Are you the parent of a troubled teen boy?
Troubled in this sense means very stressed, angry or sad (or all of these) and unable to manage these emotions in a healthy way.
Perhaps your son is going through a really difficult patch?
Perhaps it’s painful to think about it or admit it.
But if your teenage son is engaging in any of the following the chances are you need some support.
- Risky behaviors (such as drug use/ substance abuse or excessive alcohol)
- Violent behavior
- Self-destructive behavior
- Harassing, bullying or exploiting others
These negative behaviors are a red flag that there are underlying issues and your son needs your help.
I’m Lucy Russell, mum of two teenagers (one is a boy). I’m also a clinical psychologist and clinical director of Everlief Child Psychology.
Raising a Teenage Son: What’s Normal in the Adolescent Years?
We often think of turmoil and difficulty as normal in the teen years. It’s a period of huge change and upheaval after all.
In the teenage years your child’s body changes beyond recognition, and more so for boys than for girls. This in itself can be stressful and hard for our young men to adapt to.
Add to this the pressure of developing your identity.
Teen Boys: Forming an Identity
What does it mean to be male in today’s world?
It seems to me that the concept of “maleness” is ever-changing. We now have the idea of “toxic masculinity”. And there is a lot of talk of men embracing their feminine side, but what does this actually mean?
It’s a minefield for teenage boys to make sense of.
Teenage Boys: The Pressures of Modern Life
On top of the huge issues above, young adults have to deal with practical pressures of modern life.
Academic pressure to get top grades is greater than ever before.
The cost of living is rising, and this is putting strain on family life for so many teens.
Parenting Teen Boys: Technology and Media
Last but not least, we have the influence of modern technology.
Whilst there are many positives, the overwhelm and social pressure of being “switched on” 24-7 is a huge problem in our society.
It affects youngsters the most however, as their brains are still developing. You can read more in this article about brain development in children.
The negative influences of bullies and poor role models are much more difficult to avoid online.
The blue light from electronic devices can lead to poor quality sleep.
The brain gets over-stimulated not only by blue light but the constant “buzz” provided by social media and gaming.
This increases stress on the nervous system and contributes to anxiety.
Young people are getting less sleep and less time to truly detach from the outside world and wind down.
All these – plus additional difficult life experiences unique to your child – may be factors contributing to their “troubled mind”.
Troubled Teen Boys: Diagnoses
Let’s get something out of the way.
As a clinical psychologist, I might work with troubled teen boys who have a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder. These are what I call “behavioural diagnoses” or sometimes called behaviour disorders.
I do not believe these diagnoses are helpful.
In fact, they can be downright unhelpful.
In my view, a “behavioural disorder” diagnosis is merely a description of a problem at a very surface level. It doesn’t help the teen boy or the parent. It can distract from what is really going on under the surface.
Instead, many psychologists like me prefer to approach working with a troubled teen boy using an individualised, “formulation focused” approach.
You may be wondering, what on earth does that mean?
A formulation is a complex diagram or written plan based on a deep understanding of each unique child’s needs and what is contributing to their difficulties. We spend time listening to the teen boy and their parents, like detectives, looking to piece together what is happening. This guides us towards an individualised action plan of support (more about that later).
Below is a very simplified example of a formulation.
Parenting Troubled Teen Boys: What is Oppositional Defiant Disorder?
Oppositional defiant disorder is a diagnosis which might be given to your son by a health professional such as a child psychiatrist or paediatrician.
Oppositional defiant disorder is often referred to as ODD.
It refers to a consistent pattern of challenging behaviour which might include anger, irritability, arguing or defiance. You can read more about oppositional defiant disorder here.
What is Conduct Disorder in Teenage Boys?
Like ODD, conduct disorder is a diagnosis which may be given to a troubled teen boy who is exhibiting outwardly challenging behaviour. However, in contrast to ODD it refers to more severe difficulties such as anti-social and violent behaviour.
