Teenagers in trouble

Teenagers in trouble

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Teenage behaviour: what's normal

In adolescence, teenagers go through a lot of:

  • physical changes
  • social and emotional changes
  • brain-based changes.

As teenagers go through these changes, you might see some disrespect and rudeness, risk-taking, a desire for more privacy, more interest in friends and less interest in family, and a new interest in romantic relationships and physical or sexual relationships.

This behaviour is all pretty normal. In fact, it's an important part of the journey to independence and young adulthood.

Troubled teenagers: early signs

Sometimes typical teenage behaviour can put your child at risk and be an early sign of trouble.

For example, you might be concerned if you notice your child:

  • skipping classes, or whole days of school, training or work, or getting lower results than usual and starting to fail subjects at school
  • being rude and aggressive towards parents, teachers or other adults or family members
  • withdrawing from family and friends, or spending all day and night in the bedroom or online
  • not coming home at agreed times.

Talking to other parents can be a good way to find out whether your child's behaviour is much the same as other children's. Other parents can also give you support and helpful suggestions, particularly if they're had troubled times with their own teenage children.

What to do about early signs of trouble

If you think your child is showing some early signs of trouble, the first thing is to let your child know that you're concerned about his behaviour.

If you want your child to listen to your concerns, you also need to stay calm and listen to her point of view. Active listening can help you understand what's going on for your child.

Next, you can consider some ways to stop things getting worse:

  • Look at whether your parenting approach and discipline strategies are fair, firm and consistent. You might need to adapt your approach as your child gets older and more independent.
  • Discuss and negotiate rules and limits with your child, as well as consequences for breaking them. Follow through with consequences when your child breaks the rules you've agreed on together.
  • Notice when your child is doing something well and talk to him about why it's good - for example, 'You seem so much happier when you've had a good night's sleep'.
  • Think about ways to stay connected or be more connected to your child. One way to do this is by spending some fun, relaxing time together. Time together can also give you the chance to talk more with your child.
  • Focus on being a role model for your child. In your own behaviour, you can show your child how to find positive solutions to problems, look after your own wellbeing, and get outside help when you need it.
  • Help your child to find new extracurricular activities or community activities. This can keep your child busy, build her confidence and widen her social network.

And no matter what, tell your child that you love him - it's his behaviour that you don't like.

Troubled teenagers: serious behaviour concerns

The early signs of trouble above might develop into behaviour that's a serious cause for concern. This kind of behaviour includes:

  • not going to school, sport, training or work at all
  • spending a lot of time hanging out in public places, staying out all night, rarely being at home, or even running away from home
  • being highly agitated or irritable, or showing signs of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, self-harming behaviour or suicidal thoughts
  • having very poor hygiene, health or appearance
  • hanging around with young people or adults who use illicit drugs or who have significant criminal histories, or getting into trouble with the police
  • showing the signs of alcohol and other drug use - for example, withdrawal symptoms, or needing lots of money for no clear reason
  • having lots of unprotected sex and risking teenage pregnancy or getting sexually transmitted infections.

If your child is in trouble, it's natural to feel that it's your fault. But lots of things play a role in how your child goes in life - personality, psychological health, friends and your community. As your child gets older, she has to take more responsibility for her own decisions too.

It's important to keep an eye on younger siblings who might be affected by your troubled child's behaviour, or by any conflict that's happening in your home.

Helping seriously troubled teenagers

If you're not sure how to help your child, you could start by talking to your GP, your child's school counsellor, teacher or other school staff. GPs and other health professionals can suggest strategies and give advice.

Young people themselves tend not to seek help from doctors or formal services. They often prefer to talk to friends and sometimes trusted adults. They also look for information on the internet.

You could suggest people your child could talk to if he doesn't want to talk to you. Options might include aunts or uncles, close family friends, school counsellors or religious leaders, your GP or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800. Kids Helpline also provides web counselling and email counselling for teenagers.

Our guide to relationship services for teenagers and their families lists organisations and agencies that can help you and your child.

For information about youth and family relationship counselling and adolescent mediation and family therapy services near you, you can call:

  • Family Relationship Advice Line on 1800 050 321
  • Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277.

You might find you have to change your hopes for your child while you work on your child's behaviour. Being realistic and aiming for small positive changes over time can take the pressure off you and your child. You might also need to work out your own limits and the level of support you can give your child.

If you think your child is in immediate danger of hurting herself or somebody else, call 000 or take her to the emergency department of your nearest hospital. Your child might be angry with you for seeking help, but your child's safety is the most important thing.