Category: Screaming

How to talk to a difficult teenager – what to say and do

How to talk to a difficult teenager – what to say and do

Have hope!

Parents can learn how to talk to a difficult teenager and reduce arguments and negativity.  There are good responses for when you and your teenager fight or argue or get stuck in the same negative communication patterns, but there are three very important principles to consider.

  • What you say and do depends on your unique situation, your difficult teenager, and what the problem is. There are no magic words or actions that work for every teen.  It’s up to you to experiment–discover which responses fit your child’s behaviors and customize them.
  • How you say it will determine success or failure. Doing this well means you must have an iron grip on your own feelings and behavior and not be a parent.
  • Improvement takes time. Pace yourself for a marathon.

1. Identify what goes wrong

Difficult teenagers typically sabotage dialogue when they experience mental and emotional overload.

As an adult, you know about managing emotions, but your teenager doesn’t have a clue and is too young to articulate what he/she really means or needs anyway–and they know it.  Talking with you makes them anxious and insecure.

Circle your teen’s most common sabotage techniques (below) and address one at a time. Learn to spot them the moment they come up, and plan ahead how you’ll respond.  You should not tell them what you are doing because it will only feel like blame or insult.

  • Make excuses – It’s not my fault and I shouldn’t get in trouble.
  • Lie – keep secrets, fake an attitude to avoid the conversation or hide something
  • Exaggerate – revise history or express extreme insult or trauma over minor things
  • “Catastrophize” – assume the worst and that it’s going to be forever
  • Entitlement – I’m unique, I’m superior, what you say doesn’t apply to me, I get things my way
  • Hostility – insults and verbal abuse
  • Overconfidence – I’m exceptional, I already know, you don’t know what you’re talking about
  • Self-pity – I’m broken and no one cares
  • Minimize – make light of others’ needs and feelings, deny their actions have consequences
  • Vague – Guess what I’m thinking/feeling. If you’re wrong it means you (don’t love me, don’t care, are stupid).
  • Silent treatment – I plan to make you crazy by ignoring you –or- I can’t handle this and want to disappear.
  • Keep score – I win and it means I get my way (and you’re stupid).
  • Righteousness – I’m an adult and have rights and can make my own decisions.
  • Pet me – Praise me, flatter me, agree with me or I’ll make you regret it
  • Harp – repeatedly bring up a sensitive issue to get you upset, whine about things long resolved

Don’t waste precious energy fretting about your difficult teenager’s immaturity.

2. Prepare yourself emotionally and learn techniques used by therapists

Be a quiet witness, not a participant

To talk to a difficult teenager, mentally take off your parent hat and become a neutral observer without emotions or bias from bad memories.  This is absolutely critical because you must be able to remove any negative tone in your voice.  Your child reacts to tone of voice more than what is said.  Your feelings are certainly important; just don’t allow yourself to express them.

  • ‘Channel’ your inner therapist like an actor who gets into character. Faking it works, and may even help you be more effective. [check out YouTube videos].
  • Practice quieting your thoughts, and beliefs, and feelings.
  • Remind yourself you are a good, competent parent; trust yourself and your good intent.
  • See strengths, pay attention to what’s great about your child
  • Avoid justifying or explaining yourself. Your teenager can pick up on something you say and use it against you.

In these examples, the parent doesn’t react to the emotions they feel or try to justify themselves.

Reframe – Present a different point of view of the facts, or reveal details that show the ‘facts’ aren’t what they seem.

Teen:  “If I don’t do well in this class, you’re going to punish me by sending me to stupid summer school because that’s all you care about are grades.”

Parent:  “Last year you had the same concerns at the end of the term, and then I saw you focus and pass the class with a really high grade and be really proud of yourself.  I think you will do this again.”

Paraphrase – Say the same thing you heard using different words.  This helps your child know if they said what they really meant, and gives them the option to clarify and provide details.

Teen: “You stupid effing b1tch you never care what I think and keep trying to control me and I hate you!”

Parent:  “I hear you telling me you want to make more of your own decisions.”

Use “I” Statements – Avoid saying “you” because your child can interpret it as blame or insult regardless of your intent.  Simply owning your feelings or stating your observations doesn’t impose your view and is hard to argue with.

Teen:  “You said you would help me but all you want to do is see me fail. You could care less about me and even my friends think you’re a bad parent.”

Parent:  “I definitely care; I explained the best I could why I can’t afford the time/money right now.  I am frustrated by this situation too.”

Validate feelings and explore why

Teen:  “You didn’t listen to me when I told you my teacher was picking on me.”

Parent:  “Maybe I misunderstood or didn’t think he was treating you differently than your classmates.  I’m listening now; can you give me more details?”

Check the facts

Teen:  “My friends hate me and I don’t want to be around them ever.”

Parent:  “What happened?”

Teen:  “They all went to a movie and I wasn’t invited, and told everyone else what a great time they had.”

Parent:  “Wasn’t that the day you lost your phone charger?  Could they have tried to contact you but your phone was dead and you never got the message?”

Reflect on the bigger picture

Teen:  “School sucks.  It’s never helped me and everyone there is an a55hole and I already know what I need to know anyway.  Don’t try to make me stay.”

You:  “OK, school isn’t working for you. Do you have plans if you drop out? a job or a class for a new skill or occupation?  You are growing up and will be on your own someday, and you will want your own money.”

Deescalate a heated moment without placing blame or accepting blame. You might apologize or change the subject temporarily.

Teen:  “Stop f**king treating me like you’re my therapist!”

Parent:  “I’m sorry that it feels that way.  I’m not your therapist but a parent trying to communicate with their son/daughter the best they can.   I need to check my messages so we’ll talk about this later.  Can you go make yourself some tea?”

Other ways to deescalate:

Take a time out so you and your difficult teenager can calm down and gather your thoughts.

Converse via text, even in the same house, even in the same room.  No talking, only texting.  This works surprisingly well.

Talk to your teenager through a door, you do not need to look at each other, and perhaps your teen feels safer in another room. 

3. Accept the limits

The goal is not to stop your difficult teenager’s challenging behaviors but teach them how to manage.  How you talk to your difficult teenager only needs to be healthy, which is not necessarily positive or comfortable.

A healthy conversation means both parties:

Feel heard and understood even if there’s disagreement

Feel safe because they expect no emotional assaults

Feel enough trust and to talk again later

4.  Pay attention to what improves or wrecks a conversation.

Visualize yourself as a wild animal trainer trying to teach an uncooperative creature to perform a task. You try various techniques and expect the animal to resist.  You keep trying until the resistance diminishes, and then you start supporting with positive feedback.  Some of the techniques below will work; some will fail spectacularly.  When you find those that work, mix them up or your difficult teenager will catch on and try other tactics.

Let your difficult teenager rant for a while.  Teens often vomit out emotions regardless of how they sound or if they make sense and parents don’t need to respond.

Ask why and how. Explore the underlying cause by using simple questions that can’t be answered with Yes or No to help them identify and articulate what they mean and need.

Redirect.  Change the subject, or have a pre-planned list of actions for ending a tough dialogue.

  • DEFLECT for manipulation and button-pushing:

“Consciously ignore” (pay attention but mentally or physically withdraw)  – Pretend you didn’t notice when he/she resorted to blaming, demanding etc.

