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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.

Parenting a Struggling Teen: Thinking Beyond the Crisis


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Understandably, parents of struggling teens often are preoccupied with immediate crises.  When teens spin out of control at home, in school, or in the community, parents need to respond quickly: Do we intervene this time or do we let our child go under and experience the consequences, so she or he learns a lesson?  Of course, in the face of crises, it can be hard to take the long view and appreciate how complex and slow the process of change can be.  In the heat of the moment, parents may feel intense pressure to figure out immediately how to get their child reinstated in school following a suspension, bailed out of a juvenile detention facility, admitted to a substance abuse treatment program or residential treatment center, or transported to a remotely located wilderness therapy program.

It may help, however, for parents to realize that the change process often is more like a marathon than a sprint.  Over time – usually considerable time – many struggling teens make significant process, especially if their parents and the professionals in their lives are able to locate constructive and effective services, programs, and schools.  The pace of progress varies tremendously among teens; some move in the right direction more quickly than others.  For some teens, the path is filled with fits and starts and quite a few speed bumps and detours.  For others, the path is more linear and smooth.  Wise parents realize that much of what happens on the path is out of their control; they simply do the best they can to provide the right supports and environment – scaffolding, if you will – to enable their child to progress as much and as quickly as possible.

Parents of struggling teens sometimes hope for the miracle “cure.”  They hope that the very next therapist, school, or program will be just what the doctor ordered and will fix the problem.  Realistically, however, we know that teenagers facing serious emotional, behavioral, social, and academic challenges often require years to experience significant change.

Part of the challenge is to provide the right kind of support to struggling teens while their brains mature, particularly the frontal lobe, which is responsible for the ability to learn from consequences and executive function, a cluster of high-order capacities that are especially important during adolescence and include selective attention, behavioral planning and impulse control, and the manipulation of information in problem-solving tasks.  Adolescents whose brains are not fully developed and have difficulty with executive function are more likely to experience emotional difficulties (for example, aggression, mood swings, suicidal ideation), risk-taking and impulsive behaviors (for example, alcohol and drug use, unprotected sex), attention problems (for example, distractibility, poor academic planning), and compulsive behaviors (for example, alcohol and drug abuse, self-mutilation, eating disorders, preoccupation with appearance).  Thus, an important task with struggling teens is to place them in protected, supervised settings that can contain their inappropriate, impulsive, destructive, and counterproductive behaviors, keeping them safe during this critical period of brain development.  As the brain matures, many struggling teens show evidence of improved judgment, better impulse control, more stable moods, and more appropriate behavior.  Clearly, patience – a great deal of patience – is a virtue for parents of struggling teens.  Keeping one eye on the long-range plan while the other eye is focused on the immediate crisis may help parents weather the acute and chronic storms.