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Planning for Summer With a Troubled Teen

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

People love giving advice when you’re a new or expecting parent. They’re filled with brilliant insights on the best way to do everything. They tell you how to feed your child, get them to sleep, get them a head start on their academics, and how to discipline them. You name it, you get a boatload of unsolicited wisdom. Most of it goes in one ear and out the other. That’s okay, because there’s no way you can remember, much less act, on most of what you hear.

When it comes to the moment of truth – when you bring your baby home – you follow your instincts anyway. You do what you feel is right. Parenting instinct is a very real thing, and all parents experience it. When you’re faced with a child-rearing decision and have a host of choices before you, one usually stands out as the best. It seems to make sense. The choice resonates with you, how you see yourself as a parent, and how you want to raise your child.

The Advice Never Stops

The advice keeps coming through all the developmental stages. But as your child grows, your choices become less obvious. Gray area creeps in. In contrast to the early years, simple solutions become elusive. When an infant cries, you pick up that baby and love on it. Simple. When a toddler tantrums, you ignore the unwanted behavior (unless there’s imminent physical harm), redirect, and reward the desired behavior. A little less simple, but not so complex as to be overwhelming. When a school-age child becomes unruly at home or in class, you make sure they’re getting enough exercise, spending enough time at the playground, eating the right foods, and getting consistent, quality sleep.

Again, basic stuff.

When middle school social intricacies arise, you talk your pre-adolescent through the issues, remind them who their real friends are, and teach them how to tell the difference between what’s important and what’s not. Sure – middle school politics can seem Byzantine and mystifying, but the problems generally fade as quickly as an unwanted acne outbreak the week before the first school dance.

The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday

Don’t misunderstand us: we know we’re oversimplifying things, and significant developmental issues may appear early in life that require sophisticated interventions and can render all simple solutions moot. We’re saying all that as preamble to this: when the teenage years arrive, behavioral issues have a tendency to become far more difficult to manage than during the earlier stages. Things once black and white become confoudning shades of gray. When a teenager experiences emotional distress, you can’t always fix it with a hug. When they display disturbing behavior, simple behavior management strategies – like taking away the cellphone, for instance – don’t always work. And when they begin to show the classic signs of substance abuse, like failing grades, a new peer group, loss of interest in old activities, missing curfew, and the tell-tale glassy eyes and alcohol breath, it’s hard to know exactly what to do.

Do you ship them off to a boot camp? Get them in treatment? Ground them for a year? Send them to their room until they go to college?

What About Summer?

There’s another wrinkle that throws a massive monkey wrench in the works. What do you do when your teenager starts showing these signs and summer is right around the corner? Summer used to be all about sleepaway camps, family vacations, and lazy days at the pool. Everyone in the family looked forward to it. But now, with a teen on the verge of making decisions that could negatively impact the rest of your life, summer scares you half to death. You’re scared about what might happen when the regular routine vanishes, and your teen’s time is no longer filled with school, homework, extra-curricular activities, and all the things that keep them busy and out of trouble.

So what you do when the looming specter of an unsupervised summer keeps you up nights? You know your teen is at risk of going further down the wrong path. How do you keep that from happening?

Summer Tips for At-Risk Teens

We’re going to assume this is new territory for you and your family. Meaning your teen has not been in treatment for substance use issues, received an assessment from a mental health professional, or had serious run-ins with the law. That’s a different conversation. This conversation is about prevention, and how you deal with the initial warning signs that, if unaddressed, can lead to serious, life-altering and life-threatening changes in your teens life.

Here are some actionable steps you can take to make sure this summer is a positive learning experience for your teenager, rather than a dangerous descent into problem behavioral habits:

Communication first, communication last, communication always.

Seize this moment and talk to your teen about the warning signs you see. Initiate an open, honest, and direct dialogue: this may yield nothing at all, but on the other hand, it may take you further than you think. It’s also a good idea to seek out other parents who’ve been through risky teen summers and lived to tell the tale: they can act as both sounding board and resource for you as you decide what to do.