Change the subject – ask what they want from the grocery store; ask if they remember an upcoming event

Escape – excuse yourself for the bathroom.  Say you forgot to call someone back who left an important voicemail.

  • SUPPORT for anxiety, whining, and obsessive thoughts:

“We’ll get through this together;” “I am looking after you.”

Confidently reassure, and point out what’s going well.

Deny false charges against you without explaining, just state the fact.  “I did not say that;” “I am not accusing you…”  Period.

Apologize immediately when guilty.  “You’re right.  That was not the right thing to say and I apologize,” nothing more.  You may be guilt-tripped into apologizing multiple times, so say something like: “I apologized and it was the right thing to do.  I haven’t done it again and won’t apologize again.”

Set simple boundaries like you might for a fussy young child.  “You can get angry and run to your room, but you can’t slam the door.”  Remember that anger is normal, but harm is not acceptable.  Screaming is normal, but ugly insulting words are not acceptable.  Depression and sadness is normal, but isolating is risky–they need to be in the presence of others.

No offering reasons or lessons.  Conflict is not a teachable moment.  Your teen absolutely cannot reason when they’re flooded with emotion.  Trying to teach something can seem patronizing and disinterested in their concerns.

Appeal to a higher self:  During a fight or argument, listen carefully for something your child says (without prompting) that reflects good values and character, even the tiniest teensiest thing.  Incorporate their stated good values in all your communications.

5.  Help your difficult teenager think about their future

You may have tried to motivate your teenager to think about their future, but ultimately your teenager takes responsibility for the details.  This helps:  Provide a list of open-ended questions, worksheet-style, which they answer for themselves.  Examples:

  • What do I care most about?
  • How can I feel better when I’m upset?
  • How can I cope with boredom?
  • What am I good at?
  • What are three things I’m most thankful for, why?
  • Who do I trust and why do I trust them?
  • Where do I see myself in 5 years? How will I get there?

Ideally they share their answers with you but this should be optional.  If you do see them, absolutely avoid guiding or correcting answers even if you think they’re wrong!  The point is to start them pondering and exploring.  If they write “kill myself” or “run away” or “use drugs”, don’t push back—they KNOW what you think—you might ask if there are other options.

Teens are innocent and pure in a way adults are not.  They have standards and values (unless they are a sociopath).  Look for opportunities to appeal to these values.

 

Remember this…

 

…when they do this.

Good luck.

 


You can find additional practical and common sense approaches to parenting here:  Solid Wisdom For Parents Of Troubled Children And Teens

Borderline children – how they function and how you can help

Borderline children – how they function and how you can help

Borderline personality disorder makes a child wonderful yet horrible; lovely yet vindictive; a great friend or manipulative bully; anguished or glowing with joy; self-hating yet self-important; self-centered but also charitable.

Are you ready to bang your head on a wall?  Or praying for the day your child turns 18, when you can change the locks on your doors?  Children with borderline personality disorder (BPD) can traumatize everyone around them.

Children with BPD believe others will abandon them, and this makes them do one of two things:

    1. Do everything possible to obtain and keep love and admiration;
    2. Or if they detect the slightest hint of disapproval, blame themselves or others so as to feel they made a decision to break or run away from a relationship.  This can disguise  horrible feelings of abandonment.

 

A borderline child can be very engaging and affectionate… sometimes at random and sometimes when they want something.  Because they can be vindictive, they may also turn on charm as a way to embarrass you in front of others (such as in a meeting with a teacher or family counselor).  Since they often seem wonderful to other people, parents have been judged.  People often suggest they take care of their own issues instead.

Even if their manipulation or drama can be relentless, strive for compassion.  Trust me, your borderline child will suffer more than you in every important aspect of life.  They can make a mess of their relationships because of hurtful or clingy behavior.  Or they create a toxic work environment.  Or they drive away good friends, hate them for leaving, and suffer from loneliness.

A borderline child or teen is not a “drama junkie” on purpose.  There brain is primed to overreact.

A study published in 2008 in Science showed that brain activity in people with borderline personality disorder was abnormal—their brains lack activity in the ‘cooperation’ and ‘trust’ regions, called the bilateral anterior insula.  People with borderline personality disorder do not have an internal, natural sense of fairness or social norms, and distrust is their default mentality.  Some suggest that borderlines do not receive the attention they need as an infant and toddler.  Early neglect is also a predictor of reactive attachment disorder, which has similar trust issues.

When playing a game that requires teamwork, the brain of a normal person shows activity in the bilateral anterior insula.
The brain of a borderline person showed no activity whatsoever during the teamwork game.

Another study reported, “The disorder occurs in all races, is prevalent in females (female-to-male ratios as high as 4:1), and typically presents by late adolescence.”  It is estimated 1.4 percent of adults in the United States have this disorder.  A different study reported that BPD occurs as often in men and women, and sufferers often have other mental illnesses or substance abuse problems.  (In my observations, teenagers with borderline personality disorder have many bipolar disorder symptoms.)

From infancy, those who were later diagnosed with borderline personality were more sensitive, had excessive separation anxiety, and were moodier. They had social delays in preschool and many more interpersonal issues in grade school, such as fewer friends and more conflicts with peers and authorities.

As teenagers, borderline children can be promiscuous; impulsive and assaultive; more likely to use drugs and alcohol; and more likely to cut themselves and attempt suicide.  “…research shows that, by their 20’s, people with the disorder are almost five times more likely to be hospitalized for suicidal behavior compared to people with major depression.”

Evidence for hope

Borderlines have the thinnest skin, the shortest fuses and take the hardest knocks.  In psychiatrists’ offices, they have long been viewed as among the most challenging patients to treat.”

Advances have been made in recent years.  One study tracked borderline patients who had been hospitalized at least once over a 10 year period.  With follow up treatment  “93% of patients achieved a remission of symptoms lasting at least two years, and 86% for at least four years.” Published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, the research argues that once recovery has been attained, it appears to last.  (from “Trying to Weather the Storm”, by S. Roan, September 07, 2009, Los Angeles Times)

“…our message to families is to please stay the course with your (child) because it’s crucial to their well-being.”
(Perry D. Hoffman, president of the National Education Alliance for BPD http://www.borderlinepersonalitydisorder.com.)

Treatment

Psychotherapy is the primary treatment of BPD, and the gold standard is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which helps the person attain and maintain lasting improvement in their personality, interpersonal problems, and overall functioning.  It simply teaches coping skills so patients learn to control their emotions, calm down, and not destroy relationships. Medications support the therapy by reducing depression or anxiety and self-destructive behavior.

(from “What Therapy Is Recommended for Borderline Personality Disorder in Adolescents (13-17 years)?” by M. Muscari, 2005, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/508832)

When to hospitalize:

In an emergency, when your child has serious suicidal thoughts or an attempt, and/or is an imminent danger to others, or is incapable of calming down and functioning.

Consider psychiatric residential care when your child has persistent suicidal thoughts, is unable to participate in therapy, has a co-morbid (co-existing) mental disorder (e.g. bipolar, depression, narcissistic personality disorder), a risk of violent behavior, and other severe symptoms that interfere with living.

Other mental health supports your borderline child may need:

  • Treatment for substance abuse.
  • Therapy that focuses on violent and antisocial behaviors, which can include emotional abuse or physical abuse, baiting, bullying, and sexualized behaviors.  (The most effective therapy is DBT or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.)
  • Therapy that also focus on trauma and post traumatic issues if present.
  • Reducing stressors in the child’s environment.  Most children with BPD are very sensitive to difficult circumstances, for example:  an emotionally stressful atmosphere; internal and external pressures to succeed or change; inconsistent rules; being around others who are doing better than them.


