Tag: troubled teens

Back to School: Tips for the Transition

Back to School: Tips for the Transition

Starting school after a summer vacation triggers behavioral problems in many troubled children and teens.  A rocky start can result in problem behavior for a couple of months.  Your child does poor academically during those months, and their behavior primes teachers to treat them differently.  This guest article by Eileen Devine, LCSW, breaks down the issues and offers solutions for parents.


Back to School: Tips for the Transition
Eileen Devine, LCSW

parent talks with teacherIt’s that time of year again—back-to-school sales at all the stores, school emails and supply lists, fresh questions about new teachers and new classrooms. The summer break is winding down, which for some brings relief at the idea of returning to more structured days (with some respite for parents and other caregivers).  For others,transition into school brings the dread and stress of educating a new teacher on our child’s unique way of being in the world, bracing for what seems to be inevitable challenges inherent in our child’s experience of school.

Wherever you fall on that spectrum between relief and dread, there are things you can do as a parent to begin building a new foundation of collaboration with your child’s teacher. Set up a goal for everyone that leads to a successful school year.

To Disclose or Not to Disclose

Many children with brain differences (trauma-induced, biologically based.) might appear to be “neurotypical” or normal, causing their brain-based disability and related challenges to go unnoticed.

Teachers often don’t recognize the symptoms of your child’s disability and interpret them as disrespect, defiance, lack of motivation or laziness.

art classParents with whom I routinely work will struggle with when to disclose that their child has a brain-based disability that makes seemingly simple tasks incredibly difficult.  Parents are worried about the impact this disclosure might have on their child, that the stigma accompanying various diagnoses will cause negative ramifications.  (See “Teachers and Stigma – Judging and Blaming Families“)  The stigma is real, and yet with this reality in mind, my challenge to a parent is always this:

What will the impact on your child be if you choose not to disclose?

How will you advocate for them?

If you don’t disclose, how will your child access the accommodations they so rightfully deserve, based on their brain-based disability?

If your child is not fully understood by those who interact with them each day, the ability for your child to having meaningful and positive relationships with school staff is greatly diminished. I always advise pro-active planning (early disclosure) vs. waiting for a problem to occur, which can force the disclosure under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Getting Clear on Brain Tasks

When was the last time you gave serious consideration to exactly which cognitive skills or brain tasks are especially difficult for your child? We often can pinpoint the situation or recall the event where it occurred, but what brain task was involved that sent your child into a meltdown or a fit of rage?

Does your child get “stuck?”  Does your child’s thinking limit his or her ability transition without substantial support? Do they get trapped in verbal or behavioral loops? Are they unable to initiate an appropriate activity independently, even one that you know they love?

Does your child only see black and white? Are they cognitively inflexible, and respond to everything as, now or never, right or wrong?

Do they have difficulty processing sensory input? If so, what types of sensory input are especially challenging (noise, bright lights, crowded spaces, smells)?

Does your child struggle with social and emotional skills? Do they act younger than they are, and are they still learning what it means to think of others, empathize, share, and compromise?

Is their verbal communicating “off?” What do you know about the limits their brain has turning thoughts into speech?  How would you describe their memory and recall challenges?

Teachers and other school staff need specific answers so they can appropriately treat your child.

As parents who daily students fightingexperience challenging situations with our child, we usually have no difficulty articulating what event or situation “set our child off” or caused them distress. But if we can take a step back and link it with brain function, we gain an essential piece of the puzzle in terms of how to understand our child in all environments and situations.

Taking the step back, making the list of brain tasks and then translating them for others—teachers, para-educators, administrators, bus drivers— is essential for these professionals and their ability to be pro-active in their approach with your child.

I clearly remember my own first steps up the steep learning curve of trying to understand an individual with brain differences from a neurobehavioral perspective. It was challenging. I needed reminders and re-teaching. I needed to be gentle with myself when I failed to parent differently, and needed support in doing it better the next time around.

Teachers are on their own steep learning curve with this approach. It’s often not taught in education classes or offered in professional development sessions, leaving educators unprepared or ill-equipped to see children from this lens. There are ways we can help bring the information together for teachers in a concise, but comprehensive way, to help them understand what it means for our child to struggle with those identified brain tasks.

Write a succinct summary of what brain tasks your child has the most trouble with and translate what this looks like in the classroom. Then explain what works to help.

For example, for a 9-year-old child who is experiencing “dysmaturity” (a gap between the developmental age and the chronological age) might be emotionally closer to age 4.  One might observe:

boy with ADD

Johnny’s social behavior is frequently younger than his chronological age (as much as 4-5 years younger). Because of this social and emotional developmental gap, he can sometimes be seen as irresponsible or ‘acting like a baby;’ this is what it looks like when he is much younger developmentally. Remembering that he’ll benefit (and be safest) when understood as being a younger age than he appears, will help prevent development of frustration, personalization and anxiety for Johnny.

