Talking With Your Troubled Teen? Keep These Tips In Mind

April 30, 2020

Parenting a teenager is never easy, even during the best of times. As the COVID-19 pandemic marches across the globe, it is certainly reasonable to say that these are not the best of times. Throughout the majority of the United States, most states have enacted stay at home orders and outlined social distancing guidelines in an effort to slow and control the rapid spread of COVID-19. Stay at home orders, while beneficial and necessary to help maintain the health of our families and those around us, have resulted in families being home together more than ever before. Teens who usually are out with friends, playing sports, working, or participating in after school activities are now home all day, every day. This can undoubtedly be challenging for some parent-teen relationships.

As a parent of a teen, it is not abnormal to feel frustration over failed attempts to communicate with your teen. There are sometimes fights which feel endless, open acts of defiance and of course moodiness and intense emotional ups and downs. Maintaining stable and comfortable relationships with your teen can be challenging. It can help to remember that teens are wired differently than adults (and their younger siblings). A teenager’s brain is still actively developing, and therefore it processes information differently than that of a mature adult. The frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain used to manage emotions, make decisions, reason, and control inhibitions, is restructured during the teenage years. During this restructuring, new synapses are formed at a very rapid rate. The entire brain does not reach full maturity until sometime in our mid-twenties.

Another aspect of teenage communication to remember is that teens read emotions and facial expressions differently than adults. Adults use their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain still developing in teens) to read emotional cues, whereas teens rely on the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions. For this reason, teens often misread facial expressions and assume someone is exhibiting an emotion they are not.

Talking with your teen can be challenging. It is sometimes difficult to understand the underlying reasons for their emotions or their anger. It can also be challenging to get them even to want to talk to you at all, regardless of whether they are happy or sad. Being home together all day can add to these challenges. It is not uncommon for teens to want to be anywhere but with their parents or to talk with anyone other than their parents. Unfortunately, due to stay at home orders, this is currently not a possibility. But how do you know the difference between “normal” teenage behavior and that of a troubled teen? Now that you are home with your teen so much more, you are likely seeing an array of behaviors that perhaps you did not see before. Before being able to open the lines of communication, it may be helpful to briefly review what typical teen behavior versus behavior that may be more concerning is.

Typical Teen Behavior vs. Troubled Teen Behavior

Changing Appearance

Typical teens generally feel it is important to keep up with fashion. This may mean wearing provocative or attention-seeking clothing, experimenting with makeup, or dying their hair. Unless these trends result in your teen taking an interest in something that could be harmful to them, it may be beneficial to let this change go. Fashion trends change, and your teen is likely to want to change with them.

If your teens changing appearance is accompanied by problems at school or other negative changes in behavior, then this could be a warning sign that something deeper is troubling your teen. Evidence of cutting (or other self-harm) or extreme weight fluctuations are also warning signs.

Increased arguments and rebellious behavior

Now that you are home with your teen more than you may have been before, you may “see” more of these changes come to light. Typical teens, as they begin to seek independence, will frequently butt heads and argue with the adults in their households. You are likely experiencing this more during the stay at home orders as your family tries to adjust to this new normal.

If your teen is constantly escalating arguments, becoming violent at home, or having run-ins with the law, it is a red flag that you need to monitor more carefully.

Mood swings

Hormones and developmental changes are part of normal teen development. This means your teen will experiences mood swings, irritable behavior, and sometimes have difficulty regulating their emotions.

If your teen is experiencing rapid changes in personality, persistent sadness or depression, frequent anxiety, or sleep problems, it could be indicative of an emotional health issue. If your teen is talking about or you are concerned, they are displaying suicidal ideations; this needs to be taken very seriously.

Experimenting with alcohol or drugs

Whether parents like it or not, most teens will try alcohol and/or smoke a cigarette at some point. Many will even try marijuana. Being open and having frank discussions with your teen about drugs and alcohol is one way to help ensure it doesn’t progress further than a one time try.

When alcohol or drug use becomes habitual, especially when it is accompanied by other behavioral or emotional problems, it may indicate a substance abuse issue or other underlying problems.

Keep in mind that whatever problems your teen may be experiencing, it is absolutely not a sign that you have somehow failed as a parent. Instead of trying to assign or place blame for the situation, focus on your teen’s current needs. The first step in that focus is to find a way to connect with them. Remember, teenagers often express themselves their behavior rather than words, so communication can and will likely be challenging and require patience and a bit of persistence.