What parents and caregivers can do

  • With a co-parent or support person:  Maintain a united front.
  • Communicate privately with each other to effectively set limits.  A BPD child will do everything in their power to split authority figures against each other!
  • Have each other’s back even if you’re not in full agreement.
  • Never ever give away power by making democratic decisions or explaining your reasoning. Anything you say or do will be challenged or used against you in the future.

Maintain family balance.

Keep things relaxed.  If you need to set boundaries and apply pressure, do it only to maintain  appropriate behaviors and reminders for self-calming.  Let other things go.

Use praise proactively.  Borderlines crave attention and praise.  When they deserve it, pour it on thick.  And pour it on thick every single time they demonstrate good behavior and positive intention.  One can’t go too far.  When an argument or fight comes up, search your memory banks for the most recent praiseworthy thing they did or said, and bring it up and again express your gratitude and admiration.  This does two things:  it reinforces the positive;  and it redirects and ends a negative situation.

Become skilled in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).  It is the gold standard for treating
Borderline Personality Disorder.  It is the only therapy proven to promote genuine behavioral change and improve mental health.  You can ask questions or bring your child back to reality with the following examples
.

  • Did your friend really intend to upset you?  It sounds like they were talking about something else.
  • The delay wasn’t planned just to make you mad, perhaps you were just frustrated by being asked to wait, and it was no one’s fault.
  • The tear in your jacket isn’t a catastrophe.  It is easily fixed and I can show you how.

For specific examples of what your borderline child will say and for how you can respond, see:  How to talk with your difficult teenager – what to say and do.

 

Prevent dangerous risk taking – Teens with borderline personality are exceptionally impulsive and prone to risky behavior.  Consequently, parents should consider:

  • Tightly limiting cell phone use, email, texting, and access to social networking sites
  • Using technology to track their communications (this is legal), or disabling access during certain time periods
  • Reducing the amount of money and free time available
  • Searching their room (this is also legal)

A couple I know fully informed their borderline son that all internet activity would be tracked, as well as cell phone calls.  The father also installed cameras in the home, at the front and back doors, in plain sight.  Nevertheless, their son continued with bullying and verbally abusing his siblings right in front of those cameras, and he would get caught and deny it each time.  His denials in the face of clear evidence became a great source of private amusement for his parents.

Be patient – You are unlikely to receive your child’s respect, love, or thanks in the short-term.  It may take years.  But be reassured that your child will thank you for your firm guidance and limits once he or she matures to adulthood.

Never expose your heart like this!  Armor yourself emotionally.  Visualize those knives as fluff balls, or visualize your child as a toddler with a just another temper tantrum.  Find something that works for you and help the co-parents and siblings armor themselves too.

Address your own PTSD!  Families who live with a borderline child often need help coping with bullying, wrenched emotions, and the instability that person brings into the household.  A parent or family member may need their own therapy, antidepressants, and self-care skills for reducing anxiety.

Simple self-care for you and other family members

  • Three or more (very) deep breaths when stressed, the brain needs oxygen to begin a calming process.  Singing is a superb option.
  • Magnesium or Kava kava, these substances naturally help calm nerves
  • Sleep in a dark, cold room is the best way to promote deep sleep. Avoid screen time an hour before bedtime.
  • An activity that feeds your soul, such as a hobby, a loving pet, a gripping novel, just playing
  • Direct support from a trusted friend–face-to-face is ideal, but calls, texts, and emails as needed are really helpful too.


Characteristics of untreated borderline personality disorder in adulthood

Good things:  They can be very financially and publicly successful in many fields and hold positions of authority, and often succeed in the creative arts and especially acting.  They are so perceptive that they can ‘channel’ any person they want.  They can be enchanting, and alluring, easily attracting devoted fans, friends, and lovers.

Most challenging things:  Signs and symptoms of BPD may include significant fear of real or imagined abandonment; intense and unstable relationships that vacillate between extreme idealization and devaluation; markedly and persistently unstable self-image; significant and potentially self-damaging impulsivity (spending, sex, binge eating, gambling, substance abuse, and reckless driving); repeated suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats; self-mutilation (carving, burning, cutting, branding, picking and pulling at skin and hair, biting, and excessive tattooing and body piercing); persistent feelings of emptiness; inappropriate anger or trouble controlling anger; and temporary, stress-related disconnection from reality and paranoia.

Help your borderline child with each of these aspects!

  • Chronic fear of abandonment which results in a constant search for companionship, no matter how unsatisfying.
  • Clinging and distancing: Disruptive relationships due to the person’s alternating clinging and distancing behaviors.  When clinging, they may exhibit dependent, helpless, childlike behaviors. They can over idealize the person they want to spend their time with, constantly seeking that person out for reassurance. When they cannot be with their chosen person, they exhibit acting-out behaviors, such as temper tantrums and self-mutilation. They distance themselves by being hostile and insulting, usually arising from discomfort with closeness.
  • Splitting: Splitting arises from the person’s inability feel people are safe, and is the primary defense mechanism in BPD. They view all people, including themselves, as either all good or all bad.
  • Manipulation: Separation fears are so intense that people become masters of manipulation. They will do just about anything to achieve relief from their separation anxiety, but their most common ploy is to play one individual against another.
  • Self-destructive behaviors: Threats are most often manipulative, but some acts can prove fatal.  Cutting is very common.  Suicide attempts are common yet often happen in relatively safe scenarios, such as swallowing pills at home while reporting the deed to another person.  Another behavior is to set up a scenario where they are victim so as to get attention and love.
  • Impulsivity: Extremely rapid shifts in mood can lead to substance abuse, binge eating, reckless driving, sexual promiscuity, and excessive spending or gambling.  These are similar symptoms of bipolar mania, but BPD behaviors happen for different reasons, usually in response to real or imagined abandonment.

You really can turn your borderline child’s future around.

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Welcome

Welcome

This website is dedicated to helping parents and caregivers of troubled children, teenagers, and young adults.  Use the search box to explore articles or read trending articles, and find information about how to manage challenging behaviors.  You can do this–your skills really can improve your family life as well as that of your child.

How to Handle a Child’s Mental Health Crisis

How to Handle a Child’s Mental Health Crisis

You can sense there will be a crisis long before it happens. You have days when you’re so concerned about your child and family (and work and responsibilities) that you can’t think straight.  You can’t even spend time on little things like chatting with a friend or reading a magazine.  Your intuition says it’s only a matter of time and you won’t be able to handle it.

Before this happens, make a Crisis Plan with these priorities in order:

  1. Safety for everyone comes first
  2. Stabilization and treatment for your child
  3. Stress reduction for the family afterwards
  4. Lessons learned

What constitutes a mental health crisis?

  • When something dangerous has happened or is likely to happen because of a child’s behavior, words, plans, or triggering events that they experience.
  • Anytime a child’s behavior leads to harm or imminent harm to the child or someone else (including pets), or significant damage to property. Harm also includes emotional harm, threats, running away to unsafe places or doing unsafe things.

Trust your gut and trust your intuition.

