Some teenagers are model citizens. This article is not about them. This article is about those teens who are acting out – the ones who talk back to their parents, dosage swear at them, act aggressively when upset, have no respect for rules or curfews, do what they want when they want, engage in addictive, destructive, illegal or immoral behavior and otherwise distress their well-meaning parents terribly. It is also about those teens who are “acting in” – those with depression, eating disorders, cutting behaviors and other self-destructive patterns. All of these children frighten, worry and dismay their parents. Why do they behave this way? What can parents do about it?
Many out-of-control teens trigger out-of-control behavior in their parents. Because of their intense fear, hurt and helplessness, many parents of out-of-control teens become enraged and display their own version of temper tantrum behavior. In an effort to regain control, some dole out irrational negative consequences like “life-long” loss of privileges or “life-long” grounding. Even if they manage to use more reasonable consequences, many use too many or make them too intense for the crime. The result is a very negative relationship in which the adolescent loses all motivation to please the parent or cooperate in any way. The troubled relationship actually fuels more adolescent pain and more troubled behaviors. The last thing a struggling adolescent needs is an out-of-control parent.
How to Help Troubled Teens
The first step for parents it to maintain total control over THEMSELVES. Parents should let their adolescents know that they are starting a SELF-improvement program: no more yelling, tantrumming, insulting or other disrespectful behaviors. The parent will remove all behaviors from his or her own repetoire that would be unacceptable if the teen engaged in that behavior. For instance, if the parents want the teen to stop yelling, the parent will work on removing yelling from his or her own behavior (the same applies for any other similar behavior such as, unpleasant tone of voice, nasty facial expressions, unkind words, stomping & slamming, etc.). After a month of working on his or her own behavior, the parent can begin to help the teen make similar changes using a similar technique. The teen may be inspired by the model of the parnts. The parents have shown their own willingness to help make things better and they have shown that they can be successful. The teen may be more willing to get with the program when the parents have led the way.
The self-improvement program works like this: the parents promise themselves and their child that each unacceptable parental outburst will be followed by a parental consequence. For instance, when a parent yells, he or she can immediately sit down to write a page of lines to the effect of “I can control myself even if I feel upset.” or “I speak respectfully at all times even when I am upset” and so on. After the first week or two of this consequence, the parent increases his or her lines to two sides (one full page, both sides) and after three or four weeks, to three sides, continuing to make increases until all unacceptable parental behavior stops. If it starts up again at a later date, even months or years later, the parent begins the consequence system again.
Another equally important strategy for parents is to lay the foundation for adolescent change. They can do this by practicing the 90-10 Rule. This rule states that 9 out of 10 parental communications need to feel pleasant to the child. Pleasant feeling communications include things like smiles, compliments, weather reports, gifts, treats, jokes, gentle touch (if wanted), interesting neutral conversation, acknowledgement, good quality listening, naming feelings, having pleasant interactions with other family members within earshot of the teen and so on. One out of 10 communications can be “business-oriented” such as giving instructions, making requests, setting a boundary (using discipline if necessary). When the 90-10 Rule is followed, teenagers automatically become calmer and more cooperative, less rebellious and more interested in pleasing. Their own emotional difficulties settle down a bit. They even cooperate more with discipline when it is required.
More Help for Out-of-Control Teens
Parents can be empathetic toward teens without accepting their abusive behavior. Once parents have brought their own behavior under control, they must insist that their teens work on theirs as well. They will live by the rule “I only give and accept respectful communication” (“I do not give nor do I accept disrespectful communication.”) Using quiet, respectful discipline, the parent can invite the teen to create appropriate consequences for behaving in disrespectful ways.
Troubled teens may really benefit from and appreciate other interventions. Bach Flower Therapy is a harmless treatment that can reduce anger, stress, anxiety, hurt, loneliness, despair, depression and all other painful emotions. Both parents and teens can use this form of treatment to help clear and heal the troubled feelings that prompt out-of-control behaviors. You can find more information on Bach Flower Therapy online and throughout this site.
Professional help can be of tremendous benefit to both parents and teens as well. Even if the adolescent refuses to go to therapy, parents will find that the support and strategies offered by a mental health professional can make a huge difference in their family life.
These are some of the ways we can begin to help our hurting kids. Remember that you are the adult – you must show the way. Patience and love will help a lot. Keep envisioning your troubled teen moving through and beyond these years to a very positive outcome. This optimistic picture wilil help you survive the turbulent times and do your best when it is hardest. It will counteract the anxiety that causes you to over-react or “forget” good parenting skills. The truth is that most kids turn around at some point and become very pleasant, well-adjusted adults – just like you!