For LaQuisha, the 11-year-old in fifth grade:

LaQuisha is a very good listener, but she listens slowly (think: ten-second-child in a one-second world). She will often say “I don’t know,” or “What?” because she cannot maintain or track the typical flow of classroom conversation. Slowing down and giving her space between sentences works for her. Giving her prompting questions or other visual cues before the instruction or classroom discussion begins will allow her to participate more fully in what is being discussed.

For Miranda, who is 13 and in middle school:

Miranda struggles with memory and recall, which makes changing classrooms throughout the day— each with its own teacher and differing set of rules and expectations— overwhelming for her to manage. She will benefit from visual cues and reminders from each teacher about those rules or expectations, which she can keep at the front of each section in her binder for that particular class.

For Omar, who is a 16-year-old in high school:

Omar has significant challenges related to executive functioning as a result of his brain-based disability. One of the ways you will see this in the classroom is when he is unable to initiate a task on his own (freezes up or gets stuck) and he may need additional prompting and support to get into the assignment at hand. He also experiences difficulty forming links, such as hearing instructions and then transitioning into doing the expected task (hearing into doing), seeing instructions for a writing assignment on the board and then translating that into writing on a paper (seeing into writing), formulating his thoughts and then verbalizing them (thinking into talking). He will experience success in your classroom if it is understood he needs more time and support in this area.

Always describe your child’s strengths too, not just their limitations.  Suggest how a teacher can help your child be successful by building on things they are naturally good at and enjoy.

From the Flipside – Tips from a Teacher

frustrated teacherMany of these ideas are formulated from the perspective of a parent preparing for a child to return to school, but what about the teacher’s perspective? What suggestions would a thoughtful, experienced special educator have for parents and children about to shift into back-to-school mode?

Kelly Rulon is a teacher I’ve come to know through her work with our daughter. She’s been teaching special education for seven years, working across multiple schools and districts. She’s a strong believer in research-based systems and instruction. In her experience, with those in place, every child can be educated in their neighborhood school, without restrictive placements.

Here’s what she had to say, from a teacher’s perspective:

I know that transitioning back to school can be a time of great anxiety, both for parents and kids. A little preparation can go a long way. Here are a few things that can help your student get emotionally ready to return to the routine of school:

  1. Set aside time for an intentional conversation about the return to school. Ask your child what they are excited about for the year, as well as what might be causing feelings of nervousness. It’s a wonderful opportunity for you to connect with them. As a teacher, I love hearing about these things too! It really gives everyone the chance to begin the year with a strengths-based approach, as well as an idea of potential struggles. Knowing about these feelings early on helps to get folks on the same page, and to get some proactive strategies in place.
  2. The looser, less-structured routines and schedules of summer can be fun, but moving abruptly from that to school day schedules can be hard. Help your child gradually get back into the school routine ahead of the first day of school, be it bedtime or wake-up time or meal time. This will help with that exhausting transition back to school. (I know I’m asleep before my head hits the pillow those first few weeks back!)
  3. I always invite my students to come for a short visit to the school during the week of in-service, before school begins. It’s a busy time for teachers as we’re prepping away for Day 1, but a short, informal visit helps me establish positive, low-stakes contact with challenging students and families. This may not be the case for all teachers— and I have many colleagues who have wonderful family relationships without this meeting— but it’s worth an ask if you think your child could benefit from a preview.


A book I like is by Diane Malbin
, “Trying Differently Rather Than Harder.” It is an easy-to-read resource on the neurobehavioral approach. Although specific to FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder), the information applies to other neurobehavioral challenges. Buying your teacher a copy of the book and highlighting sections that are particularly reflective of your child is a wonderful way to expand understanding of your child.


classroomAs Kelly suggests above, before school begins, but when teachers have returned to prepare their classrooms, contact the school and request a 30-minute introductory meeting with the teacher(s). Use this as an opportunity to set the stage for collaboration and provide the teacher(s) with the concise-but-comprehensive write-up you’ve thoughtfully prepared. This is not the meeting to go into your child’s extensive history or to detail their previous challenges in school. Keep it short and positive, making it clear that you’re there to be a source of support in how to work with your child. If you know your child has a “honeymoon” stage at the beginning of the year, be upfront about that, so the teacher is not blindsided by it. If you know your child typically has a rough transition back, but then settles into the routine after a certain amount of time, let the teacher(s) know this, too, and suggest ways you can work together to support your child through the anticipated rough patch.

