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Summer Planning for 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 >

When the teenage years arrive, behavioral issues become far more difficult to manage than when your kids were younger. Things once black and white become confounding 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 alcohol or drug 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? Do you get them in treatment? Ground them for the entire summer?

Along Comes Summer

There’s another wrinkle that throws a 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 family vacations and lazy days at the pool. Everyone looked forward to it – but now, with a teen on the verge of making decisions that could negatively impact the rest of their lives, summer doesn’t look the same. You’re scared about what might happen when their routine vanishes and their time is no longer filled with school, homework, extra-curricular activities, and all the things that keep them busy and out of trouble.

You know your teen is at risk of going down the wrong path. How do you keep it from happening this summer?

Planning Tips for At-Risk Teens

We’re going to assume this is new territory, meaning your teen has not been in treatment for substance use issues, received an assessment from a mental health professional, or had run-ins with the law. This post 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 teen’s life.

Here are some steps you can take to make sure this summer is a positive learning experience for your teenager:


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 as you finalize your summer plans.

Seek Professional Help.

When you see the warning signs of substance use, you want to dig deeper and find the root cause. Adolescence is the time when the initial symptoms of a wide range of emotional issues may begin to appear, such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. If your teen is beginning to misuse alcohol or drugs, they 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 an accurate diagnosis 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, and then brainstorm summer ideas with 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 constraints like school schedules and planned family vacations.
    • The whole family needs to be on board. Everyone involved needs to know the details of the plan. In extreme cases, 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 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 be in that plan?

Work, Travel, Volunteering, and Treatment

We think almost any plan for teenagers should adhere to this maxim:

“Get them up early, run them hard all day, 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 when summer problems happen, and that’s what you’re trying to avoid.

Explore these possibilities:

  • Summer Jobs. Be creative with this: we’re not just talking about scooping ice cream, although that is a completely legitimate first job. We’re talking about interesting work that engages the mind, body, and soul. We suggest looking for something that’s intellectually stimulating, physically challenging, or serves a greater purpose. Consider things like teaching swim lessons, working as a summer camp counselor, apprenticing in a skilled trade (i.e. carpentry or a technical skill), or interning for a non-profit. We recommend against working in environments that serve alcohol, if possible.
  • Volunteer Opportunities. Service work is a great way to get perspective, stay occupied, and help others. 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 and find out if service work interests them. If it does, find something local that addresses both their impulse to help others and your need to keep them active and engaged.
  • Family Vacations. This summer, choose with intention. Plan a trip to a place where your teen has little or no access to alcohol or drugs. International travel, camping trips, and any excursion where they’ll be busy and by your side every day are ideal. If you find a vacation where full-time supervision is part of the bargain, you won’t have to make special plans to keep tabs on your teen.
  • Alternative Summer Travel. The summer travel has transformed from an interesting, little-known side-option for teens to an industry with scores of options around the globe. Alternative summer travel options include:
    • 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. It 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. 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.
    • Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP). Teens spend a half-day (three hours on average) in structured therapy, three to five days a week.
    • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP). Teens spend a full day (about five hours) in structured therapy, but go home for the evening.
    • Residential Treatment Programs (RTC). Teens live in the treatment center and receive 24/7 support and supervision. 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. However, sometimes addiction issues 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 right to be concerned about what your teenager is going to do this summer. If you know for sure they’ve been experimenting with alcohol, drugs, and other risky behaviors, you have to be. Whatever type of plan you come up with, we encourage you to look at summer 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 gotten off-track, fix problems completely if they’re minor, and set the tone for the years to come – all without disrupting school.

Adolescence is characterized by risk-taking, boundary-pushing, and notoriously poor decision-making. We’ve all been there. 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 change, learning, and development. Lean in: your 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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