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How to Help a Troubled Teenager: A Detailed Guide for Parents

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Many parents know that the teen years can be difficult at times, filled with mood swings and heightened emotions. Teens are going through a sensitive stage of development, marked by rapid changes happening in the body and brain that can cause discomfort and extra stress. 

This stage is also where teens begin to explore cultural, sexual and gender identities. When paired with an influx of hormones, school stress and pressure to fit in—it can cause problematic teenage behavior. 

It’s normal for teenagers to get moody, be impulsive, and challenge authority as they explore their independence. A troubled teen, on the other hand, shows behavioral or emotional problems beyond the normal teenage mood swings and that affect their day-to-day functioning. 

Understanding A Troubled Teen

Troubled teens often experience on-going thoughts, feelings and behaviors that can affect their relationships, school performance, and daily functioning. In some cases, these can even cause legal consequences. 

While it´s normal for teens to take small risks, get moody or isolate themselves in their rooms—it’s important for parents to recognize that some behaviors can point to more serious issues. Some signs your teen could be troubled include: 

  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Skipping or failing school
  • Self-harm
  • Aggression, violence or getting in fights 
  • Isolation and low self-esteem
  • Trouble with the legal system 

Risky behaviors that go above and beyond what is typical for a teenager can affect their health, safety, happiness, and who they become in adulthood. 

The sooner parents can recognize and understand the signs of a troubled teen, the quicker they can intervene to provide support. 

What Makes A Teen Troubled? 

During adolescence, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is still developing. This region of the brain controls impulsivity, decision-making, reasoning skills and emotional regulation. 

This period of development can make teens more sensitive to external stressors and susceptible to underlying mental health problems. 

Outside stressors with school and peers, trauma or underlying mental health problems such as depression or anxiety can present as troubled teen behavior. Some other causes of a troubled teen could include: 

  • Physical, emotional or sexual abuse 
  • Being raised in an environment with conflict or instability 
  • Abusive relationships or friendships 
  • Heightened academic pressure 
  • Substance abuse 
  • Underlying mental health problems (depression, anxiety, mood disorders, personality disorders)  

How To Help A Troubled Teenager 

Parenting a troubled teen can often make parents question if they have failed as a parent. Instead of trying to blame a situation as the cause of their behaviors, focus on their current needs. 

There are a number of steps you can take at home to support your troubled teen and help minimize self-destructive behaviors. 

Take Interest and Listen Actively

Present yourself as a solid support for your teenager. This can help them feel that they are not alone. Model yourself as a space safe for your teenager to vent and confide in. Some of their problems may seem irrelevant to parents, but taking an interest in their daily lives will show them that someone cares. 

Actively listen to your teen without immediately jumping in with advice or judgment. This can help build trust that you are an ear they can speak to. 

Validate Their Feelings 

Many teens can feel overwhelmed from all the changes happening in their inner world. This can cause feelings of loneliness and push them into self-destructive patterns.

Ensuring your teenager feels heard and validated is important to building a connection with them. Try to develop a “no shame zone” where they feel free to discuss their feelings or why they behaved in the way they did. 

Having positive face-to-face interactions with your teen can reduce their stress, and help prevent them from partaking in reckless behaviors. 

Establish Boundaries

Although parents want to be someone their teen can lean on, it’s still important to establish boundaries by setting up rules and consequences for them. Teens look to parents for guidance, since without structure, they can become reckless and impulsive. 

Set up boundaries with your teen during periods of calmness, not during high-intensity moments when they are acting out. Establish clear rules, writing them down if you have to, and consequences to the actions of breaking those rules. 

Make sure you follow through with the consequences. Sometimes parents are quick to make threats during periods of high stress, but not follow through with them. This can teach your teen that they can get away with reckless or aggressive behavior. 

Get Them Involved in Activities 

Encourage your teen to get involved in activities that can reduce their stress levels or help burn off steam. If your teen is showing signs of aggression, getting them involved in high-intensity sports can be a great way to help them get rid of aggression in a safe and controlled environment. 

Different forms of exercise, art and music can help reduce stress in teens, and help them connect with other teens their age who may be experiencing similar problems. 

Manage Your Own Stress

If you are quick to lose your temper, or self-destruct during moments of high stress, it can make parenting a troubled teen much more difficult. 

Teens often learn by observation. Building a calm environment where you practice conflict resolution and self-care can teach your teen to manage whatever they may be going through in healthier ways. 

Recognize Signs of Mental Health Problems 

Many mental health problems often arise during adolescence. Self-destructive behaviors such as self-harm, isolation or poor school performance are not signs your teen is a “bad kid” or in need of punishment, but rather in need of professional support. Some classic symptoms of mental health problems in teens include: 

  • Low self-esteem
  • Isolation
  • Self-harm
  • Decreased academic performance 
  • Unstable relationships
  • Drug or alcohol abuse 
  • Drastic mood swings that go above and beyond typical teenage behavior 
  • Suicidal thoughts 

Seeking Professional Help

If you identify signs of mental health problems in your teen, it’s important to reach out for professional mental health support to help find the best plan of treatment. 

At Clearfork Academy our team of compassionate, licensed therapists understand the complex nature of troubled teens. Reach out to our Admissions team to learn more. 


 Anxiety and Depression in Children. 2023. Center for Disease Control.  The Teen Brain: 7 Things to Know. National Institute of Mental Health.

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