How Boys Learn Best

Top Five Warning Signs Teenagers Send When They Are Struggling

By John DeVries, MS

Even healthy, well-adjusted teens go through mood and behavioral changes, whether it is in personality or in relationships.  But how do you determine when these changes are becoming truly problematic? 

Within a family, it is often easy to get caught up in small issues that are irritating, but have little long-term impact on our teens.  We need to learn how to assess our child’s level of struggle and determine what is considered a core (root) problem and what might only be a symptom.   As parents we want to make sure that we are addressing the right issues by getting to the root of the problem, and not just cutting away at the branches and only dealing with the symptoms.

Here are five strong signals that our kids will send to us when the pressure of the world around them is challenging their roots and they are becoming unsteady:

1.  Withdrawing From Family and Friends

Root Issue:  Guilt, shame and lack of open and accepting communications with family members.

When a young person desires independence, the family must somehow deal with that request.  If parents are unwilling or unable to adapt to these expectations, the family will probably experience increased levels of stress and even more distancing.  To deal with the developmental changes that are occurring in the life of an adolescent, balanced families will allow for autonomy, whereas extreme families will resist change.

For many reasons, teens that are struggling will distance themselves from their best support. Often guilt and shame push them into isolation and secrecy. They know what they are involved in is unacceptable to the beliefs and practices of the family, so they distance themselves, avoiding the need to explain or defend the disparity between actual behavior and expectations.

To combat this slide away from the family, parents need to find ways to build cohesion through improved communication and activities that connect members of the family. Positive communication skills include sending clear and congruent messages, showing empathy, using supportive statements, and practicing effective problem-solving skills. Parents that build structure, routine, and positive communication skills into their families are more able to adapt and flex under the pressure of a distant teen.

2. Spending Time with New Friends with Questionable Behavior

Root Issue:  Lack of perceived recognition and acceptance from family.

Acceptance builds healthy soil for growth of deep powerful roots through self-confidence.  When parental leadership becomes too strict or erratic, teens will often seek outside support.  They will become increasingly attracted to other teens that are more rebellious. They may even become obsessed with keeping these new friends happy or showing them how much they can be like them.  It can show up in the form of less commitment to school (loss of normally higher grades), increased “sick” days, being late to school or skipping classes.  This can often be the beginning of substance misuse and the teen trying other risky behaviors that are new to them but not to their newfound friends.

This struggle is difficult because while parents feel compelled to set ever increasingly restrictive boundaries, the teen interprets these new limitations as a lack of acceptance and greater proof that their parental authority must be challenged.  It is a unique bind that can become more restricting and damaging to the overall relationship because it is natural for parents to “over control” when they are feeling “out of control.”  The point is, don’t just put the squeeze on your teen.  Instead, work on opening up your communications and find new ways to give him or her more freedom in healthy ways.  They may not be the same ways your teen is requesting (which can be negative), but work hard on finding ways to give them positive outlets, one step at a time, to curb their appetite for more freedom.

In order to slow the mounting tensions within the home, parents may want to seek counseling support to gain some perspective on their unique situation and learn better ways to communicate with their teen.  A counselor can help the parents better understand what is going on and how to defuse the situation.  At the beginning stages of this struggle, it is often better to attend counseling without the teen, in order to gain some guidance without the tension of the teen being in the room or the challenge of bringing him/her into therapy.

Forcing therapy on an oppositional teen often results in greater distancing because he or she resents being seen as the “patient” or the problem.  However, if parents are unable to curb the trajectory of the teen’s negative behavior through improved parenting skills, it often becomes necessary to increase the intervention and include the teen in therapy.  Outpatient therapy would be a first step. If that fails, placement in a secure residential setting may be called for, as this would allow teens some space to look at themselves and identify issues without the distraction of home life and the influences of their familiar peers.

3.  Lying is Becoming Routine

Root Issue:  Lack of trust by the teen in how their parents will react to the truth.

Lying about significant issues damages the connection between parent and teen and greatly impairs the parents’ ability to help their teen through life.  Without honesty, it is almost impossible for parents to provide effective direction and support or leadership within their family.  And, of course, this is the teenager’s purpose in lying — to provide a distraction from effective intervention, enabling them to continue their destructive behavior and attitudes unchecked. When parents don’t get the right information, they both feel slighted and become fearful for their teen.

When your teen lies, you start to see them as “sneaky” and you lose trust. Even so, parents need to be careful not to give their teenager’s lies too much power.  Find other ways to get to the truth.  This takes more work, but it is vital.  If you have a teen that believes they can get power over you by telling you a lie, they’ll use dishonesty as a tool to get even more power.  They’ll withhold information and lie by omission when you’re trying to get to the truth. They’ll give you little pieces of information, and that makes them feel powerful.  If your teen is being dishonest, explain how honesty is the one thing that helps you give them freedom and more power, while dishonesty does quite the opposite.  Help them to understand that trust is gained over time and through consistent truthfulness, while that trust can vanish for a time with even one instance of untruthfulness. An make sure they know that being truthful is always the best route — it leads to lesser consequences than if the teen is also caught in a lie or a coverup.

It is important for you as the parent to build trust in the home.  A good place to start building truth within the home is through the consistency of your own rules.  Teens thrive when they understand the rules of the game.  It hurts their trust in you when new rules pop up without their previous knowledge, or rules are changed.  They need consistency, especially when their attitude and behavior is anything but predictable and stable.  Don’t get trapped playing the role of detective in regard to what they have done.  Instead, if an issue of impropriety arises, expect your teen to prove their innocence rather than you proving their guilt. Follow through on consequences and expect clarity in communication from your teen.