This diagnosis is common in young people involved in the criminal justice system. You can read more about conduct disorder in this article.
Raising Teenage Boys: Is My Son a Troubled Teen?
First of all let’s put things into context.
“Troubled” may well be normal, when we put everything teen boys have to cope with into context.
It’s normal for boys to have big emotions about the changes they faces and the pressures they are under. It’s normal for them to express these, or to show the effects of these emotions (for example, wanting to block them out through escaping into video games).
So… What differentiates typically developing teen boys from troubled teen boys who need adult help?
For me, the answer lies in how your teen son responds to stressful situations.
Does your son have healthy ways to manage stress?
Healthy strategies are those which do not have a negative impact on the child themselves, or on family members or peers.
For example if your son manages stress through physical activity such as going running, or listening to loud music through their headphones, or journaling, they have a range of positive strategies to draw on.
However, if your son bottles up the stress and then it “explodes” you may have a troubled teen.
Explosions may be verbal or physical aggression towards others or property, or self-harm.
Alternatively your son may not bottle up the stress, but they may have extreme mood swings which have a negative impact on family and friends, as well as their own self-esteem.
Image by Alexandr Podvalny from Pixabay
Watch out for coping strategies in teenage boys which seem harmless on first glance but which may have an obsessive element, such as too many hours spent video gaming or over-exercising.
Have you seen a significant negative impact on day to day life either for your teen boy, or as a family because of your teen son’s difficulties?
If so, read on for my recommended strategies.
Dealing With Difficult Teenage Sons
Our culture – both in the UK and United States as well as the rest of the “developed world” – tends to focus most on the outward behaviour rather than underlying distress.
High schools often have strict behaviour policies which focus on eliminating problematic behaviour through a system of punishments and rewards.
This can have a positive impact on the smooth running of these traditional schools. However, more modern and progressive schools will also focus on addressing a child’s emotional needs.
There are also alternative schools for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. You can find directories of schools for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties online.
However, this option is usually considered in partnership with a child’s current school and after a lot of attempts to support a child in their current school.
In the USA you can send your troubled teenager off to a residential treatment center, therapeutic boarding school, even military schools and boot camps.
Whilst in the UK it is rare to send struggling teens to a residential treatment programme and there are few of these options, there are a number of ways to find professional help to support your child’s needs.
Troubled Teen Boys: Look Beyond the Behaviour
There are two problems with dealing with the surface behaviour only.
The first is that many struggling teens will fall under the radar.
For instance, if your son struggles with stress and big emotions so much that they “escape” by over-exercising and playing video games for 8 hours per day, their needs won’t be spotted or supported. Their behaviour is “fine” because it is not causing any harm or disruption to others.
The second is that behaviour management – whether at home or school – does not teach your son life skills and positive strategies to deal with difficulties.
You need to help your son develop a healthy “menu” of coping strategies so that he always has something to draw on.
The suggestions below will help you do exactly this.
1. Parenting Teen Boys: Take Your Own Emotions Out of the Equation
Your son’s behaviour might trigger a strong emotional reaction in you. His difficulties may cause you to feel many complex feelings, such as the urge to protect him mixed with anger and resentment at the way he is treating you.
I know this is extremely difficult, but try to detach your own emotions from your son’s difficulties. The more you can do this, the more you will be able to meet his needs, and eventually resolve any challenging behaviour.
I have written an article on how to stay calm with your child which will help you.
If you find yourself reacting angrily to your son, you will also find this article on reactive parenting helpful.
2. Prioritise Your Teen Son’s Safety
If you spot risk behaviors in your son, you must prioritise his safety.
Anger won’t help, but firm boundaries will.
Whilst of course you want to have a close bond with your child, sometimes you need to be a parent more than a friend. Your son may strongly resist boundaries – such as coming home by 9pm – but deep down he will feel safer and cared for.
A behaviour contract will help provide clarity for your son, and will help you feel empowered. But it must be developed collaboratively with your child, and focus on only the highest priority behaviour first. Keep it simple.
