We received an email recently from a desperate mother who wrote: “My son has been deeply depressed and is refusing to go to counseling. The school suspended him because the counselor there deemed him to be suicidal. He’s very precious to me, but I’m at a loss what to do.” This is a classic case where intervention is needed—when if something isn’t done quickly, the child may not be around long.
It’s important to understand up front what intervention is…and what it is not. Intervention is not about getting justice for your teen’s misbehavior (for terrorizing the whole family); intervention is about saving them from themselves. It gives kids an opportunity to step back from the brink and begin dealing with the underlying issues that are causing the symptoms that have brought things to a crisis point.
After more than thirty years of working with teens, including more than 2,500 kids at Heartlight, we have developed a simple tool for evaluation of whether intervention is needed. If your child displays several of these traits (the mother whose email I talked about earlier said her son had all ten!) the situation probably isn’t going to resolve itself without getting some help. But keep in mind, that issues of self-harm, suicidal thoughts, or the use of drugs are on their own ample reasons to seek some immediate professional help for your teen, before they escalate.
Warning Signs that an Intervention Is Needed
__Your teen refuses to abide by anything you say or request. This is a situation where the teen refuses to comply with the rules you have established for your home. To coin a phrase, they “Just say no.” The teenager is blatantly and defiantly saying, “I’m going to do what I’m going to do and you can’t stop me.”
__Your teen displays behavior that is a marked change from normal. If overnight they like things (or people) they once hated and hate things (or people) they once liked, that is a warning sign of a major shift. Other signs include easily becoming bored, sleeping too little or too much, a sudden drop in their grades, or losing all motivation. Some of these signs can be traced back to drug use or family upheaval. They can also be brought on by abuse in the child’s present or past.
__Your teen has become increasingly disrespectful, dishonest and disobedient. There is constant fighting just for the sake of fighting. There are open displays of unbridled anger that do not have any legitimate cause. Everyone has bad days, but when these behaviors become common, it is a signal that should not be ignored.
__Your teen has become confrontational toward boundaries at home. Once they were willing to comply with known boundaries based on your values, but now they are refusing to. You may find them using language that they know is unacceptable, refusing to attend church or youth group, taking things without asking, coming home late, going out after curfew, using the computer to view pornography, drinking, or smoking pot. It’s not that they are sneaking around to do it as much as they are now blatantly doing it and don’t care what you think about it.
__Your teen expresses suicidal thoughts or intentions, or commits acts of self-harm or mutilation. This is not merely them saying, “I don’t want to keep living this way” but rather saying, “I want to die.” Statements like this MUST be taken seriously and handled immediately. Also, any kind of self-harm (cutting, eating disorders, risky behavior), promiscuity or drug use is a symptom of self-destructive behavior that demands an immediate response.
__Your teen treats people, pets or belongings in inappropriate ways (is becoming a bully). If things are being broken or lost, if pets are being mistreated, if untrue or hurtful things are being said about other people on the Internet or via texting, or if interactions are becoming abusive or even violent, it indicates a deeper problem. The temptation is to ignore these behaviors to avoid a conflict with an already hostile child, but they must be addressed.
__Your teen insists on being the center of attention. Teens can adopt behavior to ensure that the world revolves around them rather than around what is good for the entire family. This goes beyond the normal desire to receive expressions of love and affirmation to a level of manipulative insistence on having their own way and being “above the law.”
__Your teen’s behavior is not improving despite months of counseling. When you have identified a problem and sought competent outside help, it should improve the situation. If the behaviors that occasioned the counseling do not change for the better after several months, they will likely get worse.
__Your teen refuses to do anything with the family. There is a growing hatred for being together. Getting them to participate in a family outing or even eating a meal together becomes a major struggle. They feel that you are keeping them from doing what they desire and that you are forcing them to do things they do not want to do.
__Your teen insists on being with peers (all the time) whose lifestyles run counter to your beliefs. They want to do things their way with their friends, regardless of your family’s values or plans. They are intentionally antagonistic toward parents and others in authority, and they glory in their ability to “tweak the noses” of those who try to get them to do right.
What a Successful Intervention Looks Like
A young lady who came to us the result of an intervention said, “My life was totally off balance. I was never comfortable with who I was. I always wanted to be perfect at sports and academics. I put everything into that, but I found that it was unfulfilling.” Between her junior and senior years of high school, she began hanging out with a new group of friends who had a completely different motivations and set of moral standards than she had grown up with, in an effort to find a purpose and acceptance.
“I had been a good kid for so long. I didn’t want to do drugs, but I started partying and drinking to fit in. I got a much older boyfriend who I met at the gym and started a relationship with him. I hid it from my parents.” She had given up on perfection, but the alternatives she was trying didn’t work either. Her behavior became increasingly negative and anxious.
She abandoned all the positive goals she had for herself and created new self-destructive ones. Her parents tried to step in but she refused to change her behavior. Finally one night after she had been out with her friends without permission, they intervened. “When I came home they were sitting there crying,” She remembers. “They didn’t know where I had been or even if I was alive. They told me I was going to Heartlight.”
“I was so unhappy at first. But I eventually learned it was my opportunity to work through my issues without any distractions. It gave me time to learn healthy behaviors and look at life differently.” This beautiful young girl is today looking forward to resuming her path forward with a much better-adjusted approach than she once had. The intervention may well have saved her life; certainly it put things back on track.
If you see your teen spiraling out of control (use the Warning Signs checklist for a good indication that intervention may be needed) take action—not because you’re trying to punish your child or get even with them for the problems they are causing, but because you’re trying to rescue them from danger and self-destruction. Look for a good teen behavioral therapist or a residential program designed to help troubled teens. Heartlight is usually full and with a waiting list, but our staff can direct you to other reputable programs. The long-term help your child receives will be well worth the cost and the feelings of loss for not having your child in your home for a period of time. Some of my closest friends today (including all of our board members) are parents who had one of their kids in our program. They support and keep in touch with us because they are so thankful for our intervention in their teenager’s life.
By the way, we talked about this issue in-depth on our radio program last weekend titled “Intervention and Recovery.” Listen online here (or look for the program at http://www.parentingtodaysteens.org).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential program for struggling adolescents located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit http://www.heartlightministries.org, or to read other articles by Mark, visit http://www.markgregston.com.