Examples of a crisis when you must act

  • Watch. Pay attention to evidence your child has plans for suicide, which may include seeking dangerous items; or making multiple references to hating life; or they have a worsening mental state, or there’s been a prior suicide attempt.  Try this: “Use the “S” word: talk openly with your child about suicide.”
  • Look for increasingly troubled behavior over time that leads to extreme behavior:  non-stop raging, assault, repeated running away, threatening, talking about strange things, or spending too much time alone.
  • Pay attention following a traumatic event, such as someone else’s suicide or a newsworthy major tragedy. These can trigger a child to act dangerously on thoughts they already have.
  • The child runs away while psychotic, or depressed, or with a dangerous person–perhaps another troubled child–or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Psychosis of any kind including hallucinating or hearing voices; odd ideas; extreme agitation, anxiety, or paranoia; or a belief they have special powers.

The Crisis Plan

Have a crisis plan for home, school, and any other place where the child spends time.  For some, it’s also the parents’ workplace.  If a child is in college, a student adviser or someone in the campus health clinic needs to be a contact for checking in on your child.

Plan A:  call 911. You will not be bothering the police or emergency responders!

Plan B:  Answer these questions

For a runaway.  Who gets on the phone to call 911, and who goes out to look for the child and bring him or her back without mutual endangerment?  Both should know how to work with police and other community members.  There is no waiting period in a missing person’s report.  Check this article for what to say in call and do when police arrive. “How to work with police once you’ve called 911.”

Note: children have been known to behave perfectly once the police arrive, and police sometimes implicate the parents as having the problem. Don’t let this bother you.  You have demonstrated to your child that you are willing to call the police, and you’ve asserted your authority.  You might point this out to them–another episode of extreme behavior will be countered with significant action on your part. Use a neutral tone and avoid making this sound like a threat!

Who else knows your child and is trustworthy: others parents, businesses, teachers, their friends?  Are any of them able to assist you with talking to your child or keeping them safe?  Can any them help you “hold the fort” while waiting for an emergency responder?  Build a support network in advance:

Who gets on the phone and calls for extra assistance?  And is there a list of phone numbers?  Does your town or city have a crisis response team for kids?  What about a crisis line run by the mental health authority?  Check.  They are there to help.

Who should be appointed to communicate with the child?  This should be a family member or friend or teacher that the child trusts.  Communication with the right person can solve things fast, but with the wrong person can backfire, even from a parent… perhaps especially from a parent.

Who should step in and break up a fight, physical or emotional?  And what specifically should they do or say to de-escalate a situation spinning out of control?  Think about this:  your troubled child can often tell you exactly what works best and what makes things worse.  Listen to them.  It doesn’t have to sound rational to you as long as it works.

How should a time-out work?  Who counts to 10, or who can leave the house and go out for a walk?  Where can someone run to to feel safe and be left alone for a while?  What are the emotional safety rules for when the time out ends?  How can you and your child trust each other enough not to upset a fragile stability?

What should teachers or co-workers or others do to calm down a situation and get their classroom or office back to normal as quickly as possible?

Can a sibling stay at someone else’s house until things cool down at home?  Which house?  Sibling(s) can benefit from an escape to a friend’s house to protect them emotionally until a crisis has passed.  Ask them.

Teamwork

Think of your family and support network as a team that springs into action when someone sounds the Red Alert that your child is in danger.  Talk to family members and friends or neighbors ahead of time and give them an assigned role.  Let each should know they will be backed up.  This will be tremendously reassuring.  Your child’s crisis will be an upsetting event, but reasonable people will pull together when they know what’s going on and what they should do.  “Gang up on your kids:  Parent networks for tracking runaway children

Experiences and evidence shows that a rapid reduction of stress is effective at reducing the emotional wounds of a crisis.  Rapid cooling down of emotions, or “de-escalation,” is what prevents or limits the fallout from a crises.  You and your family can develop de-escalation techniques for bouncing back in tough situations.  The goal is “resilience.”  More than anyone, families with troubled children need resilience.

After the crisis

Everyone gets a mental health break.  This could be anything:  a day off, eating out, ice cream, going out for a movie…  Do something to get everyone back to an OK place and on their feet.  There should always be a reward for bravery, team work, and a job well done.

Next time it happens

There will be a next time.  A troubled child will be fine for many months and you’ll be so relieved, and then WHAM.  Use a previous crisis as a learning experience.  What can be done better next time?

Your long-term goal is to reduce crisis frequency over time, or prevent them from happening in the first place. 

Many parents have taken these steps to prevent a crisis or limit its severity.

  • Communicate directly with a police officer or precinct, school counselor, or juvenile justice official to explain your child’s legitimate mental health disability and your willingness to cooperate. Build a working relationship with them.
  • Locks on doors: a sibling can protect him or herself and their belongings; a parent can protect belongings, prescriptions, valuables, and money.
  • Track via technology – Track where your child goes and what they see online, and let them know you are doing this. This is legal.
  • Track via eyes and ears on the street – Befriend or build trust with your child’s friends, their parents, their teachers, neighbors, and businesses where they hang out.  Ask for a report if they see or hear something of concern. They may not be able to do anything but just report.
  • Search the child’s room for evidence of unsafe behavior, anything from razors for cutting themselves, harmful substances, porn, weapons, unusual ‘stockpiles’ of stuff (lengthy explanation goes here… just trust your gut if something is out of place). Room searches in your home are legal, but keep them secret and avoid acting on other things you find that aren’t 100% related to danger
  • Lock up dangerous items even though it’s inconvenient for you–kitchen knives, weapons, alcohol, drugs and prescriptions, matches, etc.
  • Lock up money, credit cards, and valuables. With money in hand, your child is on a path to victim-hood or association with people with criminal behavior. For example, they can buy drugs and alcohol from inappropriate people who then rob or assault them.
  • Confront people who undermine your authority. This is often a friend’s parents or other person who thinks you are abusing your child (because your child has told them so). They ‘rescue’ your child and offer safe harbor, and actively help them run away.  This is completely against the law, and they are subject to police action and criminal charges.  People who do this do not have your child’s safety in mind.

Extreme measures

There may be times when, for reasons of safety, you may to do things you are uncomfortable with while you wait for police, ambulance, or friends to arrive.  These are things parents have done in a crisis:  tackle a child and hold them down; or trick a child to get in a car and then have someone hold them down until they arrive at an emergency room (commonly needed in rural areas).  The way to avoid the risk of being charged by your child with abuse or assault is to have those open relationships with the authorities, teachers, and other parents who know your situation.  A letter from a doctor can be really important here.  I was glad I had one.

There will be fallout if you use force or trickery. Your child will not accept your reasoning or the necessity for your actions.  You can truly apologize for upsetting your child but without admitting guilt. Instead, ask what they want to happen next time they are in a crisis.  You should also honestly reassure them you will never use extreme methods again unless there is a safety issue.

To recap:

  • Trust your gut
  • Act immediately
  • Follow a plan that includes others working as a team
  • Take care of everyone afterwards
  • Prepare for extreme measures
  • Retain your authority as a parent by establishing supportive relationships.

You can handle this!

 

–Margaret

Understanding and supporting a child with ADD or ADHD

Understanding and supporting a child with ADD or ADHD

This article contributed by the Diamond Ranch Academy.

Life with a child with ADD or ADHD can be trying and overwhelming. However, as a parent there are practical measures you can take to effectively control and minimize your child’s symptoms without controlling and monitoring their every move.

