What to do with an out of control teen: guidelines for parents

Pamela Montazer M.A. LMFT

 Working in a rehab for teens I quickly learned how unprepared many parents were about what to do with their out of control teen. I saw two main styles of parenting. I will call them the “tyrant” and the “enabler.”  Tyrants were parents who were overly strict and took every freedom and choice away from their misbehaving teen. What resulted was a hopeless adolescent with nothing to lose and no reason to make improvements. Enablers, the majority, were parents who would do the opposite and give their children whatever they wanted. These parents, unknowingly, let their teen run the show. Neither parenting style was at all effective in mitigating their teens behaviors. Despite how ineffective their parenting style was, most parents still clung to it for dear life.  Tyrants were surprisingly more open and likely to alter their parenting style than the Enablers. Enablers were the most frustrating parents to work with because they would never “pull the trigger” on boundaries and discipline and their kids knew it.

So what do you do with a teen that is acting out in some way (i.e. drinking, using drugs, cutting, running away, bullying, poor grades, getting in trouble at school, getting in legal trouble etc.)?

1.   Clear expectations and rules – Clearly communicate your expectations to your teen. In working with families I have noticed there is a lot of mind reading that occurs.  Parents often say things like “he should know better.”  The reality is your teen doesn’t know what you are thinking. No matter how common sense it may seem to you, communicate it with your teen. Some great ways to keep rules and responsibilities clear are home agreements and whiteboards listing rules and chores.

2.   Include your teen in decisions – When developing a home agreement listing rules and expectations it’s important to include your teen in the process. This will help them feel like they have a voice in the family and some agency in their life. Its important to remember how powerless it can feel to be a teenager. You will always have the final say in decisions about things like curfew and allowance but make sure to include your teen in the process. Its important for them to feel heard.

3.   Home agreements- list expectations, rules and expected consequences for breaking rules and not meeting expectations. It important for your teen to know the consequence of breaking a rule BEFORE they break it. It gives the teen the power and responsibility of making the choice between following the rules or accepting the consequence. It also frees your from feeling emotionally invested in your teen’s infraction. Which leads to the next point…

4.   Separate the behavior from the person- If consequences are agreed upon in advance you can implement them with neutrality. Ex. “I see you chose not to go to school today and have chosen to give up your phone for the weekend.” Don’t get me wrong your teen will still be angry about this. If you ignore their anger, and maintain neutrality it will blow over. Parents who take a “wing it” approach to discipline often find them selves very frustrated and emotionally invested in their teens mistakes. The teens are equally frustrated feeling like they never know what they will get in trouble for. In these situations parents, out of anger and frustration, say hurtful things to their children.  “How could you do that.” “ How could you be so stupid.”  These statements attack and punish the person. Mistakes happen. It’s a part of growing up.  So allow room for them to happen with your support and guidance.

5.    Hold your ground- Don’t waiver on agreed upon consequences. If you threaten to take a phone away and fail to follow through with it then your teen won’t take the rule seriously. You also give up your power as a parent to your teenage by not holding your ground.

6.   Communicate- Ask your teen how they are doing. No matter how much they seem like they don’t want to talk to you they still want to be asked.

7.   Be patient- making changes to your parenting style will be met with resistance by your teen. They will be angry and probably terrorize you even more than usual at first. However, once they see their old methods aren’t working to get what they want, the terror will subside. If you are patient and hold your ground through the growing pains of change you will end up with a much better relationship with your teen and a more peaceful household.

No matter how much teen will resist structure and authority they need it to feel safe and secure. Remember an “out of control” teenager is usually a very scared and insecure teenager. Love them, spend time with them, and provide them with an environment with structure, supervision and consistency.

Pamela Montazer, LMFT is a psychotherapist with a background in addiction treatment at our sister office Orange County Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine in Newport Beach, CA.  She assists the staff at True North Recovery Services on occasion with group coverage, consultation, and curriculum development.