4.  Displays Extreme Mood Swings

Root Problem:  Lack of self-awareness and emotional discipline.

Teens tend to bring their problems home with them. If your teen seems to have developed a terrible attitude at home, it may be that they are simply comfortable venting their frustrations at home, not to authorities at school, which is a good thing! If they are being belligerent at school as well, that is a more serious issue and there might be something behind it such as stress, depression, lack of sleep, hormones, substance misuse, or anxiety. These often manifest themselves through talking back, inappropriate language, or sarcasm.  As long as your teen is displaying his or her bad attitude at home only, a wise parent will try to keep it in check but not give it too much credence or concern. It hurts because it seems like an attack on you as a parent, but it is just an emotionally immature phase and a way for your teen to release steam. However, if it is happening outside of the home and affecting your child’s relationships, then that is another matter altogether and must be dealt with.

Extreme mood swings can make it really difficult to deal with a teenager.  One minute they can be happy and loving and the next ranting and argumentative.  Explosive arguments between parent and teen are often a result of misunderstanding and miscommunication, or they can be extended by a parent feeling slighted by the teen when the teen had no such intent to be disrespectful.  Make sure you pick your arguments wisely and also apologize to your teen if you got overheated, so they understand what is inappropriate and how to apologize if they step over the line.

As parents we might not understand our teenagers, but often teens don’t really understand themselves either.  This problem can be tough. Parents will inadvertently focus on the symptoms, the actions, and the actual emotion.  They will try to help extinguish the outbursts, but fail to understand the root cause.  They may inadvertently build up walls and cause the teen to stop interacting with them altogether if they fail to be a safe place for the teen to vent.

If you are at a loss what to do, don’t be afraid to consult others.  Find out if your teen is acting the same to authorities at school.  If not, then their outbursts are not so much of an issue.  Teachers, friends, and others can help when trying to gain a deeper perspective and appreciation for the root cause of the emotional outbursts.  Don’t simply chop away at the branches trying to get them to dampen down their frustration in the moment.  Use consequences as a tool to stop inappropriate behavior, not for emotional outbursts, since the emotional teen may not even realize why they had an outburst. Using consequences in this case will do no good and lead to even more frustration.

Figure out where the outbursts are coming from and what issues are causing these moods, and attack them with strategy.  Ask your teen relevant questions that help uncover and open up conversation. Help them to understand that the words they use can be hurtful to you, since they may not readily recognize that.  But most of all, help your teen realize that no matter how difficult things can become between you and them, nothing they do can make you love them or accept them any less.  Let them know constantly that your love is unconditional; you are a safe place for them, no matter what they have done or how they have acted to you in the past.

5.  Evasive Interactions are Becoming Normal

Root Problem:  Feelings of inferiority, shame and guilt.

Self-doubt has an immobilizing effect in all of our lives and especially in the lives of teens who don’t yet have a good idea of what their “self” is or what they want to shape it to be.  The period of adolescence is marked by their search for significance and their development of self worth. They will often hide problems by becoming evasive.  Breaking eye contact, changing the subject and defensiveness are all evasive tactics teens use to pull the spotlight off of their own trouble areas.  Our job as parents is to compassionately press in during these times while being empathetic.  We want to encourage them in their abilities, to help them understand their emotions and how others may perceive them, and to refrain from focusing only on their mistakes.

Empathy is often very difficult to put into practice because it requires us to get outside of ourselves, to set aside attacks on us, and to share in the feelings of others.  When my teen acts out, my natural reaction is not to empathize, it is to become defensive.  So I tend to become frustrated or start a long lecture.  Some of my reaction comes from my own insecurity as a parent; not knowing how to handle my teen’s issues or how to solve “the problem.”  So I try to provide answers when the teen is simply wanting a listening ear or empathy.  Instead of the “facts” parents need to stop and ask the teen to explain the emotions behind their behaviors.  When the emotions are revealed, the teen and the parent both begin to understand each other and themselves.

Empathizing with my teen might also be difficult because it’s hard to see where he or she is coming from.  I fear that if I empathize, I may be condoning their behavior.  To be empathetic, a parent can respond in ways such as, “That must be difficult” or, “That sounds like it’s been a struggle.” In using empathizing one-liners (without sounding demeaning), I am opening the conversation to continue; the teen begins feeling as though I am understanding their struggle.

While I cannot condone inappropriate behavior, I can seek to understand and care about what is behind such behavior.  In doing so, it may help the teen to also understand why they did what they did. Taking the time to listen, rather than reacting in anger or frustration, opens my heart to connect with the heart of my teen.  Being empathetic doesn’t mean letting the consequences slide, however.  Even so, we can even be empathetic about enforcing consequences, such as saying, “I am really sorry, and I know you were looking forward to it, but as you know, this means that you will not be going to that party Friday night.”

Be there for your child; not to always solve their problems or to set them straight, but to help them through them.  In doing so you help the teen solve future problems in a better way, and you leave the door open to the teen to learn from and value your truth and love, as opposed to closing them off and making them more distant.

john-devries-126x150John DeVries, MS — Writer, Consultant for Exceed Marketing Solutions

John DeVries holds a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology and has over 25 years experience working with at-risk teens and therapeutic programs designed to help them.  Exceed Marketing Solutions is a service designed to assist in the marketing of therapeutic programs and schools.