you've lost your beloved child forever, don't give up. Let your child know that you'll always love him or her, and you'll always be there. Parents may need to seek out a support group of others who've been through the same thing; not only will other parents have helpful advice, but they'll help you realize that you're not alone. Jettison those people in your life that want only to blame you for your teen's actions or question your methods, and take it one day at a time.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Brown, Erika. "Taming Your Troubled Teen." Forbes. Oct. 14, 2002.
  • Dineen, Janice. "Forcing Kids to Face the Consequences." Toronto Star. May 21, 1991.
  • Dunnewind, Stephanie. "Support network eases problems for parents of out-of-control teens." Seattle Times. Jan. 21, 2003. (Jan. 19, 2011)http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20030104&slug=changemain04
  • Hutten, Mark. My Out of Control Teen Web site. (Jan. 19, 2011)http://www.myoutofcontrolteen.com/
  • Johnston, Hugh F. "Disruptive Behavioral Disorders." Merck Manuals. April 2009. (Jan. 19, 2011)http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/print/sec19/ch300/ch300g.html
  • Maxym, Carol and Leslie B. York. "Teens in Turmoil." Viking. 2000.
  • Rimer, Sara. "Desperate Measures: Embattled Parents Seek Help, at Any Cost." New York Times. Sept. 10, 2001. (Jan. 19, 2011)http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E00E4DC1738F933A2575AC0A9679C8B63
  • Russell, Keith C., John C. Hendee and Dianne Phillips Miller. "How Wilderness Therapy Works: An Examination of the Wilderness Therapy Process to Treat Adolescents with Behavioral Problems and Addictions." College of Natural Resources at the University of Idaho. Nov. 29, 1999. (Jan. 19, 2011)http://www.cnr.uidaho.edu/wrc/publications/montana1.pdf
  • Szalavitz, Maia. "The Trouble with Troubled Teen Programs." Reason. Dec. 28, 2006. (Jan. 19, 2011)http://reason.com/archives/2006/12/28/the-trouble-with-troubled-teen
  • Teubner, Nellene. "Home Grown Anger." Orange County Register. April 6, 2001.