Family members and caregivers who think their teens are spiraling into dire problems struggle with how to stop defiant behavior. If children are skipping or flunking school, running away or becoming physically threatening, it’s natural to have questions and concerns, such as:
- Could the problem stem from a mental health issue, drugs/alcohol or a learning disability?
- Is it possible the issue is caused by a traumatic event in the teen's life?
- Should they have their child arrested to obtain access to affordable help?
- Where can Palm Beach County parents and caregivers turn for help?
The teenage years are tough for everyone, says Amy Simpson, former executive director of Boys Town South Florida. Adolescence is when a teen’s developing brain produces more emotional than rational responses. Teenagers often do things because they feel like it and frequently don’t consider the consequences.
Understandably, parents dread the day when their teens may begin to disrespect them. “My husband and I have very high expectations,” says Juliana Mitnick, a Palm Beach County parent of two teens ages 13 and 15. “Our kids know it, but at the same time, we let them be themselves and make their own decisions. It has worked out for us so far, but we are just starting.”
The imbalance of the teenage brain is what leads to irrationality at times, according to Simpson. The emotional part of the brain is usually fully formed by the early teens, but the rational part is not completed until the early to mid-twenties.
“Some degree of acting out is perfectly normal, but if the issues are constant, persistent and disruptive to your family life, there are several resources that may help,” she says. “A good assessment by a professional is extremely important to know what the next step is for your family if you think something more might be going on.”
Parents should trust their instincts when considering assessment options. Evaluations for mental health, drug or alcohol usage, or a learning disability could be considered, says Megan Johnson, Families First of Palm Beach County’s program director, and Lakisha Foxworth, family service coordinator.
High-risk times for teens occur during life changes when it’s difficult to maintain communication, says Deborah Newell, director of Triple P — Positive Parenting Program. The quality of family life tends to decrease when stresses increase, such as marital conflicts, blending of families, changes in parental employment or finances, relocations or changing schools, parental depression, exam periods, problems with friends or dating, and family deaths or illnesses.
Involve law enforcement?
Parents at their wit’s end may think they must resort to having their child arrested to get affordable help. This only compiles the problem, Johnson and Foxworth agree. Instead, first call the helpline of 211 Palm Beach/Treasure Coast.
The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s Office of Prevention and Victim Services provides services for youths having behavior or family issues and may be at risk of being arrested or re-arrested. Call 866-757-0634 toll-free for help with teen defiance. Prevention and early intervention can decrease the chances of arrest.
If a youth faces misdemeanor offenses, Palm Beach County offers a Juvenile First Offender Program, coordinated through the school district police, to target core issues with support services. Several alternative education programs in the county address youth needs, such as substance abuse and/or academic and behavior issues.
Parents need to understand that having their child arrested can hurt their future success. An arrest record can limit post-secondary education and job opportunities, such as working in the military, as a caretaker, teacher or in a medical- or health-related field, say both Marie Boswell, delinquency prevention specialist for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, and Barbara Gerlock, chair of the Circuit 15 Juvenile Justice Advisory Board.
Where to turn for help
Talk with other parents of teens and build from their experiences and successes. For example, one Palm Beach County mother of four says parents still need to care for themselves during difficult times with teens. When her newly blended family was adjusting to life together, her oldest daughter faced a particularly tough period during her senior year.
“It was important for her to watch us continue to care for ourselves in a loving way despite her behavior and actions,” she says. “She really matured a lot and returned from her first year of college a very different person.”
Newell suggests developing a plan as a family for potential difficult times and situations before they arise and implementing a behavioral contract with your troubled teen. Schedule family meetings, starting every two weeks and then monthly, to review progress and misbehavior strategies, and tweak them if needed. Identify problems and take immediate action, yet always nurture your teen with encouragement when they are doing well.
Parents also can seek help from Children’s Home Society and the Urban League of Palm Beach County, which provide Children In Need of Services/Families In Need of Services. They receive funding in part from the Department of Juvenile Justice and have agreements with the school district, Boswell and Gerlock say.
Each school in Palm Beach County has a multidisciplinary School Based Team to support students’ academic and social development. These teams work with more than 30 agencies to provide services to youths and their families.Parents also can seek support from their school’s counselors.
Parents may contact the county's Youth Services Department for free counseling services. Parents also can refer their child to Highridge Family Center for short-term intensive assistance, Boswell and Gerlock say.
• Deborah M Newell, program director, Triple P (Positive Parenting Program), Parent-Child Center
• Megan Johnson, program director, and Lakisha Foxworth, family service coordinator, Families First of Palm Beach County
• Marie Boswell, Delinquency Prevention specialist, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Office of Prevention and Victim Services
• Barbara Gerlock, chair of Circuit 15 Juvenile Justice Advisory Board
• Amy Simpson, former executive director, Boys Town South Florida