Seek Professional Help.

Adolescence is the time of boundary-pushing, experimentation, differentiation (your kid establishing an identity separate and distinct from yours), increasing independence, and expanding responsibility. It’s also the time when a wide range of emotional issues can manifest, such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. When you see the warning signs of substance use, you want to dig deeper and find the root cause. Your teen may be self-medicating to handle the uncomfortable symptoms of an emotional issue. The best way to find out what’s really going on is to have a complete emotional, behavioral, and psychiatric assessment performed by a fully licensed and certified mental health professional. Getting the right diagnosis the first time can save valuable time as you work to get your teen back on track. To find a therapist near you, use this Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Finder provided by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Make a Plan.

Once you talk to your teenager, bounce your ideas off peers, other parents, and mental health professionals, you need to make a plan. The plan should meet the following criteria:

It needs to be do-able.

In all ways. Any plan you make should be a logical match for your teenager’s personality, your family’s resources, and other hard constraints like school schedules and planned family vacations.

Your family needs to be on board.

Everyone involved needs to know the what, the why, and the how. In extreme cases (see below), your teenager might not want to do what you decide is best. If that’s the case, then the family needs to present a unified front and follow through on the decision.

You need a back-up plan.

Just in case your original plan doesn’t work, you need to make a contingency plan so you’re not caught flat-footed midsummer, with no good options and a teen spiraling out of control.

Let’s say you read this article and take our advice. You talk to your teenager, use your personal and professional resources, and you’re ready to formulate a summer plan. What kind of things might constitute that plan?

Summer Options for At-Risk Teens

We mention this in an earlier article, but it’s worth saying again. Whatever your plan, we think it should adhere to this maxim: “Get them up early, run them hard, and after dinner they’ll be too tired to do anything but fall asleep.” In other words, keep them too busy to get in trouble. As you read through this list of suggestions and begin to research options for your teen, make sure that whatever course you take doesn’t involve too much unsupervised down-time – that’s what you’re trying to avoid.

Explore these possibilities:

Summer Jobs

Not just any old job. Get online and look around for interesting work that engages your teenager’s mind, body, and soul. We recommend work that’s either intellectually stimulating, physically challenging, or serves a greater purpose. Think about things like teaching swim lessons at the pool, working as a summer camp counselor, becoming a trade apprentice (i.e. carpentry or a technical skill), or interning for a non-profit.

We recommend against working in environments that serve alcohol, if possible. While many of us started out with jobs like washing dishes in a restaurant, we advise you to reconsider that option. At risk of casting aspersions on millions of restaurant workers everywhere, we’ll go ahead and say it outright: the college-age students who tend to fill kitchen and wait-staffs around the country can be a hard-partying bunch. Your teen is going to look up to those people – and if they look up and see them smoking weed in the walk-in cooler on break time, that sort of defeats the purpose of the whole endeavor.

Volunteer Opportunities

Helping others is a great way to get perspective, stay occupied, and feel good about yourself while you’re at it. This helpful blog post breaks down teen volunteer opportunities into the following categories: hospitals, animals, people in need, museums, and community/environment. Talk to your teen, find out what interests them, and find something local that leverages both their budding social consciousness and your need to keep them active and engaged.

Family Vacations

Not just any family vacation: choose with intention. Plan your family trip to a place where your teen has little to no access to alcohol or drugs. International travel, camping trips, and any excursion where they’ll be busy – and by your side – all day, every day fit the bill. That way, full time supervision will be part of the situation, and you won’t have to make special plans to keep tabs on your teen.

