Any number of isolated behavior problems can represent adolescent problems and delinquency-shoplifting, truancy, a fight in school, drug or alcohol ingestion. Sometimes, kids can’t easily explain why they act the way they do. They may be just as confused about it as the adults, or they simply see delinquent behaviors as appropriate ways to deal with what they experience. Parents and loved ones may feel scared, angry, frustrated, or hopeless. They may feel guilty and wonder where they went wrong. All these feelings are normal, but it is important to understand that there is help available to troubled kids and their families.
How do you know when to seek help?
What are the signs of trouble?
Many adolescents get into trouble sometimes. A big question for parents (whether they be “traditional,” single, step, or grand-parents), though, is how to know when a youth is headed for more serious problems, or when bad behavior is just “a kid being a kid.”Try to focus on patterns rather than an isolated event. In other words, does the behavior happen repeatedly despite efforts to change it? The patterns signaling the need for help include not only deviant behaviors by the adolescent, but also the presence of other problems in the family or tensions at home. For example, problems in the parents’ marriage or frequent fighting or hostility among the family members can also be involved in the youth’s behavior problems. The problem behaviors and other family issues can interact and feed off each other, so that it is hard to tell where it started.
Of course, there are also some obvious signs that indicate the need for immediate and effective intervention, including violence against other persons or animals, or when peers are involved in destructive processes (crime, truancy, drugs). Or, a parent may simply have an instinctive feeling that something serious is happening. An important first step to find out what is going on is to try to talk to the adolescent and other family members about what is happening, possible reasons, and potential solutions. Others who know the adolescent and family, like teachers or caregivers, may also be able to provide information about the youth’s mood or behaviors outside of the home to help assess the severity of the problem.
Many factors put youth and families at risk for juvenile delinquency, though they do not necessarily cause delinquency. Such factors include youth attention and hyperactivity problems and learning disorders, volatile temperament, and even the early onset of puberty and sexual development. All these factors affect the way an adolescent feels and acts and also how peers, family, and society view the adolescent. Similarly, parental problems, such as depression, substance abuse, and domestic violence can interact negatively with a youth’s developing path of delinquency. Rather than causing delinquency, factors such as these tend to place youth at increased risk, intensify the downward spiral, and in turn add to the difficulty in changing these processes for the better.
What kinds of treatments will work?
Once you have determined that you and your loved ones need help, there are many kinds of treatment that you should explore. First, there are popular group-based, residential, and “life-experiential” options, like survival camps, boot camps, and “scared straight” programs, which have had some limited success. Research indicates that the most effective treatments, even with very difficult youth, are programs and treatments that are family-based and multisystemic. That means treatment that involves the adolescent and his or her family, and that also addresses other aspects of their lives, such as the school system, the neighborhood, peers, juvenile justice system, and even employers. In other words, it is treatment that focuses on all the parts of the youth’s life that shape how he or she views the world, emphasizing family and parental support.
Treatments that focus on the family can also be useful in helping adults develop their parenting skills, deal with stress, and work on marital relationships. Many parent aids have demonstrated promising positive results. Professionals, such as family therapists, are there to help the adolescent and family gain understanding of the relationship dynamics and background issues that may be influencing the problem, and come up with solutions.
The text for this brochure was written by James Alexander, Ph.D.