How Social Workers Help Struggling Teens

By — National Association of Social Workers
Updated on Dec 16, 2008


The adolescent years can be very challenging for some teenagers and their families. While adolescence can be an emotionally intense, stormy phase for virtually all teenagers, sometimes a teen’s struggles require special intervention. Many teens struggle with issues related to mental health, family relationships, friends, school performance, substance abuse, sexuality, and other high-risk behaviors.

Warning Signs

Struggling teens usually show signs of distress. Common warning signs include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • School failure and truancy
  • Defiance towards authority (such as parents, teachers, police)
  • Running away from home
  • Choosing the “wrong” friends
  • Impulsive behavior (such as speeding, taking other unsafe risks)
  • Getting in trouble with the law
  • Depression
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Social isolation
  • Eating disorders (overeating, not eating, self-induced vomiting)
  • Self injury (such as cutting)

There is help for these youngsters and their families through many avenues.

How to Find Help

There are many ways to locate and access programs and services for struggling teens. Initially parents can seek help by contacting school personnel (guidance counselors, social workers, administrators), family service agencies, community mental health centers, other community-based social service programs designed specifically for at-risk youngsters and their families, public child welfare agencies, family and juvenile courts, and specialty courts (such as truancy and drug courts).

Social workers can help parents and struggling teens identify and explore difficult and challenging family issues. Individual, family, and group counseling provided by clinical social workers may help parents and teens improve their communication skills and relationships, resolve conflicts, and address important mental health issues.

Professionals called “educational advocates” and “educational consultants” may be able to help parents and teens obtain needed services. Educational advocates, who are often attorneys, help people obtain specialized educational services. Educational advocates charge parents a fee and work with local, state, and federal education officials to ensure that students receive the services and “special accommodations” to which they are entitled by law. Advocates may file claims in court to force school districts to provide or pay for special-needs services and programs outside the school district.

Educational consultants help parents locate programs and services designed to meet their child’s needs. Educational consultants charge parents a fee, assess each teen’s unique strengths and needs, and help the family find the most appropriate schools or programs for their teen. Many educational consultants monitor students’ progress in the new program or school and, when necessary, advocate for the teen with that program or school when challenging issues arise.

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