Alternative Summer Travel

Over the past several decades, summer teen travel has blossomed from an interesting, little-known side-option to a full-fledged industry with countless options around the globe. Alternative summer travel might be:

    • Volunteer, Academic, or Service Learning. Teenagers can travel the world and immerse themselves in valuable work almost anywhere on earth. Companies like A Broader View offer volunteer programs, Where There Be Dragons offers unique academic opportunities, and Global Routes offers service learning and cross cultural exchange programs from Costa Rica to Nepal to Tanzania.
    • Adventure Travel. Companies like Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) more or less invented the student travel industry, and they’re still the gold standard in adventure travel for teens. Outward Bound has a special category of course offerings for at risk teens called Intercept Expeditions designed to meet the needs of youth struggling with behavioral challenges.
Substance Abuse or Mental Health Treatment Programs

It’s hard to tell whether this option belongs first or last on our list, because that really depends on what level of care or intervention your teenager requires. If you consult with a mental health professional and they determine your teenager needs significant professional intervention immediately, then this may be your first option. On the other hand, if your teen simply needs positive redirection, this may be your last choice, or it may never come up at all. Whatever the case, treatment options include:

Outpatient Programs (OP)

Teens typically meet with a therapist once a week to get to the root of emotional and/or substance use issues. They collaborate to create healthy coping strategies that don’t involve alcohol or drugs. This is often a first-step therapeutic strategy.

Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP)

Teens spend a half-day (three hours on average) in structured therapy, three to five days a week. The extra time allows them to go deeper into the issues they’re struggling with, but they still have time outside of therapy to enjoy their summer.

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP)

Teens spend a full day (about five hours) in structured therapy, but go home for the evening. This option offers a high level of structured support, while allowing them the comfort and familiarity of sleeping in their own bedroom, eating home-cooked meals, and spending evenings with their family.

Residential Treatment Programs (RTC)

Teens live in the treatment center and receive 24/7 support and supervision. Days are filled with individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy (when possible), and supporting activities. This option is the most intense and typically follows unsuccessful attempts at the OP, IOP, and PHP levels of care. RTC is rarely a first option, but it’s not unheard of. Sometimes addiction issues can go unnoticed for months or even years. In these cases, RTC may be the logical first step.

Summer Break: An Opportunity to Reset

You’re absolutely right to worry – scratch that – you’re absolutely right to be proactively concerned – about what your teenager is going to do this summer, especially if you know for sure they’ve been experimenting with alcohol, drugs, and other risky behaviors. Wringing your hands in anxiety is not going to help. Good planning is going to help. Ignoring the issue is not going to help. Talking to your teen, peers, and mental health professionals is going to help. Allowing your teen to hang out with new friends (the ones in the 420 t-shirts) all summer long with no supervision is not going to help. Keeping your teenager engaged in positive, life-affirming activities is going to help.

It’s important to remember that unless your teenager is already eighteen, you’re still in charge. You get the final say in how they spend their time – and that includes the summer. The past is prelude: what happens next is what matters most. You may have eased back on asserting your authority in recent months. You may have allowed your teen more unsupervised time than previous years, as well. That permissiveness may or may not be a factor in what’s happening with them now. That’s all fine. But resist the temptation blame yourself for your teen’s behavior, because blame is like anxiety: it doesn’t contribute to the solution. Moving forward, the solution is to communicate, gather facts, take advantage of resources, and formulate a solid plan to make this a productive and rewarding summer for everyone in your family.

Enjoy it While it Lasts

Whatever you choose – summer jobs, volunteer work, family vacations, adventure travel programs, or intensive therapy and treatment – look at summer vacation as a gift. It’s a natural break in the rhythm of the year. Your family can take the time to set things straight if they’ve gone completely off-track, shore things up if the problems are minor, and set the tone for the years to come – all without disrupting school. True, adolescence is characterized by risk-taking, boundary-pushing, and notoriously poor decision-making: we’ve all been there. At the same time, it’s also when we transform from children to adults. It’s when we learn responsibility and independence.

While most teenagers act like the last thing they want is your input, the opposite it is true – they need your help and guidance now more than ever. They need your wisdom to make the transition. We advise you to take advantage of this time of radical change, learning, and development. Lean forward: you teenager needs your help. This doesn’t have to be the summer when it all goes wrong. This can be the summer when everything changes for the better. This can be the summer when it all goes right.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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