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Does My Kid Need Help ... Or Do I?

One of the first things I tell parents when they bring their kids in for counseling is that they have the greatest power to positively impact change in their kids’ behaviors. Most often, parents bring their teens to counseling because they feel pretty sure it’s the kid who needs work. He’s defiant and disrespectful, she’s secretive and sneaky, he’s always in his room, or she sleeps way too much and doesn’t help out around the house. When these things happen, it’s pretty obvious who the problem is, right?

The truth is that sometimes it’s the kid who needs to change and sometimes it’s the parents. Sometimes it’s both. So how can you know if it’s you or your kid who really needs the help?

Many typical teen behaviors, while irritating and even infuriating at times, are important developmental steps that will ultimately help them become self-sufficient adults.

Change Is Good

Kids change a lot during their teen years, and although most parents expect it, when the changes come, it can be a rude awakening. Some changes are good. If your teen seems self-centered and wants more privacy and independence, it can be pretty annoying, but it’s normal.

If you experience an increase in backtalk and a decrease in helpfulness, you’re not alone. Even if your teen is lying and doing things behind your back, it may still fall within the description of “normal teen behaviors.” If these behaviors become a pattern or become excessive, chances are that the first and most effective course of action is going to be a change in your parenting strategies rather than a trip to the therapist for them.

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Many typical teen behaviors, while irritating and even infuriating at times, are important developmental steps that will ultimately help them become self-sufficient adults. Unfortunately, many parents are quick to use excessive and arbitrary consequences in an effort to maintain control. Other parents simply throw their hands in the air when their first attempts don’t result in a change in behavior, and then they blame their unruly teen.

While certainly tempting, it is important not to simply squash these frustrating behaviors, but to learn which ones to accept and which to reduce. Reduce or reshape undesirable behaviors by adapting your strategies to ensure you are using predictable, consistent and appropriate limits. Remember, the parenting techniques that worked well with your younger kid may not be effective or age-appropriate for your teen. Revisit your approach. Be flexible and open to making changes yourself.

Change Is Good, Except When It Isn’t

Even though some changes that occur in adolescence are normal and expected, there are changes to look out for that can be signs your kid needs help. Some parents may see their kids’ grades drop significantly. Or perhaps their appetite or sleep habits have changed, or they’ve lost interest in things that they used to enjoy. They may spend every waking moment closed off in their room when they used to hang out in common areas of the house. Or it might be that their backtalk has become not only frequent, but increasingly angry, defiant and disrespectful. If you see these things, then there’s reason to suspect something is going on that needs to be addressed right away.

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Although many teens are irritable and private, if these characteristics represent a major change, especially in a short period of time, pay attention. These could be warning signs of depression, anxiety, bullying or drug abuse (among other things). If you notice any of these things, start by going straight to your teen to talk. Be sure that love and concern for them and their happiness come across as your primary motivations—kids this age often aren’t too worried about how their behaviors affect you and others in the household. Even if you think they should be more aware of others, approaching them from that angle will likely just turn them off.

Listen First

If you get a response, great! Focus on actively listening to what they have to say. Empathize, and be careful not to criticize or give advice (these things will close them up like fly-traps). The best thing you can do is show them you want to gain a deeper understanding of how they see their world. If they think that you might actually get it, they’ll open up more over time.

Having said that, if you have tried this more than once and can’t seem to get anywhere, it is never overreacting to make an appointment with a therapist. Your teen may not be thrilled (in fact, he probably won’t be), but it will show him that you take his needs seriously even if he’s not willing (or able) to tell you what they are. Hopefully, the process will even get him to start talking to you. Just make sure you go in with a “we need help,” attitude and you’ll set the stage for collaboration and progress. Remember, they will only be teens for a short time, but they’ll be your “kids” forever. The empathy, structure and support you give now can provide a lifetime of benefits for you both.

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