Bringing it all Together

Transitions are hard, and from my experience working with parents who have children with brain-based differences, the back-to-school transition is often one of the hardest. My final suggestion is for you, as the parent, to make your own plan for self-care.  Focus the plan on what you will do to take care of yourself as you gear up to support your child through this potentially intense period. Rally the troops you have around you to help buffer some of the stress. Be clear with those closest to you about what you need during this period to make it through without burning out.

If you have a thoughtful, well-considered plan in place for you and your child, if you’re positive, clear, supportive and realistic with your child’s teacher(s), and if you’re able to place your child and their needs at the center of the conversation, the transition back to school doesn’t have to be simply a rewind of previously challenging transitions.


Eileen Devine, LCSW, works in Portland, OR as a therapist supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders) and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, FASD Northwest, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome). For more information, visit FASD Northwest.

 

Marijuana is uniquely dangerous for troubled teens

Marijuana is uniquely dangerous for troubled teens

Marijuana’s effect on adolescents is more serious than many realize, especially for those with behavioral disorders.  This is no exaggeration; marijuana can lead to psychosis and long-term cognitive impairment for your troubled child.  Numerous recent research studies show that marijuana has a more damaging effect on the young brain than is generally understood. The THC in marijuana is psychoactive, which means it can affect your child’s unbalanced brain chemistry more than the general population. Serious depression, anxiety, paranoia, and psychosis can be triggered in children with latent psychiatric vulnerabilities. (Additional marijuana research going back to 2004 is at the end of this article).

Just because marijuana is plant-based does not mean it is safe.  It has dangerous side-effects like any other psychoactive drug.

Marijuana legalization has deeply concerned pediatric psychiatrists and other specialists in child, adolescent, and young adult mental health treatment.  Up until the their early 20’s, young people’s brains undergo radical changes as part of normal development.  Neurons are “pruned” to reduce their number (yes indeed, one can have too much gray matter to function as an adult). Pruning occurs rapidly in teenagers–think about it, in addition to puberty, a lot of nonsensical teenage behavior can be explained by this.  The THC in marijuana, the part responsible for the high, interferes with the normal pruning process.

When marijuana is ‘medicinal,’ a doctor determines a safe dose.  When it is ‘recreational,’ there is no such limit… teen users don’t realize there should be.

Let’s talk about a safe “dose,” which is different for each person.

THC is known to relieve anxiety in smaller doses and increase it in larger; this is due to its bi-phasic effects, meaning it can have two opposite effects in high doses. Furthermore, some people are genetically predisposed to experience anxiety with cannabis as a result of brain chemistry.”
–What are the Side-Effects of High THC Cannabis. Bailey Rahn, 2016

Recent evidence that marijuana leads teenagers to harder drugs

“The study of the lives of more than 5,000 teenagers produced the first resounding evidence that cannabis is a gate way to cocaine, amphetamines, hallucinogens and heroin.” Read the full story

“Teenagers who regularly smoke cannabis are 26 times more likely to turn to other drugs by the age of 21.  It also discovered that teenage cannabis smokers are 37 times more likely to be hooked on nicotine and three times more likely to be problem drinkers than non-users of the drug.”
–Steve Doughty and Ben Spencer, Daily Mail, London UK, June 7, 2017

Now let’s talk about long-term.  Our troubled children are already slipping behind their peers in important ways, which can include school; emotional maturity (certainly); and physical health (such as gut and digestive problems).   Marijuana will add to your teen’s problems by causing lethargy, impaired memory, and cognitive delays.

We can’t pretend or assume marijuana is safe anymore, regardless of its legality or medicinal uses.

I found this research result extremely worrisome:

“Increasing levels of cannabis use at ages 14-21 resulted in lower levels of  degree attainment by age 25, lower-income at age 25, higher levels of welfare dependence, higher unemployment, lower levels of relationship satisfaction, and lower levels of life satisfaction.”
–Cannabis use and later life outcomes.  Fergusson DM, Boden JM, Addiction;  Pp: 969-76;  Vol: 103(6), June 2008

I worked with adolescents in residential care and in the juvenile justice system who regularly used marijuana when they could.  A young man on my caseload grew noticeably depressed after he started smoking regularly, and his anxiety, irritability, and paranoia increased.  He said that smoking helped him feel better, but he couldn’t observe what I and other social workers observed over time. Smoking marijuana, ironically, was temporarily relieving him of its own side-effects.