Connecting with Your Troubled Teen

It may seem unbelievable given your teen’s anger or indifference towards you, but teens still crave (and need) love, approval, and acceptance from their parents. Positive face-to-face connection is one of the quickest ways to reduce stress as it helps to calm the mind and focus the nervous system. Because of this, being able to communicate directly with your teen when they need you, can be very influential on their emotional state.

Opening the Lines of Communication

Check your stress levels

First, you need to be aware of your own stress levels. If your goal is to help alleviate or reduce stress and anxiety for your teen, it will not be possible if your own emotions are not in check. If you are angry or upset, it is not the time to try and communicate with your teen. Wait until you are calm before starting the conversation. Depending on the situation, you are likely to need all of the patience and positive energy available to you.

Just be there

Although an offer to chat with your teen or have breakfast together before working or schooling from home will probably be answered with a dismissive response, try anyway. It is essential to show that you are available even when they feel they do not want or need you to be. Insist on sitting down for meals as a family with no TV, phones, or other distractions. When you speak, look directly at your teen, so they know you are communicating with them. Try not to get frustrated or angry if your efforts are not reciprocated or if your teen’s response is little more than monosyllabic grunts or shrugs. There may be a lot of silent dinners, but when the time comes that your teen wants or needs to open up, they know you are there, and they have the opportunity to do so.

Find some common ground

Again, this is not the time to offer your opinion on their appearance or their clothing choices. That is likely a very efficient way to trigger a heated and nonproductive argument. Instead, find something you can connect about, such as sports or movies. The objective here is not to be your teens best friend but to find some things you share a common interest in that you can discuss in a peaceful (and maybe even fun) manner. Once you have been able to communicate this way, your teen may feel more comfortable opening up about other topics or things they are concerned about.

Just listen

This can be one of the hardest parts to communication with your troubled teen. It is difficult to sit and listen without judging or giving advice. As parents providing advice or “been there, done that” suggestions are part of the job description. However, when your teen does open up to you, it is vital that you listen without judging, interrupting, mocking, criticizing, or offering up advice. Your teen wants to know you are listening, and they want to feel understood. If you are talking, you are not listening. So, keep your eyes focused on your teen, even when they are not looking at you. Don’t check your phone, don’t answer calls; just be there as the sounding board that they need.

Expect and accept rejection

No matter how hard or often you try, your teen may often respond to your attempts to connect with irritation, anger, or other negative reactions such as slamming shut the bedroom door in your face. Stay relaxed and allow them the space they need to cool off. Give conversation a try again later when everyone is calm. Making a successful connection with your teen will take time and effort. Oddly, this is likely more so the case now when you are always home together, and your teen feels as though you are always “in their business.” Try and maintain patience and understanding.  When the time is right, the conversation will happen.

It’s OK to Seek Professional Help

Most troubled teens benefit from some type of professional help when it comes to identifying the underlying reasons for their feelings as well as assistance in finding healthy ways to deal with their emotions and associated triggers. Getting help for your troubled teen early on is far more successful than waiting until problems get worse or out of control.

For some parents, this is the most difficult step to take. Parents commonly feel as though reaching out for help is a sign of weakness or failure as a parent. Nothing could be further from the truth. The advantages of seeking professional help for your troubled teen at a facility such as Hillcrest far outweigh choosing to go it alone. Residential facilities like Hillcrest have years of combined experience helping families like you and your teen figure out the reasons why your teen is acting out. We also provide many years of combined clinical expertise and experience in identifying which clinical interventions are likely to be the most effective and supportive for your teen and your family during these challenging times.

Silent Treatment - Troubled Teen - Hillcrest

Making a choice to seek residential care for your troubled teen may be one of the most difficult decisions you will make as a parent regarding the health of your child. Although likely one of the best treatment options, residential treatment takes your child out of your household and often away from what they consider normal. This can be traumatizing for not only your teen but for your family as well. At Hillcrest, we will help your teen and your family through this difficult process. Once your teens stay with us is over, we will work with your family to help ensure your teen’s transition back home is as successful as possible through helping to arrange post-treatment care and any outpatient therapy arrangements.

If the stay at home orders associated with COVID-19 have resulted in your identifying red flag or warning behaviors in your teen, it could be time to seek professional treatment for your teen. At Hillcrest, we are here to help when you decide the time is right.