If you don’t feel confident you can keep your son safe, you will need help from someone outside the family. In the “Get the Right Help” section below I explain what to do.
3. Practise Getting to the Root
We must get to the root causes of teenage boys’ problematic behaviour, if we are truly going to help them change it and build their positive sense of self.
We can only give the best response to our children if we truly understand what’s going on for them.
Find “micro-moments” of connection with your teen son where you can gain an insight into what’s important for him and what might be troubling him. Micro-moments might include:
- A short car journey.
- Popping in to say goodnight before he goes to sleep.
- Chatting over breakfast.
- Sending a quick message checking in with your teen son e.g. “how’s you day going?”
You should plan some special one-on-one time where you can really focus on your son. His self-esteem will benefit hugely and you will be building a deeper connection.
This deeper connection will help your teenage son feel safe to share his concerns and troubles with you in the future, and allow you to help.
Here’s a case example to help you reflect on your teen boy and what could be going on.
Parenting Teen Boys: Case Example (Alex)
Fifteen year-old Alex has recently developed extreme mood swings.
On two occasions he has trashed his room and kicked holes in his bedroom door.
More recently he has begun to punch his mother and sister when they argue back with him.
Alex has had a hormonal surge. The testosterone surge in particular predisposes him to bouts of anger that he is not in full control of.
Alex is also affected by his parents’ stress.
His mother is a carer for both her parents with dementia. This means her physical and emotional energy is tied up, and that she is regularly exhausted and snappy.
Alex feels stressed when in his mum’s presence, so he spends more time escaping to his room to play games online.
Alex has always been keen to impress others and be liked by those who are popular. He managed to get “into” the popular crowd at school even though the other boys don’t share much in common with him.
Alex is desperate to stay in this group so he will do things they ask him to, such as buying alcohol for them or stealing from school.
He is not sure what would make a supportive friend. He just knows that rejection must be avoided at all costs as it would be too painful.
Alex also has learning difficulties that have not yet been picked up by his school.
He struggles to write as fast as others, and finds it difficult to process complex instructions.
He feels exhausted by trying to keep up with everyone else in class.
School feels like an ordeal.
4. Raising a Teenage Son: Monitor Peer Relationships
As your child makes that teen transition towards adulthood it is natural for them to spend more time with peers.
It’s also natural for you to have less to do with your son’s friends.
Gone are the days when you would organise a play date for them, and spend the play date getting to know the other child’s parents.
Do you have concerns about your teenage son’s ability to choose positive friendships?
Perhaps your son isn’t sure what he is looking for in a good friend?
Maybe he is easily influenced by others because being popular is so important to him.
If so, set an intention to check in a little bit more. Try to learn a bit more about his friends, without being too intrusive. Try to instigate positive conversations about what he does with his friends, who he likes the most and why, and so on.
You need to find a balance between allowing your son to learn about friendships through experience, and keeping him safe. This article and accompanying workbook about teen friendships will help you support your teen son.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
5. Remove Demands and Pressures (Temporarily)
If your son is displaying troubled behaviour, this is a warning sign that his nervous system is under pressure.
He may feel overwhelmed by all the demands of everyday life.
But he may not recognise this. And it may not be obvious to you.
You may feel that he has it easy, without recognising hidden strains in his life.
If you can, remove any unnecessary demands and pressures for him.
For instance, if he is normally expected to carry out tasks such as collecting his brother from school, let this go for a while. Yes, of course it’s important to teach children responsibility and life skills, but this is only temporary to reduce the overall emotional load.
Can any demands be reduced at school?
If your child is struggling in class, what adaptations can be made to reduce the pressure?
Could your child even drop a subject or two, to give them a bit more time to recuperate from the strain of learning?
Also try to reduce demand in the form of questions.
For instance, if you normally ask your son about his school day as soon as he gets in from school, take a step back. Allow him to tell you in his own time, if he wants to.
