How to Help a Troubled Teen

Updated January 4, 2019
Mother talking with her teen daughter

Figuring out whether your teenager needs help can be tricky especially because adolescents naturally go through a separation period from their parents or guardians where they begin to establish their own identities. Despite their need to break off from their parents, sometimes teenagers experience more serious mental health symptoms that require some outside guidance.

Understanding Normal and Troubled Behavior

When you are looking at teenage behavior, keep in mind the frequency and the intensity of it. Notice if the behavior tends to get activated around certain people, or circumstances as well.

Typical Teen Behavior

Part of a teen's typical developmental trajectory is breaking away from their parent or parents' authority. This ensures that they can become independent, healthy adults who are able to manage their own needs. This can be a difficult time for parents as they observe "rebellious" behavior, but keep in mind this is part of normal development and needs to happen in order for teens to go from dependent to independent. You may notice:

  • A decrease in time spent with family and an increase in time spent with peers
  • A more opinionated, vocal presence
  • An exploration of different beliefs that may or may not challenge those of their parents
  • Dressing in a way that reflects their personality
  • Exploring their sexuality
  • Challenging the thoughts and rules of authority figures
  • Getting into more disagreements with their parent or parents
  • Seeking to find their own identity while simultaneously striving for peer acceptance
  • Being critical of parenting techniques

Troubled Teen Signs

If you are noticing intense, out of control, and chaotic behavior, your teen may be experiencing emotional turmoil. If you notice any of the following behaviors, it is best to seek out a therapist who specializes in adolescents. Look out for:

  • Symptoms of depression including a change in appetite, isolation, anhedonia, sleep-related problems, self-harm, and suicidal ideation
  • Symptoms of anxiety including being keyed up or on edge, difficulty sleeping and racing thoughts
  • Using alcohol and/or drugs to deal with emotional pain
  • Getting into physical altercations with others, or damaging property
  • Intentionally harming others or animals
  • Mentioning suicidal or self-harming thoughts
  • Self-harming by cutting, burning, scratching, picking, or pinching themselves
  • Pulling out their own hair, eyebrows, or eyelashes
  • Having obsessive thoughts and compulsions
  • Having a difficult time expressing their emotions in a healthy way- for example having frequent and intense emotional outbursts
  • Refusing to eat, extreme dieting or exercising, and bingeing and purging

Self Care for the Parent

Prior to discussing anything with your child, take a moment to self-reflect and notice if you are projecting any of your stuff onto your teen. This time period can be a difficult moment for anyone and your teen may be triggering some childhood memories for you. When you go to chat with your teen, be sure to do so in a calm, loving, and open way. If at any point you feel too activated, take a breath and evaluate if you're in a good place to continue the conversation in a healthy way.

Helping a Troubled Teen

Teen girl talking with counselor

If you feel like your teen needs help, think about the intensity of the problem they are experiencing and what type of treatment would be the most helpful. Some options include:

  • For high functioning teens who are experiencing mild-to-moderate symptoms: regular meetings with a therapist specializing in adolescents
  • For teens who need more structured care: intensive outpatient programs
  • For teens who need around the clock care: intensive inpatient programs
  • For teens who have experienced trauma: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy

Your teen may feel reluctant to get help, so be gentle when you bridge the topic of therapy or intensive programs. Let your teen know how much you care about their well-being and give them options so they feel like part of the decision-making process. Let them know that the symptoms and pain they are experiencing are not something they need to go through alone and that there are tons of available options.

Try to normalize their experience by letting them know that a lot of people have experienced similar symptoms and part of the human experience is dealing with uncomfortable feelings. Make it known again and again that you are there for them and will support them throughout this process.

Helping a Suicidal Teen

If your child is actively suicidal (has an intent, has access to the means to do so, and has a plan), do not leave them alone and seek appropriate help immediately. This can include an involuntary hospital hold via contacting the police, an intensive therapeutic program, and a support group for you and your child.

Taking Care of Your Teenager

It can feel really scary when your teenager is experiencing a difficult moment. Remember to take care of yourself during this process and seek out the best care for your teen if you notice any worrisome behaviors as soon as possible.

How to Help a Troubled Teen