You help your child overcome daily challenges by redirecting his or her energy into positive activities. You start by having a dialogue with your child and family that honestly communicates the situation in a way that does not accuse them of being “bad”.  Their behavior needs improvement, but speak as if it’s a ‘normal’ problem that must be addressed.

Children with ADD or ADHD typically have shortcomings in executive function: the ability to think and plan ahead, organize, control impulses, and complete tasks. This means that you need to take over as the executive, providing extra direction while your child progressively obtains executive skills of his or her own. With tolerance, kindness, and plenty of family teamwork, you can help your child manage childhood ADD or ADHD and maintain a steady, happy home

You must to be able to master a combination of support and predictability.

Living in a home that provides love and lots of structure is the best thing for a child or teenager who is learning to manage ADD/ADHD. There are effective and simple changes you can make that are easy to implement; we offer four practical tips to help you understand and support your child with ADD or ADHD:

1.  Be honest with your child about ADD or ADHD
It is important not to avoid or ignore your child’s condition. ADD or ADHD is not your child’s fault, it is a brain disorder that causes young people to have trouble focusing, completing tasks, or planning the future. Most parents can reframe things, but don’t look at the negative. Your child should understand it is something they can and should manage. The rest of your family should do this too.

2.  Stay Positive
When calm and focused, you are more likely to get your child’s attention and help him or her to be peaceful and attentive. And keep things in perspective. Your child’s behavior is related to a disorder, so most of the time it is not deliberate. Don’t sweat the small stuff; be willing to negotiate certain matters. For example, if one chore is left undone but your child has already completed two chores and their homework for the day, let it go and appreciate what they were able to complete. Staying positive also means believing and trusting your child. Trust that your child will learn, change, mature, and succeed.  Trust that your child wants to!

Taking care of yourself will allow you to take better care of your child.

It is vital to live a full, healthy life because you are the child’s role model and source of strength. Eat right, exercise, and find ways to reduce stress. Getting involved with organizations related to ADD or ADHD will also provide you with safe places to vent your frustrations and share experiences.

3.  Establish structure, enforce rules and consequences calmly

Help your child with ADD or ADHD to stay attentive and prepared by setting a strict routine. Set a time and place for everything to help your child with ADD or ADHD comprehend and meet expectations. Allow extra time for what your child needs to do, such as homework, chores, and getting ready in the morning.  Keep them busy but not too busy—a child with ADD or ADHD will become more distracted and act up if there are too many after-school activities going on.

Create structure in your home so your child knows what to expect and when.

Children with ADHD are more likely to succeed if they can complete tasks when the tasks occur in probable patterns and in foreseeable places. Children with ADHD need rules because it helps them track time and progress. Make the behavior rules simple and clear. Write down the rules and hang them up in a place where your child can read them. Children with ADD or ADHD respond exceptionally well to prearranged systems of rewards and consequences. It’s important to explain what will happen when the rules are obeyed and when they are broken. Finally, stick to your system by following through each and every time with a reward or a consequence.

4.  Encourage movement and sleep

Children with ADD or ADHD often have a lot of energy to burn. Organized sports and other physical activities can help them get their energy out in healthy ways, and refine their focus while enjoying the development of new skills and abilities. Exercise leads to better sleep with children with ADD or ADHD, which also reduces symptoms of ADD or ADHD. Children with ADD or ADHD often find “white noise” to be calming when sleeping. You can create white noise by putting a radio on static or running an electric fan, for example.

Guest Post by: Diamond Ranch Academy
Diamond Ranch Academy is one of the premier youth residential treatment centers for struggling teens. Since 1999, the highly trained staff at this facility has provided guidance and support for teens with varying emotional and behavioral issues including; substance abuse, depression, ADHD, impulse control, peer pressure, anger management, oppositional defiance, self-esteem, grief/loss issues, family relationships, communication, and academic struggles.

Note from blog owner, I am not personally familiar with Diamond Ranch Academy and this post is not an endorsement, but this post offers good information for any parent of a child with ADD or ADHD.  For ideas on what to look for in a good residential program, see the post Residential treatment checklist

–Margaret

Is my teen ‘normal’ crazy or seriously troubled?

Is my teen ‘normal’ crazy or seriously troubled?

A high percentage of teenagers go through a rebellious or ‘crazy’ phase that is normal for their age and brain development. The difference between normal teen-crazy and truly troubled behavior is when the teenager falls behind his or her peers in critical areas.  At a bare minimum, a normal teen will be able to do the following:

  • Attend school and do most school work if they want to;
  • Have and keep a friend or friends their own age who also attend school;
  • Develop a maturity level roughly the same as his or her peers;
  • Exercise self-control when he or she wants to;
  • Demonstrate basic survival instincts and avoid doing serious harm to themselves, others, or property.
  • Enjoy activities that interest them.

It is normal for many teens to be inconsistent, irrational, insensitive to others, self-centered, and childish.  Screaming or swearing is normal–regard this the same as a toddler temper tantrum.  Outlandish imagination and ideas are normal in the adolescent phase too. These are behaviors that crazy teens grow out of unless something else is holding them back.  What you’d call troubled behavior, the kind that necessitates mental health treatment, is a matter of degree.

This is your challenge:  How do you tell the difference?  Troubled teens with mental disorders have the same challenging behaviors as ‘normal’ crazy teens… How do you know if they need serious mental health treatment?  Look for pervasive patterns of social and behavioral problems that stand out against their peers, patterns which persist or occur in different settings Look back at how long these patterns have been occuring.  Are the patterns repeating themselves, or are behaviors increasingly worse? Do you You your troubled teen is slipping behind and won’t grow out of it.

Signs of abnormal behavior

A sudden change in behavior.

  • An abrupt change in friends and interests, and loss of interest in things your teenager used to enjoy.  This might indicate the onset of a serious mental illness or drug use or both.
  • Unusual ideas, or obsessive beliefs, or unrealistic plans, see:  “Unsettling: what psychosis looks like in children and young people.”
  • Others think there is something abnormal about your child.  (e.g., your child’s friend comes forward, their teacher calls, other parents keep their children from your child, or someone checks to see if you’re aware of the nature of his or her behaviors).


Unsafe behaviors
 (“Unsafe” means there’s a danger of harm to themselves or others, property loss or damage, running away, seeking experiences with significant risk (or easily lured into them), abusing substances, and physical or emotional abuse of others.)

  • If a troubled teenager does something unsafe to themselves or others, it is not an accident, but something impulsive, intentional, and planned.
  • They have a history of intentional unsafe activities.
  • They have or seek the means to do unsafe activities.
  • They talk about or threaten unsafe behavior.


How psychologists measure the severity of a child’s behavior 

“Normal” is defined with textual descriptions of behaviors, and these are placed on a spectrum from normal to abnormal (or “severe emotional disturbance” – SED).  Below are a few examples of a range of behaviors in different settings.  These descriptions are generalizations and should not be used to predict your child’s treatment needs, but they do offer insight into severity and the need for mental health treatment.

School behaviors

Not serious – This child has occasional problems with a teacher or classmate that are eventually worked out, and usually don’t happen again.

Mildly serious – This child often disobeys school rules but doesn’t harm anyone or property.  Compared to their classmates, they are troublesome or concerning, but not unusually badly behaved. They are intelligent, but don’t work hard enough or focus enough to have better grades. They could use help from a school counselor, teachers, and possibly a therapist for themselves or the family.

