Many parents dread the onset of their children’s adolescence. Even the most doting mothers and fathers will shudder when they think of their adoring 8-year-old’s inevitable transformation into the stereotypical angst-ridden teen. In a way, these parents are right to be apprehensive about adolescence. In those years, children will begin to differentiate themselves from their caregivers, perhaps preferring their friends’ company over their family’s, making what seem like risky decisions, or acting toward their parents in a rude or hostile way. Even more, adolescence is the time when many mental health issues and substance abuse issues begin to emerge.
As an outpatient treatment program for teens with substance abuse issues, mental health disorders, and co-occurring disorders, Insight Treatment Programs comes across many parents who simply don’t know how to view their teens. They are bewildered by the changes in their children, but cannot determine whether their teen’s new behaviors are symptoms of their age and stage of development or of an unaddressed mental health issue. Sometimes, it can be hard to differentiate between the two.
At Insight, we have come to understand that adolescents will push up against any and all boundaries enforced upon them— it’s what they’re designed to do. Many of the parents with whom Insight interacts are ready to go to battle over their teen’s perceived defiance, but what they do not realize is that what seems like bad behavior is really just par for the course. As psychiatrist Dan Siegel elucidates in his book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, during adolescence, the brain’s baseline level of dopamine, the neurotransmitter central to our experiencing pleasure, lowers,while the threshold for its release is raised. This can account for teens’ thrill-seeking behavior, as one way to achieve dopamine release is to participating in novel and exciting experiences. The biological beauty of this system is that, guided by their changing brains, teens’ quests for new experiences will prepare them for the independence of adulthood.
However, while these these neurochemical changes may be normal and developmentally important, this does make them danger-free. Because of their new relationship with dopamine, adolescents are much more likely to seek out potentially dangerous activities without being capable of fully understanding the potential negative consequences. Even more, the changes in their brains leave teens vulnerable to addiction. Thus, it becomes extremely important for parents to differentiate between normal adolescent development and self-destructive behavior. Here are some tips for parents who are navigating that sometimes murky terrain:
Know Where your Child Is: If you know what your teenager is doing and with whom, you are more likely to get a good sense of what his life is like. When your teen reports that she will be at a friend’s house, it’s a good idea to connect with that friend’s parents. This will not only help to ensure their safety, but also provide you with some telling information about their lives. If you catch them in deception after deception, this could mean that they are struggling with some larger problems like substance abuse issues.
Imagine an iceberg: The most dangerous aspect of ice bergs is not the glacial mass visible from the surface of the water, but instead the much larger bulk of the berg that hides underneath. With ice bergs, what we can see only hints at the enormity of what’s below. The same can be said for adolescent behavior. Oftentimes, what we know about our teens’ lives is just the tip of the ice-berg. Because they are seeking to differentiate, teens are likely to begin to keep secrets from their moms and dads. Again, in developmental terms, this is normal. Yet, it is important for parents to keep in mind that whatever your teen does disclose to you, or whatever information you may come across on your own, is probably not all that he’s engaged in. Sometimes, parents will only learn about their teens’ risk-taking behaviors after those behaviors have become a substantial problem in the teens’ life. For instance, if a teacher confiscates pot from your child’s locker, chances are that this was not her first time possessing the drug. At Insight, our 20 years of experience in treating adolescents has shown that oftentimes, a teen’s “getting caught” is already a sign that his life is out of control.
Hold the Line: It may be an adolescent’s job to push up against the boundaries you set, but it is your job to hold firm. As much as they may protest, teens thrive when their lives feel consistent and in-control. When you set and enforce limits, you establish the parameters for a safe, depend-able home environment. Establish expectations for your teen and be explicit about what the con-sequences, whether natural or imposed, will be if she does not meet them. Don’t be afraid to dole out those consequences when appropriate. If you find that your teen repeatedly violates the rules of your household, even when the consequences of those actions continuously impact his life in a negative way, then it may be time to seek professional help as this inflexibility could point to larger mental health or substance abuse issues. Similarly, if you find that you, as a parent have a hard time enforcing the home rules and that every interaction with your child feels like an emotional roller-coaster, you may consider consulting with a therapist who can help the family system function in a more productive way.
Connect with Other Parents: At Insight, we understand that parenting can often feel like an isolating endeavor. Especially if they are struggling with a teen child’s emotional or behavioral problems, some parents tend to turn inward, hoping to keep their family’s issues secret. Yet, it is just the opposite action that can prove the most healing. When you communicate what is happen-ing in your own household, you will be shocked to learn that other parents are dealing with the exact same things. Connecting with fellow parents or even joining a parent support group can help to make whatever challenges you are going through with your teen feel normal and surmountable.
Seek Professional Help: Even if you are at a loss as to what is going on with your teen and their substance abuse issues, there are plenty of mental health professionals in your community who can help assess your situation and determine if treatment is the best option.
For further information please contact us @ 800-599-8820
Insight Treatment Programs