How to Tell a Troubled Teen from a Normal Teen

It’s been almost six years since he entered my office, but I think of him often. I can still see his skinny brown legs sprawling out of his denim shorts, (they weren’t so baggy back then) and his brown hair falling over his muted blue eyes. He was cold. He could look me square in the eye, and tell me he didn’t care, and I believed him. He didn’t care that he had stolen $365 from his grandmother, and now she couldn’t pay the rent on the mobile home. He didn’t care that his teachers were trying to give him one last chance to pass his freshman year of high school. And he didn’t care about torturing the stray cats that happened to wander on to the property where he lived in West Phoenix.

He knew that he deserved things in his life, and not getting them was “ pissing him off.” He deserved to make his own decisions about how he was going to live. He deserved to have fun; it was his right as a kid. And he deserved the stolen money to make this fun possible.

This could describe a lot of teens today, so what makes this boy different? He had no conscience. He had absolutely no sense of right and wrong, and of course nothing was his fault. If he needed the money he took it. He didn’t like to work, so he didn’t work. He was failing school because his teachers were stupid. And when he got caught using drugs on campus, it was the fault of the boy who brought them to school, not his for deciding to partake.

Over the years I’ve seen only about three young clients like this. His stepfather yelled a lot, and his mother used marijuana, but I’ve known lots of kids with troubled parents and they aren’t amoral. One antisocial boy I counseled had a stay at home mom, and a father who was a dentist, and he was just as corrupt and incorrigible as this young man. So I can’t blame all lack of moral sense on economic status or parenting.

I want to blame something however. I want to find some reason for this behavior so I can protect myself from it. I want to blame guns, music, TV, video games, facebook and the entire internet, but we all know people who engage in these activities who haven’t killed anyone. There might be something we could do to identify people who could actually pull the trigger, and possibly get them some help.

The most seriously disturbed among us require the most attention. If you know of a child who consistently violates the basic rights of others, breaks the rules, and does the following, you may know a child who needs a serious intervention.

* Bullies, threatens or intimidates

* Has been physically cruel to people or animals

* Has stolen items (e.g. mugging, purse snatching, shoplifting)

* Has forced someone into sexual behavior

* Has deliberately destroyed others’ property

* Has broken into someone else’s house, building or car

* Often lies to obtain goods or favors or to avoid obligations (”cons” others)

* Often stays out at night despite parental prohibitions, or is truant from school (beginning before age 13 years)

I would suggest something like Banner Behavioral Health Adolescents Open for Change www.bannerhealth.com for a comprehensive assessment.

Within a completely normal range however, is the typical teen struggling with adolescence. This teen sometimes:

* Refuses to comply with adults’ requests or rules

* Blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior

* Is touchy or easily annoyed

* Experiments with drugs, alcohol or tobacco

* Loses interest in school and allows grades to fall

* Experiences changes in eating and sleeping patterns

* Worries about everything from body shape to telephone calls

I have a suggestion, just in time for summer, to help shore up the confidence of the typical teen so he/she will be less likely to be swayed by negative influences. Workshops for Youth and Families, offers summer workshops for teens and their families. www.orho.org. These are fantastic week long support-building experiences that help young people gain the skills needed to successfully negotiate this stage of life. At the end of the week, if your child has not gained at least self-respect, I will be greatly surprised.

It may be important to know whom to blame for the hateful behavior of some young people, but it might be more important to insure they get the help they need. Augustana University education professor Larry Brendtro expressed it well,

“Kids who feel powerless and rejected are capable of doing horrible things.”