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Adolescence / Blog

 Frederic Reamer Ph.D.

Frederic Reamer Ph.D.'s Bio

Dr. Reamer is a professor in the Graduate Social Work Program at Rhode Island College.

Finding Services and Programs


Programs and services for struggling teens can be found in many ways.  Parents can start by contacting school personnel (for example, guidance counselors, social workers, student adjustment counselors, administrators), community-based family service agencies, mental health centers, neighborhood centers, other social service programs designed specifically for at-risk youths and their families, public child welfare agencies, family and juvenile courts, specialty courts (such as truancy and drug courts), and clergy.  Some communities provide structured programs that offer families comprehensive assessment, evaluation, information, referral, and case management.  These programs help parents decide what kinds of help they need, where to find that help, and how to coordinate the various helpers’ efforts.

The professionals who work in these various settings can be helpful in different ways.  Mental health providers (for example, clinical social workers, psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses) can help parents and struggling teens improve their communication skills, resolve conflicts, learn how to understand one another better, and identify and address challenging mental health issues (for example, depression, anxiety, ADHD).  It is important to choose a mental health provider who has at least a master’s degree, a professional license, and experience with the issues the family is facing.  It is crucial that family members feel comfortable with the mental health provider.

Educational advocates and educational consultants may be able to help parents and teens obtain needed services.  Educational advocates, who are often attorneys, help people obtain specialized educational services from the local public school system.  Educational advocates charge parents a fee and work with local, state, and federal education officials to ensure that students receive the services and “special accommodations” to which they are entitled by law. Advocates may file claims in court to force school districts to provide or pay for special-needs services and programs outside the school district.  They may attend meetings at school to represent the parents’ and teen’s points of view when school personnel meet to develop an individualized education program (IEP) that addresses the struggling teen’s special education needs.

In contrast, educational consultants – who may be specially trained social workers, psychologists, or educators – help parents locate programs, services, and specialty schools designed to meet their child’s needs.  Educational consultants specialize in working with parents who have a struggling teen; charge parents a fee; assess each teen’s unique strengths and needs; and help the family find the most appropriate services, schools, or programs.  Many educational consultants monitor the student’s progress in the new program or school and, when necessary, advocate for the teen with that program or school when challenging issues arise.

Often parents do not have the money to purchase services from an educational advocate or consultant.  On occasion, those services might be available through public or private child welfare agencies.  For example, a social worker in a private family service agency where the family is receiving counseling may be willing to go with the parents to a child’s IEP meeting at school to help the parents assert their points of view.  Perhaps this private agency uses a sliding-fee scale or has a grant that provides this service free of charge.  A social worker in a state public child welfare agency may be able to help parents by sharing his or her professional experience with schools and programs for struggling teens.  Some communities have tax- or grant-funded programs that provide educational advocates to work with low-income parents who need support negotiating with schools to get their child’s needs met.

Also, other parents who have been through similar experiences with their own children and have personal experience with IEP meetings may be able to provide informal help as educational advocates for other families.  Sometimes, a veteran parent will attend IEP meetings with a family in need, offering a shoulder to lean on and another pro-child voice in the conversation.  Clergy, friends, even one of the teen’s former teachers also could play this role.  Sometimes parents feel intimidated, outnumbered, voiceless, overwhelmed, or disempowered in an IEP meeting.  Having an “outsider” at their side may help parents more effectively present their points of view in the meeting and, later, process what was said during the meeting.

In many communities, the local Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) office may make available experienced parents of youths with learning differences and special needs to provide advocacy advice and support to other parents.  Support from experienced parents also can be obtained from parenting networks found in many communities.

Parents need to know that, for financial reasons, school systems and agencies may be reluctant to agree to provide or pay for the services that a child needs, which can be very expensive.  Hence, parents and their advocates may need to be assertive.  Parents, understandably, may become disheartened and angry when school departments and agencies claim the teen does not need a specialized service or program that parents and other professionals are certain the child does need.  Sometimes an advocate can help parents argue their case and maneuver through bureaucratic obstacles more effectively.