Serious – This child disobeys rules repeatedly, or skips school, or is known to disobey rules outside of school.  They stand out in the crowd as having chronic behavior problems compared to other students and their grades are poor even if they’re very intelligent.  This child needs mental health or substance abuse treatment.

Very serious – This child cannot be in school or they are dangerous in school.  They cannot follow rules or function, even in a special classroom, or they may threaten or hurt others or damage property.  It is feared they will have a difficult future, perhaps ending up in jail or having lifetime problems.  If they cooperate, this child requires intensive mental health and or substance abuse treatment.

Home behaviors

Not serious – This child is well-behaved most of the time but has occasional problems, which are usually worked out.

Mildly serious – This child has to be watched and reminded often, and needs pushing to follow rules or do chores or homework.  They don’t seem to learn their lessons and are endlessly frustrating.  They can be defiant or manipulative, but their actions aren’t serious enough to merit intensive treatment, though a school counselor or private counselor would be very beneficial.

Serious – This child cannot follow rules, even reasonable ones.  They can’t explain or take no responsibility for their behavior, which can include damage to the home or property, or harm to themselves or others.  They need mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment.

Very serious – The stress caused by this child means the family cannot manage normally at home even if they work together.  Running away, damaging property, threats of suicide or violence to others, and other behaviors require daily sacrifices from all.  Police are commonly called.  This child needs intense psychiatric treatment and/or substance abuse treatment, and likely residential treatment.

Relationship behaviors

Not serious – The child has and keeps friends their own age, and has healthy friendships with people of different ages, such as with a grandparent or younger neighbor.

Mildly serious – This child may seem extra immature.  They will argue, tease, bully or harass others, and most schoolmates avoid them. They are quick to have temper tantrums and childish responses to stress that always require extra attention from parents and caregivers.

Serious – The child has no friends their age, or risky friends, and can be manipulative or threatening. They can have violent tendencies, poor judgment, and take dangerous risks with themselves and others.  They don’t care about others’ feelings, or may readily harm others physically or emotionally.  This child needs therapy and psychiatric mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment.

Very serious – The child’s behavior is so aggressive verbally or physically that they are almost always overwhelming to be around.  The behaviors are repeated and deliberate, and can lead to verbal or physical violence against others or themselves.  This child needs intensive psychiatric and/or substance abuse treatment.

Pay attention to your gut feelings.

If you’ve been searching for answers and selected this article to read, your suspicions are probably true.  Trust your intuition. Most parents have good insight into their child.  If you’re looking for ways to “fix” or change your child, there just aren’t any easy methods or medications or therapies to do this except over time.  Treatment means multiple life changes in addition to medication and therapy, and these can include help for insomnia, a change in diet, treatment for digestive system problems, and household changes to reduce stress.

Mental illness is serious and recovery is a long slow process.  It is  understandable if you want them to recover quickly–your stress can be intolerable.  Avoid pushing for recovery because it will only stress your child and lead you to disappointment.  Instead, cooperate with professionals (teachers, treatment providers), and prepare yourself for a parenting marathon.  What’s the best way to prepare?  Work hard on your own mental health and wellbeing.  Lower your expectations for steady progress.  This advice and wisdom from other parents may help you face this daunting task.

Early treatment, while your troubled teenager is young, can prevent a lifetime of problems.  Find a professional who will take time to get to know your child and you and the situation, and who will listen to what you have to say–a teacher, doctor, therapist, psychiatrist or other mental health practitioner.

–Margaret

Your comments are encouraged.  Your story helps others who read this article.


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“You’re under arrest!”: Crime and Troubled Teens

“You’re under arrest!”: Crime and Troubled Teens

You’ve tried everything. Now you watch helplessly as your troubled teenager starts down a path leading to jail, and you wait for that call from the police. There’s been a crime. It finally happened like you thought it would.  But this bad news can be good news. This may be the point when things start to turn around.

“Experts estimate that from 40 percent to 70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system suffer from some form of mental health disorder or an illness – anything from ADHD to full-blown psychosis. About 15 percent to 25 percent have mental illnesses “severe enough to significantly impair their ability to function.”” (see “Mentally ill minors put in juvenile hall” at end of this post)

Juvenile crime is considered as serious as adult crime, and juvenile “detention” is just like jail for adults. Yet there is one critical distinction between teenage and adult justice: teens are given a second chance for a clean record and an education.  If your jurisdiction is enlightened, they will get treatment for mental illness or addictions. An adult criminal record is forever a barrier and an embarrassment. It comes up when a former convict applies for a job, a loan, a college degree, military service, a rental, or even a volunteer opportunity.

The juvenile justice system is only partially punitive because society recognizes that the teenage brain is the problem that causes much crime, whether or not they have a mental disorder or addiction.  Enlightened juvenile court judges want their rulings to be “rehabilitative” or “restorative” justice. Enlightened agency directors understand the need for additional support services for learning disabilities, addiction, mental illness, and vocational training.

In the system, teen criminals (“adjudicated youth”) are required to participate in consequences and treatment; it’s a “carrot and stick” approach.

When a police officer calls to say your son or daughter has been arrested, use this as an opportunity to help your kid. It’s a perfect teachable moment. Not only do you have their attention, you can hand the problem over to the Law to enforce their behavior and treat their disorders or addictions. Your son or daughter cannot refuse—when held or convicted on criminal charges, your child has no rights to anything except humane treatment and an appearance before a judge. You are off the hook. You can step back and relax… and be the Good Guy for once.

How to work with the juvenile justice system:

Once they come home on probation you need to set strict limits on their activities, and work with the probation officer or social worker to enforce them. These are harsh at first, but should be negotiated later when behavior improves, with consultation with the juvenile justice staff.

Remove risks:

Three Goals:
     1)   stay at home
     2)  stay in school
3)  stay out of trouble

Three House Rules:
     1)  continue mental health treatment
     2)  no violence when upset
     3)  clean body, clean clothes

Build their esteem as you would for any troubled child. Guide them to their strengths. Give your teenager something to do that they good at, and allow them ample opportunity to shine. More at  The good things about bad kids.

Extreme measures. I know of three cases where parents took drastic steps to help their son or daughter stay out of trouble, and these worked!

True story – a single father was worried about his son’s gang involvement, especially since the son was still on probation for a crime, and additional charges would draw lengthy prison time. Dad sold the family home and bought another one in a neighborhood ‘run’ by an opposing gang. The son was terrified to leave the house except for his new school, a long way from his gang brothers. This son graduated high school and left the area for college… alive, uninjured, and with a clean record.

True story – After a couple of years trying to keep their daughter out of trouble, parents started looking for work in a smaller town.  They wanted to find a safer place with fewer risks and more eyes. After she completed her mandated one year probation, the family moved.  She was upset to leave her friends, but they were the problem friends. Her crime sprees ended.

True story – a single mother was on the edge of sanity and financial ruin trying to manage the world her son created.  While visiting a juvenile justice counselor with her son, the counselor made an off-hand comment about handing him over to foster care so that she could get her job back and sleep at night.  With a heavy heart, she went forward and obtained a “voluntary placement” for him (temporary state custody), and he went to a foster home.  After two years, he was ready to come home and she was ready and empowered to support him.