A clarification about the two substances in marijuana – The plant Cannabis sativa has two chemicals of interest:

  1. Cannabidiol (CBD) = Medical marijuana:  the molecule is safe for a variety of treatments, such as relief of pain and nausea, and it is approved by the American Medical Association;
  2. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) = psychoactive “high”:  in those who are vulnerable it, triggers psychotic symptoms, paranoia, depression, anxiety, and memory loss.

Your troubled child’s future is already at-risk, why worsen it with marijuana use?

All children need the same warnings that we give about alcohol and street drugs to include marijuana.  Whether you live in a jurisdiction where marijuana is legal or not, teens can and will find it.  It may not be possible to completely prevent your troubled child from using, but your caring persistence can reduce or end its use.

marijuana infographic

Please share this information with other parents.  

–Margaret

“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.

  • The carrot:  The teens attend school and receive training for vocations such as car repair or catering.  They participate in positive character-building activities such as training dogs for adoption, building and maintaining hiking trails, or constructing homes for Habitat for Humanity.
  • The stick: Teens have a complete lack of freedom, whether in detention or out on probation, intensive monitoring (including random urinalysis), immediate consequences for behavior violations, and physical labor to pay back victims (community work programs).

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:

  • Be an active partner with the court. Cooperate fully with the judge, court counselor or therapist, and any attorney, case worker, or probation officer involved.
  • Show up for everything:  visitation, family therapy, court hearings, and parenting classes even if you don’t think you need them.
  • Stand shoulder-to-shoulder with staff.  If your teen has a probation officer, do what they tell you, even if it means tattling on your kid.
  • Be cooperative with staff, and they will work harder for you and your son or daughter. Support the programs required for your teen, and support your teen when they struggle. Your involvement will someday impress on your child that you’re on their side and care.
  • Change your ways.  If you’ve been too harsh with your teen in the past, go easy on them now and let him or her see your good side. If you’ve been too easy on them or too protective, demonstrate backbone. Show you know what’s best for them and that you will remain in charge once they are released.
  • Stick with your child.  If your teenager becomes a Frequent Flyer in the system, it doesn’t mean they are lost.  Remember, they have that uncontrollable teenaged brain and need more time and lessons for it to reach maturity.

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:

  • Don’t allow them to stay out late ever. Set an early curfew, and report them to their probation officer if they are late.  When they get angry about this, explain that you are bound by the law and that they should discuss their concerns with the officer.
  • Not negotiable: ban drugs and alcohol, especially marijuana. (“Marijuana is uniquely dangerous for troubled teens”.)  Hide prescription drugs and alcohol if you use them. You have the right to search their room and belongings.  If pertinent, hide weapons, matches, or other means of harm to themselves or others.
  • Stop or limit contact with risky friends. This may mean monitoring visits, monitoring cell phone use and internet access, or blocking access entirely if used for crime.
  • Limit access to money to prevent drug/alcohol purchases or escape plans. Get receipts if necessary.
  • Reduce free time. Busy them with as many activities as you can–a job is the ideal.
  • Build your own network of other concerned parents to track your kid… in other words, to spy on them.  Besides other parents, I even contacted businesses where my teen was known to hang out, such as a mall and cafe.  See  “Gang up on your kids: Parent networks for tracking at-risk children.”

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

  • A troubled young person in detention or incarceration is exposed to others with criminal behavior. They may bully or be bullied or both.  They may meet fellow inmates to sell drugs to when they get out, or learn who can supply them with drugs. Depression is common, and presents as anger or self-destructive behavior, such as getting in trouble on purpose.
  • Not all juvenile departments provide mental health treatment, or treatment is inadequate.  And sadly, there are still places where staff and citizens don’t believe in the mental health “excuse” for bad behavior.  You may need to be an assertive advocate for treatment.  Work with your child’s public defender, who is provided by the court, and give them evidence of mental health problems in  medical records.  Your child will need to sign a waiver for the attorney to have the records.
  • Some states have Mandatory Minimums–pray it’s not yours. Certain crimes lead to long prison sentences regardless of the circumstances of the crime or the mental illness of your child. My state of Oregon will incarcerate anyone over age 15 for seven years if they commit one of these crimes. This made sense to the voters who put it into law, but the reality is a worst-case scenario for how NOT to rehabilitate youth.  No one I’ve ever met in our state, from judges to prosecuting attorneys to sheriffs to probation officers, thinks it’s a good idea–the outcomes have been horrible for reasons too lengthy to go into here.
  • Each county and state has a different culture and attitude towards juvenile delinquents. Some are exceptionally harsh, or they neglect the kids’ legitimate needs; some are reluctant to treat kids like individuals with different needs and strengths; some get that right balance of punishment and rehabilitation. It depends on the judges, the county, and the state. Each is different.

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.”