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How to Find Help for Your Struggling Teen

How to Find Help for Your Struggling Teen

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Updated on May 15, 2014

Let’s face it: the teenage years are a difficult time, as adolescents try to figure out who they are, who their friends are, and where their place is in the world. Many teens experience depression, family conflicts, or feelings of isolation. For some teens, these struggles go beyond normal development, greatly affecting their ability to function, and may lead to life-threatening behaviors and activities.

Frederic Reamer, Ph.D., and Deborah Siegel, Ph.D., have spent their careers identifying the right kinds of help for struggling teens. The husband-wife team are professors at the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College. They are also the authors of a guide for parents and professionals called Finding Help for Struggling Teens and their new book, Teens in Crisis: How the Industry Serving Struggling Teens Helps and Hurts Our Kids will be out this October.

Siegel and Reamer say it’s important for parents to first assess if their teen is going through the typical roller coaster of normal development, or whether she’s experiencing something more serious. How do you tell if your teen is struggling? Reamer and Siegel say to watch for these common warning signs:

Isolation and withdrawal: Teens may feel alone and alienated, unable to connect with any safe adult. They crave friendships but feel too demoralized and fearful to reach out to others or respond to friendly overtures.

School failure and truancy: Some teens who were strong students in elementary school may become discouraged and alienated from academics in middle school or high school. Other teens have difficulty in school their entire lives because of learning disabilities, mental health issues, difficult home lives, or hostile school environments.

Defiance toward authority: Many struggling teens refuse to obey rules laid down by parents, teachers, the police and other authority figures.

Running away from home: Teens may run away from home to escape conflict with their parents, assert their independence, avoid the consequences of breaking rules, or flee their own distressing emotions.

Choosing the “wrong” friends: How do you know if your child is hanging out with the wrong friends? While teens can throw lots of camouflage over their activities, here are some red flags for parents to look for:

  • If teen is secretive, or unwilling to share information about other kids’ identities.
  • Other telltale signs include: coming home with glazed or bloodshot eyes, drug paraphenalia or condom wrappers, and suddenly ceasing to eat meals during the day.

Depression: Common symptoms include poor appetite or overeating, difficulty with sleep, low energy and fatigue, low self-esteem, poor concentration, difficulty making decisions, feelings of hopelessness, guilt and worthlessness, and irritability.

Abusing alcohol and drugs: “We would never condone a kid experimenting with marijuana or drinking beers,” says Reamer, “But what we’re really talking about here are kids who develop chronic and persistent substance abuse.”

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