A note of caution:  You may have seen ads for outdoor programs or “boot camps” for at-risk teens. Some of these programs are extremely inappropriate for troubled youth, even traumatizing. Or some may not allow teens with a criminal history. Get advice about therapeutic programs for your at-risk teenager from a counselor or social worker, not just from the program itself.  Your teen’s providers often know which ones are appropriate.

The people in the Juvenile Justice System

In my personal experience, 99% of employees in juvenile justice are there because they care about teens, they like teens and “get it” about them, and they believe in the power of what they do. My co-workers have many success stories among their cases. Some former delinquents come back to work for the juvenile justice system and use their hard-won experience to help the next generation.  Ironically, it’s the one job where a criminal record helps!

If you are concerned about what your child will experience in the juvenile justice system, just call and ask.  You may be surprised.

Challenges, risks, and potentially serious problems

Is your child at risk from criminal involvement or charged in a crime?  Please comment so other parents who read it can learn from your experience.  Thank you.

How am I doing?  Please rate this article above, thank you.

–Margaret


Mentally ill minors put in juvenile hall (excerpt)
Daily Bulletin, Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino, June 12, 2010

“Juvenile halls have become catch-all basins for severely mentally ill youth.  Designed as secure holding facilities for minors who are going through the court system, juvenile detention centers now double as a default placement option for youth diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.   “There is no place for them in [our system],” said a county juvenile court judge in California.  “We can’t just arrest our way out of the problem. Juvenile hall is not a place to house mentally ill.”

What to do when they stop listening

What to do when they stop listening

You don’t need to be this frustrated

At some point in their development, all kids stop listening. It’s frustrating but normal. There are lots of good advice for getting normal children and teens to listen, or at least follow the rules and directions given by the parent. But it’s different when your child has serious behavioral disorder and when their behaviors are extreme or outright risky. Your priority may be to prevent destructive behavior and family chaos when they hate you, blame you, or are willing to take extreme risks. Then who cares about the dishes or homework?

First things first, avoid upsetting yourself.

Avoid repeating things over and over, raising your voice, or expressing your frustration. It really matters.  This stresses you as much as it stresses them. Children and teens with disturbances have a hard time tracking, and it may be pointless to expect them to listen. Your child or teen is overwhelmed by brain noise and does not hear even hear you.

But what if they are refusing to listen?  That’s a different issue.  They ARE listening, and they are definitely communicating back to you.  This is resistance and defiance.  (see Managing resistance – tips and advice )

Things to do when they stop listening

Use technology: texting and email.

This mother should be texting her daughter instead

Therapists encourage high-conflict parent-teen pairs to communicate exclusively using email and texts, even if the parties are in close proximity, like at home together, like even on the same room! Think about this. You are using their chosen medium; you can keep it brief and concise; both you and your child have time to reflect on your response. Your conversation is documented, right there for both of you to track. No one is screaming or repeating themselves or using angry tones of voice.

Word of caution

Watch what you write. Don’t use emotionally charged words. Be sure to read texts and emails over and over before sending!

“The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2006 revealed that studies show e-mail messages are interpreted incorrectly 50% of the time.”

Move somewhere closer or farther, change your body language, no glaring

Instead of communicating with your voice, use your body. For some children and teens, an arm around their shoulders calms them quickly. Or try standing calmly and quietly. Or put some distance between you and your child’s personal space, even if it means stopping and getting out of the car and taking a short walk. Experiment to see what works for your situation.

Use a third-party

Maybe you are the wrong person to carry the message and settle a tense situation. Don’t be too proud to admit that, for whatever reason, your child will not listen to you no matter how appropriately you modify your approach. So use a substitute or third-party. Is there another person who has a better rapport and can convince your child to complete a chore, do homework, leave little sister alone—a spouse, a grandparent, a teacher or counselor, a therapist? What about a friendly animal, live or stuffed? For young children, you can bring out Kitty and ask her to tell Joey that mommy and daddy only want him to do this one simple chore.

Draw a picture, make a sign

As a young child, I recall my parents hounding me for something, I don’t even remember what.  Then they’d ask, “What do you want me to do, draw a picture?” Well, yes in fact, I understood pictures and they didn’t frighten me as much as my parents yelling at me. Pictures and signs work, put them up where the family can see them (and your troubled child won’t feel singled out). Maybe a funny comic gets a point across in a non-threatening way.  Some sign ideas: “It’s OK to be Angry, not Mean,” “STOP and THINK,” “Our family values Respect and Kindness,” “This is a smoke-free, drug-free, and a-hole free home.”

Time outs for you
.

Take your own sweet time to calm down and think things through what to say when you’re challenged by your offspring. Consider how you’ll respond to swearing. Put him or her on hold. Don’t return texts or email right away, “I’m busy and I’ll reply in 30 minutes.” Be specific on time, then follow through, or they might learn to blow you off with the same casual phrase, expecting you to forget. 

A Precaution

Watch your tone of voice

We are hardwired to detect emotions communicated through tone. Even infants respond to tone of voice even though they haven’t learned language.

From infancy, we are wired to pick up emotions in the voice—it’s literally in our brain.  Your tone is very powerful and can be calming or destructive. Think about asserting strength and caring in your voice without lecturing. Be assertive but forgiving. Be firm and not defensive. Don’t get caught apologizing for upsetting your child or justifying your rules. 90% of parents know the right thing to say, but its common to say it the wrong way.

Is your child bullying you with their behavior?

I’ve observed child verbally bully and abuse their parents. This is not communicating and not negotiable. You have options for standing up to this without making things worse. Temporarily block their email or calls, or ignore and let them go to voicemail. Declare bullying unacceptable. Pull rank and apply a consequence. You cannot let their harassment continue because they will use it on others.

About that mean-spirited voicemail or email.

When you get an ugly message, tell yourself you are hearing from a scared, frightened person, and you’re the one whose feelings they care about the most. See this as a good thing. They are trying to communicate but it’s mangled and inappropriate. You want them to stay in contact and engage with you even when its negative. When a disturbed child stops communicating is when you must worry.  It hurts, but your hurt will pass.  You can handle it.  They will still love you and some day they will show you.  Be patient.
If the things they communicate hurt.

It is best that you take your feelings out of the picture and seek other sources of affirmation and support—this can’t come from your child. If they write “I hate you,” maybe they are really saying “you make me mad because you are asking me to do something I can’t handle now.”


Good luck out there,
–Margaret

 

Please share your comments. They help other parents who read this article.

What to do about screaming teenagers

What to do about screaming teenagers

When their screaming starts, you brace yourself.  You armor your gut to protect it from the verbal pummeling.  Their cruel words pierce your heart.  When it’s over, you want to strangle them or abandon them in a wilderness.  In his  play, King Lear, William Shakespeare wrote, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”  That was 500 years ago and little has changed.

BUT THIS WILL PASS.  Your teen will quiet down and apologize someday… it may take a few years, but someday.  Until that bright day, remember that you’re tough enough to take it, and tough enough to persevere in the face of high drama and lots of noise.  You are not failing as a parent, but proving you care enough to be a good parent.  Paradoxically, your screamer appreciates your engagement because it’s reassuring to them.  Screaming teens are horribly insecure, and need you to prove you care for them.  This isn’t rational, or fair, but don’t take the screaming personally.  And don’t take it seriously unless the behavior is new or out-of-character, or unless your screamer makes threats of harm.

