Programs for Struggling Teens: Ideal Features- Part IV This Emotional Life - PBS

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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.

Programs for Struggling Teens: Ideal Features- Part IV


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The professional literature on adolescent development and programs for struggling teens suggests that, ideally, programs should have a number of key features.  These principles should underpin any efforts to help struggling teens and their families along every point in the continuum of care, including initial assessment, crisis intervention, home-based services, community-based counseling, alternative community-based education, mentoring, drug and truancy courts, wilderness therapy programs, emotional growth boarding schools, therapeutic boarding schools, and residential psychiatric treatment.  Parents of struggling teens, and the professionals who work with them, should seek to identify programs that embrace these principles, in addition to those presented in Parts I and III (principles 1-8).

Principle 9. Optimum challenge is important. The professional literature notes that an optimum level of challenge—not too much and not too little—pushes and provides opportunity for growth but does not overwhelm.  Hence, programs and schools that seek to break the teen’s will in order to build the teen back up are not supported by the literature.  Nor are programs and schools that have unnecessarily low expectations.  A program’s or school’s expectations must be realistically calibrated to the individual teen’s intellectual, academic, social, emotional, and physical abilities.  A one-size-fits-all level of challenge most certainly cannot fit every teen’s unique constellation of needs.

 Principle 10. Interventions should be based primarily on therapeutic approaches for which there is evidence of effectiveness. Some forms of therapy have stronger supporting evidence than others.  Parents of struggling teens, and the professionals who work with them, should favor programs that draw explicitly on relevant research evidence rather than relying on leaps of faith in interventions for which there is little or no empirical evidence.

 Principle 11. Schools and programs should address teens unique clinical, religious, cultural, and sexual orientation needs. Some schools and programs wisely offer specialized services—counseling, special education, behavior management—tailored to each teenager’s needs. However, other schools and programs use a single model with every youth.  These programs—for example, some “character education” boarding schools—may assume a doctrinaire approach based on a firm belief that its model is best for everyone.  Staffers in these programs discourage criticism or critical questions from parents or others about the goodness-of-fit between the program’s approach and their teen’s specific needs.  If the model is not working, staffers claim that it is because of the “bad attitude” of the teen or parents or lack of cooperation.

Programs and schools also need to support teens’ cultural and religious practices. Some teens who are members of ethnic, cultural, or religious minority groups may not feel comfortable in programs and schools where there are no or few other teens like them. Further, programs and schools need to be sensitive to and support teens’ sexual orientation and gender identity.  Teenagers who feel out of place may not benefit fully from the services available because of the extra burden of isolation and differentness. Staffers may be actively, purposefully, passively, or unintentionally unresponsive to a teen’s religious, ethnic, cultural, or sexual orientation and gender identity needs.

 Principle 12. Schools and programs should treat parents and guardians as equal members of the collaborative team.  Parents and guardians have a great deal to contribute to the assessment of teens’ needs and interventions; they can be crucial colleagues on the intervention team.  Program and school staffers should contact parents and guardians routinely and when promised, respond to telephone and e-mail messages (within reason), keep parents and guardians regularly informed about teens’ progress, and treat parents and guardians with respect.  Some parents may feel so alienated, hurt, angry, or disempowered that they withdraw from their child and need to be nurtured back into more active involvement.  Others may be enmeshed or over-involved with their child and need affirmation and support in their efforts to give the teen more space.  Either way, parents tend to know the child and the family history well and are invaluable resources.