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How to Find Help for Your Struggling Teen (page 2)

How to Find Help for Your Struggling Teen

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Updated on Jul 21, 2008

Eating disorders: Struggling teens may seriously undereat, binge eat, or purge through vomiting or laxative use. Teens can compulsively overeat and exercise excessively to avoid weight gain.

Self-injury: Mental health professionals generally agree that teens who try to hurt themselves by cutting, burning, branding, bruising or other methods are doing so in an effort to cope with emotional pain.

Making decisions based on your teen’s specific issues is a difficult task for parents, in part because of the feelings of confusion and blame many parents experience. “Somehow there’s an implication that if the kid is struggling the parents must have done a poor job,” Reamer says. “There is a common tendency to isolate oneself, and as a result parents don’t get the kind of support that is so vitally important.”

Reamer suggests that parents connect with other parents who are having similar experiences through support groups in their area. “Not only can support groups offer help on the emotional side, but they also are a great conduit for practical information,” he says. This is especially important, says Reamer, because of the overwhelming amount of conflicting advice out there on how to raise struggling teens.

One point of confusion for parents is figuring out which of a long list of programs is right for their child. Programs range from short-term crisis intervention to long-term solutions, from special learning plans in a traditional high school setting, to residential treatment centers that focus on a teen’s psychiatric and emotional needs. If possible, Reamer and Siegel suggest parents enroll their children in community-based programs, so that they can stay in school and maintain important ties to friends and family. “Many communities have highly structured mentoring programs and support groups. The parent needs to find a good social worker, psychologist or counselor who lives and breathes your local resources,” Reamer says.

When community-based help isn’t working for your child, Reamer and Siegel say it’s time to enlist the services of an educational consultant, whose job it is to help parents locate programs and services designed to meet the child’s needs. “The good educational consultants know what to look for, and will monitor a kid’s progress after they’re enrolled,” Reamer says. For a database of educational consultants, check out the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

Educational consultants and parents will have to examine these schools and programs in detail together. Reamer and Siegel suggest that parents ask the following questions:

  • How big is the school or program? Small schools and programs generally can provide more personalized, individualized attention and close supervision and monitoring.
  • Is the program accredited and licensed?
  • What kinds of teens are enrolled in the program? Do they resemble your teen in their mental health, behavioral, and educational needs? Reamer says it’s important that your child be able to connect with his peers in the program: “As soon as some of these teens encounter other teens who are experiencing similar things and face similar struggles they let down their guard. They finally feel that they’re with people who get it.”
  • What are the credentials and experience of the staff?
  • How well are staff supervised?
  • To what extent does the program or school tailor services to meet each teenager’s unique needs?
  • How clearly laid out in writing are the program’s or school’s rules and disciplinary procedures? “How they deal with discipline is a terrifying leap of faith, but you want a program where every disciplinary policy is in writing and given to you without you asking for it,” Siegel says. “You want a really behaviorally specific handbook. If a program is clear within itself, the staff will all be on board with it.”
  • In what ways does the program or school involve parents and family? Siegel says parents should look for programs that make contact with a parent once a week. That means the advisor or therapist working with your child should call or e-mail with details on how your child is doing. “You want that contact with the staff person to be very behaviorally specific, with lots of factual anecdotes about what kids said or did,” Siegel says. “Global phrases like, ‘He’s doing well’ and ‘He’s buying in,’ should be backed up with examples.”
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