Difficult teenagers are inconsistent, irrational, insensitive to others, self-centered, childish and…  should I go on?  It may have nothing to do with a disorder per se.   Screaming teens are as normal as screaming babies.  Regard their screaming as you would a toddler temper tantrum.  It is a phase that most teens grow out of unless something else is holding them back.

The way to handle a screaming teenager is to handle yourself first, because you are the king or queen, holder of all power in the parent-child relationship, and you must use your power wisely.  Don’t scream back. Don’t reward screaming by losing your cool. Don’t get hooked.

When the screaming starts, do a personal check-in on your thoughts and feelings

How am I doing?
I am handling it.  This isn’t as serious as it seems.  It’ll be over in less than 10 minutes.

How am I feeling?
I choose how to feel and I won’t let this bother me.  I will rise to the occasion and come out stronger.

What are my options?
I will be persistent until I regain power over our household.  I will live within my values.  I will take care of myself when it becomes stressful.

Keep your expectations realistic

Two simple demands:
1. lower the volume,
2. clean up the language.

Set the boundary on the loudness of screaming and the use of mean-spirited, foul language.  Remind your teen that it’s OK to be angry; it’s not OK to assault with screaming and ugliness.  Give them an example of what you’d rather hear, for example:  “You are not being fair to me;”  or “Don’t say that about my friends…”

If they can’t communicate themselves in a straightforward non-screaming manner, then restate what you think they mean, using different words so they know you got their message: “You think I’m being unfair to you,”  “You don’t like me criticizing your friends.”  Ask them if you are correct.  Make it clear you got the message even if you disagree with them.  It becomes awkward to scream once you’ve shown you heard them.  It will take them off guard as they think of some other thing  to be upset at you about.

Until a teen can manage basic communication with you, they are not ready to discuss the substance of their complaint.  Make a sincere effort to look deeper and try to understand what’s bothering them.  You will often get this horribly wrong and upset your teen immeasurably, but they will realize on some level that you are aware of  their deep pain and seething rage… and feel more secure.

This mother should be texting her daughter instead

Use technology and avoid screaming altogether.   Get on your cell phone and text your child, or use email.  This works surprisingly well because you’ve entered their virtual world where they feel safe from your presence, and have time to contemplate and cool off.  Writing/texting is slower, and that’s the point.  Therapists often direct feuding parents and children to communicate only by email for a while.

Listen to what they need and feel, not to what they say.

Most teens have similar needs: to feel heard, to be loved, to make one’s own choices.  Take these away and you have an angry screaming teenager.  But teens also struggle with emotional distress:  family instability, problem with a love interest, or something else they don’t want to share with you because they’re afraid of how you’ll react.  Teenage years are emotional hell, remember?  Ugly rumors on social sites, bullying, grade worries, frets over appearances… would you want to go through your teens again?  Does the thought make you want to scream?

A teenager may be a screamer because of genuine physical discomforts.  Physical things make people irritable, and teens more so:  lack of sleep, dehydration, lack of exercise; excessive sugar and fat; constipation; the monthly period.  A change in the length of daylight affects mood, whether going into the spring or into the fall.  Don’t forget to assess the home environment.  Has there been a significant change in family life?  a traumatic event?  Always consider drug and alcohol use.  If their behavior is unusually or uncharacteristically aggressive or violent, or if it’s changed for the worst recently, get a urinalysis and look for methamphetamine or marijuana. UA kits are available at drug stores or online.  Go through a  medical diagnostic checklist when the misbehavior starts.  Sometimes a few glasses of water is all your teen needs to become human again.  Have a glass yourself.

What if you, the screamee, are the problem?  Are you too strict?  lenient?  picky?  Do you nag without realizing it?  You might be the one who needs to change.  If so, admit when you’re wrong and be the first to apologize and set the good example.  My first apology to a recalcitrant child was awkward and defensive, but I had to swallow my pride and apologize for something I said.  Over time, it got easier, and apologies happened normally and easily in the family.

Self care, find a way to let yourself down easy

Leave people and chores behind for a while, go scream in a pillow, and pull yourself together.  Talk to someone who can listen or provide a point of view that’s helpful.  Set aside a dollar after every screaming fit, and treat yourself to something special later.  Let your screamer know that you’re looking forward to their next screaming episode so you can save more and get something nice.

Humor heals

Don’t forget to laugh.  Any parent who’s survived the teenage years will understand that we all need a sense of humor.  It may be a little twisted, but I find these bumper stickers funny.

“Mothers of teenagers know why some animals eat their young.”

“Grandchildren are God’s reward for not killing your own children.”

“Few things are more satisfying than seeing your children have teenagers of their own.”

 

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–Margaret

Are you trying to reason with an irrational child?

Are you trying to reason with an irrational child?

I regularly speak with parents with children with a brain disorder and a history of serious behavior problems. Many are truly at the end of their rope.  The parent is so exasperated by their child’s relentless acting out, they start repeating themselves to exhaustion. and wondering why the child isn’t getting it.

They plead for answers: “Why does he keep doing this?, or, ” Why doesn’t she stop after I’ve explained things over and over.”  Then they answer their own questions:  “It’s because he always wants his way,” or, “She’s doing this to get back at me.”

The parent then lists all the ways they’ve tried reasoning with their child or disciplining with consequences.  As they tell their story, they continue to ask questions and provide answers, going around and around and around:  “He does this just to make me mad;”  “She manipulates the situation because she wants more (something) and I won’t give it to her.”  What’s interesting to me is that these children can be quite young (4 or 5), too young to expect reasoning in the first place, or they can be young adults (early 20′s) who have a long track record of doing things that don’t make sense.

Saying something a 1000 times doesn’t work. Your child tunes you out.

Parents’ stress and frustration vanish if they accept that their child is not ready to reason or control their behaviors.  It’s not their fault, and not the parents’ fault. Irrationality is the hallmark of brain-based problems, and chronically challenging behaviors are the evidence.

If you feel you have run into brick walls over and over again, and your child is not learning what you’re teaching, do both of yourselves a favor and stop trying the same things that still don’t work.  Stop assuming they will  listen, or that they even can listen.  Your child or teen does not have an evil plan to push your buttons and control your moods like a puppet.

When you find yourself trying to reason with a troubled child or teen (or young adult), step back and calm yourself this way, and ask what your child needs in the moment.  Then change your whole approach.

  • Try different ways of communicating, such as softening your tone of voice.
  • Pay attention to whether they respond best to words or images, and use what works most naturally for them.  Try using touch to communicate, or withdrawing touch if that’s threatening to them.
  • Post (polite) signs and simple house rules in the house as reminders for things they need to do every day.
  • Show instead of tell. Your child or teen may not be able to learn through their ears.  Or they tune you out.  Demonstrate how instead of telling them how.
  • Avoid explaining how their behavior will hurt them in the future.  Children and teens often cannot track how pushing one domino leads to all the dominoes falling.

If you’re nagging and harping and chiding your child, forgive yourself.

It’s so common one might call it normal.  You are still a good parent who wants the best for your son or daughter.  Over the many years I’ve facilitated parent support groups, I’ve heard so many regret how they’ve treated their child once they begin to understand that it won’t work.  You are not alone.  Raising a child like yours is tough, but you’ll move on and figure things out.  Don’t give up.