If he’s tired and stressed after school, demanding questions may tip him into an angry state.
6. Increase Levels of Nurture Towards Your Teen Son
Just as it’s important to reduce demands on your troubled teen where possible, it’s also vital to increase nurture.
This may feel counter-intuitive, as your son is growing up and becoming more independent from you.
But when faced with the turmoil of growing up, teenagers need nurture more than ever (on their terms).
Of course, nurture looks very different for teens than for young kids. Nurturing teens is about showing them you are there and thinking about them in little ways.
Make them a hot chocolate and deliver it to their door.
Give them a bedtime hug (if they want it).
Make their friends feel welcome in your home and provide them some snacks.
It’s about the little things.
7. Raising Teenage Boys: Increase Openness For a Stronger Relationship
You want your teenager to feel they can come to you when they need you.
Sharing difficulties with a parent or another supportive person is an extremely healthy way of managing difficult emotions.
You want to do as much as possible to encourage it.
Make sure you stay open-minded.
Don’t dismiss your son’s views. And try to remain calm even if you feel shock or outrage inside.
Always keep in mind:
“Will this (reaction or thing I am about to say) cause him to feel heard and make him more likely to open up to me in the future?”
8 Help Your Teenage Son Identify His Values
Often teenage boys feel lost or adrift.
They don’t know what’s important to them.
When they are not clear on their values they are also more at risk of being influenced by others.
If your son can get clear on what he wants out of life and what’s important to him, he will live his life in a more meaningful and purposeful way.
Read my article about Why Values Are Important For Children’s Mental Health, and this will give you a great foundation to help your son find his direction.
In essence, you need your son to identify his top 3 or so values, and start “living” these just a little bit each day. This is going to help him live a meaningful and purposeful life as well as build a positive sense of identity.
9. Parenting a Troubled Teen Boy: How To Get The Right Help
If your son is showing problematic behaviour, the chances are he may also be showing symptoms of mental health problems.
Troubled behaviour and mental health issues are so closely intertwined. For example, the World health Organization recognises that:
Risk-taking behaviours can be an unhelpful strategy to cope with emotional difficulties and can severely impact an adolescent’s mental and physical well-being.
It’s vital that you get the right help early on.
The first thing to do is speak to your family doctor (in the UK, that’s your GP).
There are various treatment options including cognitive behavioral therapy and family therapy. In the UK, your doctor may refer your son to the child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) in your area.
Therapeutic Support for Troubled Teen Boys
Whether in the local mental health service or through an independent clinic like mine, your teenage son may be offered therapeutic support. This means talking therapy or a creative therapy such as art therapy. Therapeutic support may include therapy sessions with a psychologist, family therapist, psychotherapist or counsellor.
Of course, your son may choose not to engage and can’t be forced.
Often you will receive family support at the same time as your child receives individual support. For instance, you might have your own sessions with a psychologist who can help you explore the most effective parenting strategies for your teenage son.
There may also be various other professionals involved in your child’s care. For example, a psychiatrist may meet with your child to assess risk to themselves or others. They may prescribe medication for anxiety, low mood, or other diagnosed conditions such as ADHD.
School-Based Support For Your Teenage Son
Sometimes your child’s school can offer excellent therapeutic support too. This varies between schools. Speak to your child’s pastoral support lead or head of year. They will inform you of if they have a suitable therapeutic programme or mentor programme. Some schools have links to external programmes for troubled teens such as wilderness programmess/ therapeutic wilderness camps.
Another source of support is your local authority. As a parent you may feel very reluctant to be referred to social services. However, the reality is that they often have outstanding “Early Help” support services. For example, some local authorities have parenting workers who can support you and your child one-to-one. Many also offer free parenting courses for parents of troubled teenagers. They are not making a judgement about whether you are a good parent. They understand that teenagers can have complex difficulties, and they want to support you to be the best parent for your child’s current needs.
Further Information and Support
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. She is a mum to two teenage children.
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