eNewsletter - April 2019

Behavioral Health Partners

10 Strategies for Working with Adolescents and Families
By: Marty Beirne, M.Ed., LCPC

When working with adolescents, an impulsive and underdeveloped prefrontal cortex can create challenges for mental health providers. It’s common for teens to struggle to move forward while still in the process of neurological development. Complicating matters is the online world teenagers live within, adding constant exposure to and on social media, as well as the pressures and expectations of fitting in with their particular peer groups.

And with family members playing such an active role in treatment, it’s important to understand and engage them throughout treatment as well. Consider the following strategies to inspire a more effective working relationship with the adolescents and families in your care, and hopefully, an easier road to wellness.

  1. Identify the family and cultural perspective of mental health treatment. Certain cultural norms or past family experiences with treatment can dictate the extent to which patients and families feel comfortable in sharing their thoughts and feelings with strangers, how involved they are willing to be, and the value they place on treatment.
  2. Determine the family’s chemistry and their commitment to treatment for their teen. Some families are very supportive and engaged, believing their teen can move forward with treatment, while others may believe their teen is fabricating their problems. Others may not believe that mental health is a disease, not unlike cancer of irritable bowel syndrome.
  3. Ascertain the impact of substance use on adolescent in treatment. Is the teen using to cope, or are there firmly entrenched addiction issues that need to be addressed? As mental health providers, we can’t confirm a diagnosis if teens continue to use. Once substance abuse is identified, we can use a dual program to balance sobriety and uncover issues they’re trying to mask with abuse.
  4. Determine readiness for the school transition. Has school anxiety, bullying, social media exposure of the student by peers been addressed? Often times, our kids come into program from inpatient stays related to traumatic experiences and there’s great anxiety about going back to school. What will they say to peers? We advise them to say what they’re comfortable saying and work with tutor as part of their program to ease some of their anxiety.
  5. Encourage effective communication with school support personnel. It’s important to know the student’s preferred contact, a school counselor, social worker, or even a favorite teacher of coach. We want to make sure we give personnel what they need to understand and support the teen. In turn, the school contact should share an adequate, yet not too extensive picture with educators. The right amount of information will allow the student to receive teacher support, but will prevent any accidental or casual sharing of information.
  6. Encourage knowledge of skills taught in treatment for effective moving through treatment expeditiously, and successfully returning to school. Our approach at Linden Oaks is to teach dialectical behavioral skills. We teach teens to focus on the present moment, to learn to regulate emotions, to tolerate stressful situations and to communicate more effectively. Our biggest challenge is not teaching the skills, it’s inspiring them to use the skills.
  7. Understand the present moment. Ask, “For what do we live? What is our hope? For what are we grateful?” I try to check in and get a handle on where an individual is each day. What’s their focus, what are they living for? In program, both adolescents and providers are asked to share their hopes. For providers, we often share hopes for what we will be the next recovery step. An adolescent’s response may range from things happening in program, at home, or in the future. Once we know where they are at this moment, we can determine how to approach the day.
  8. Encourage parents to ask open-ended questions: “Tell me about your day,” or, “What are some of the stressors you have?” or, “How can I/we support and encourage you?” Often times, parents ask something like, “What did you do today?” setting a teen up for a perfect answer, “Nothing.” Open-ended questions enable providers parents to engage teens and provide ways for them to feel comfortable and connected just like they do in treatment.
  9. It’s OK to be vulnerable. Share a time when you struggled as the teen/family member is currently. We encourage kids to be able to say, “I’m hurting”. This can be especially challenging during the holidays when parents may not have been transparent with extended family members. Kids get stressed. It’s okay to show some vulnerability here in program. It’ takes all of your strength to ask for help.
  10. Encourage family members to take their pulse along with their teen’s. I often say, “If we have a pulse, we have a purpose.” At a time when kids feel there’s no point in trying, in treatment, or in working the program, we want teens and families to feel empowered. I teach that if you have a pulse, you have a purpose. Use yours to help yourself and someone else breath more easily.

Getting more help. For situations where more assistance may be needed to address the complications associated with working with adolescents and their families, consider connecting with a certified therapist. Please call the Linden Oaks Help Line 24 hours a day at (630) 305-5027 and one of our assessment professionals will be happy to assist.