Teens in Trouble: What to do Next

You just caught your teen drinking, smoking pot, having sex—you get the idea—you’re beyond upset and close to imploding.


We’ve got some advice on what to do instead of just rant. Here are the 5 things to focus on.

1. Take a deep breath, counsels Suzanne Gazzolo, Ph.D., a psychologist with offices in Wilmette. “You want to process the shock so when you’re ready to take action, you’re not operating on pure emotion.” That advice goes for your spouse as well. Give yourselves a timeout and read on.

2. Educate yourself. You need to find out what really happened and was it a one-time occurrence or part of a pattern.

“There’s a difference between a kid who experiments and a kid who’s in trouble,” says Gary Hill, a clinical psychologist who’s affiliated with the The Family Institute at Northwestern University. He notes that by senior year of high school, over 80% of students have tried alcohol, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad or troubled kids.

If a group of students were drinking at a party, talk to the other parents and try to find out exactly what happened. Gazzolo notes that your goal is to understand the situation before you assume anything.

3. Have the talk. “Don’t lecture or yell,” says Hill. “If you raise resentment or make them ashamed, they’re less likely to talk.”

And as Don Sherwood, a clinical psychologist in Beach Park notes, “Most teens have a parent ‘off’ switch. If you yell, you’re not going to affect their behavior at all.”

Hill recommends giving your teen some credit, “Obviously, you screwed up and you know we’re unhappy. What happened?” Remember, the idea isn’t for you to tell them what they did wrong, it’s to let them tell you.

4. Know what you want.
Just because a child has crossed a threshold, doesn’t mean there’s no going back, says Gazzolo. “Give them that option and help them think about future participation.” Your child might surprise you and agree that he or she wasn’t really ready to begin having sex or drinking.

If your family has a zero drug use policy, you need to be clear: “In our house this is the rule.”

5. Decide on consequences. If a teen is truly remorseful, the only punishment needed might be the heart-to-heart with you and feeling your disappointment. Other kids might need a little more reinforcement.

“If you threaten, most kids tend not to take it seriously, says Sherwood. “Especially if you’ve threatened before.”

Instead, he recommends you outline specific actions that will happen:

  • Loss of privileges
  • Grounding
  • Loss of cell phone or computer
  • Earlier curfew

Remember, the goal isn’t to punish or alienate your child. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, your teen still needs you. So just like when they were toddlers, your goal is to redirect, contain the damage and tell them how much you love them—even when they’ve done something really stupid.

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