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Teenage Troubles: Addressing the Unique Treatment Needs of Adolescents

Teen angst is something every now-adult experienced at some point in their youth. The drama-filled teen years seem like a small challenge to those who survived them in generations past and have since moved on to the realities of adulthood. Today, teens face a much more complex social landscape, with blurry boundaries and situations that are less straightforward than they appear on the surface, making it even more difficult for their adult counterparts to relate. Technology and accessibility amplify the power — as well as the consequences — inherent in even the smallest decisions. Never before has the gap between parents and teens been so wide in terms of their understanding of social norms and expectations, and with many adults waiting longer and longer to have children, this gap is growing. Catching adults up while slowing their teens down can seem like an impossible task for families to accomplish, but identifying and curbing risky behavior is paramount.

The Life of a Teenager

The lingua franca between parents and teens can seem more like a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy than a shared understanding of the often very adult experiences teenagers today are faced with regularly. From a seemingly innocuous social media post that unexpectedly goes viral to the ability to access, create, upload or download every form of digital content, the time bomb is often counting down before parents and their teenagers even know one exists. Yesterday’s youth learned cursive, while today’s youth learns to program skills far more advanced than most adults’ understanding of digital technology. With limited legal precedent, the click of a button can ruin the lives of unwitting perpetrators, their victims, and both families in short order. Cyberbullying, substance use, sexual exploitation, complicated identity issues, digital access to money and transportation, and limited ability for parents to supervise these events without risking social isolation for their children, makes being a modern teenager different from any generation that came before them. Overstimulation, depression, and exposure to others’ substance use and mental health issues (whether through friends or family) are also major issues teens face today. Finding a way around it isn’t real, but finding a way through it is, and is something every family should focus on.

When to Seek Counseling or Other Treatment

If the teen has a substance use problem or suffers from another diagnosed mental health issue, seeking treatment may be an obvious course of action. However, there are many less obvious reasons to seek some form of treatment or counseling. Those who have become victims of cyberbullying or are being sexually exploited, or perhaps tragically both, may not openly disclose these experiences with parents or others close to them. An increase in risky behavior with an unknown catalyst is a warning sign that it may be time to seek professional help. Other important considerations include the complex cultural and gender identity issues that many teens face today. A growing obesity trend among all age groups and the prevalent practice of altering photographs to an unattainable level of perfection make body image and self-esteem equally important identity issues. While positive and inclusion are key messages that have garnered greater social acceptance in recent years, it is unfair to assume that all young people live in communities where they feel they will be accepted or which recognize that what they see on TV and in magazines is not real. Important talking points for your teen:

  • Gender identity issues
  • Obesity and body image
  • Personal Identity and self-image

Addressing personal identity and self-image issues can be difficult, especially if family, cultural, or religious beliefs counter who the teen believes they might be. Keeping an open mind and finding a counseling program designed specifically for these types of issues can help create dialog, avoid alienation, and educate everyone involved.

Sharing Responsibility

In some instances, the real issue may simply be a communication breakdown between parents and their children. Parents should not ignore the fact that they most likely cannot directly relate to the challenges their teen faces at school or in social settings and may benefit from individual or group counseling with their teenager to help them become better informed. Once parents understand the unique difficulties that today’s teens face, it becomes easier to identify problems, select a course of treatment, and convince your teen to willingly participate. For parents with their own substance use or mental health issues, it can be difficult to focus on what challenges their teen may be experiencing. This includes emotional trauma that the parent’s struggle might be causing their teen. Understanding how parental behavior is affecting the teen, and giving equal priority to the need for both to seek treatment, can be a critical factor in keeping young people from making similar bad decisions now and in the future. It can be extremely hard for teens to show respect for parents who they feel have let them down, and family counseling can provide a way to mend those relationships.

The Needs of Modern Families

There is a growing trend toward grandparents raising grandchildren. This can happen because one or both parents are incarcerated or otherwise unfit, complex immigration issues keep families separated, or any number of other reasons. While informal kinship families are no longer rare, they can sometimes further increase the knowledge gap between teens and their primary caregivers. Combined with the emotional trauma of an absent parent and the perceived option for these informal families to potentially reject the teen at some point, the everyday challenges that teenagers face may seem insurmountable in their own eyes. Helping them address fears of abandonment and other emotions they might be experiencing, while easing the stigma that can come with having a non-traditional family situation, can be accomplished through individual, group, or experiential therapy techniques. Blended families can and should treat these fears as a family issue, not as individual issues. = Addressing the concerns of the caregiver and the teen to build trust between the two can ensure further abandonment does not happen. By helping the teen understand the significance of the caregiver’s sacrifice, families can potentially avoid high-risk behaviors and bad decisions that can lead to additional problems. Likewise, helping caregivers who didn’t necessarily plan to parent a teen understand the complex emotional issues they are experiencing in their daily life may improve communication and ease tensions.

Finding the Right Program

Regardless of the familial relationship structure, finding a course of treatment that meets the specific needs of the teenager and their situation is incredibly important. Just like adults, adolescents must play an active role in order for counseling or other techniques to be effective. Experiential therapy can be beneficial for teens, as well as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), motivational interviewing (MI), and brief interventions (BIs). All of these techniques focus to some degree on increasing impulse control, enhancing emotional intelligence, and improving communication and decision-making skills. A professional evaluation can help families determine the best course of action and find an affordable solution that meets their individualized needs. This is especially important if substance use or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse is suspected, as more intensive types of treatment may be necessary. Early detection and prevention of mental health and substance use issues are critical to avoiding potentially life-long consequences.