How to Help a Troubled Teen

Stacy Zeiger
Talking builds trust

While some people might think troubled teens need to work out their problems alone, these kids are often desperate for support. A struggling young person might act like he or she doesn't need anyone, but the truth is, this aloofness is often a call for help. Unlike adults, teens are less likely to recognize self-destructive behaviors. They might see getting into trouble with their parents or the law, or depression as a normal part of life. Troubled teens don't realize that life doesn't have to be this way. Getting help as a teenager means these teens will be more likely to be productive, capable adults when they get older.

Building a Teen's Trust

Helping a troubled teen involves more than just confronting the teenager when things are bad. You need to foster a sense of trust with the teen to help him feel comfortable with you. Approaching a teen from a place of true caring is an important part of establishing trust and making a difference. Keeping your promises, talking together, and offering help when needed can show sincerity and help troubled teens open up. A few other things you can do to help build the teen's trust include:

  • Leave a note for the teenager. Even something short like, "I love you," can mean a lot.
  • Text your teen. Let the teen know he is on your mind and you are there if there's a problem.
  • Do things together. Take a walk together, and spend time with the teen. Even if the conversation is short, the quiet time together is important.
  • Ask your teen questions. Try to allow time every week to engage in casual conversation.

Recognizing a Cry for Help

In order to help a troubled teen, you need to recognize when something is wrong. Just because your teen has not acted out before, doesn't mean something isn't wrong. Listen to your gut. If you suspect something is wrong, get involved. Watch for warning signs as well. If your teen exhibits any of the following behaviors, it may be time to try to get her some help:

  • A drop in grades or not participating as much in school activities
  • Hanging around questionable friends
  • Acting withdrawn or depressed
  • Avoiding conversation
  • Frequent changes in mood
  • Excessive lying
  • Gets defensive about activities
  • Drops old friends and hangs out with new, less desirable friends
  • Missing money or items

Communicating with Your Teen

If you suspect something is wrong or notice changes in behavior, talk to your teen. Let your teen know that you have noticed a change in behavior and that you're there to help or to listen to whatever he has to say. Approaching your teen negatively can do more harm than good if the teen really is in trouble. Instead, approach your teen with empathy and use a neutral or concerned tone. Explain your concerns to your teen, and then give your teen time to talk without interrupting him. Sometimes simply talking with your teen will be enough to make him recognize his negative behavior, but often, it's just the first step in a longer process.

Seeking Professional Help

If a teen is truly in trouble, it often helps to get a professional involved. The level of professional involvement will depend on the trouble the teen is in.

Counseling and Therapy

If your teen is facing depression or having thoughts of suicide, you need to take your teen to see a mental health counselor or a doctor right away. A professional can help determine the extent of the depression or suicidal thoughts and provide the teen with ways to handle the depression or, if necessary, prescribe medication to help remedy the problem. Some mental health counselors and doctors also specialize in dealing with teens that have eating disorders. For a teen that is having issues with drugs and alcohol, look for a substance abuse counselor or find help through a local Alcoholics Anonymous or other drug and alcohol use support group.


When talking to your teen or visiting a counselor is not successful, it may be time to consider rehabilitation. While it may be hard to send your teen to a rehab facility, sometimes removing your teen from a trouble-filled environment and requiring the teen to focus on the problem is necessary. While most people think of rehab facilities as only for those with drug and alcohol addictions, there are also rehab facilities for teens with eating disorders or those experiencing extreme depression and anxiety.

Boarding Schools and Boot Camps

As a last resort, sending your teen to a boarding school or boot camp may be the solution. Some of these programs last for around a week, while others last for a few months. When teens attend a boot camp or enroll in a boarding school for troubled teens, they are put in a highly restrictive environment. Along with attending school, teens receive intense counseling and follow strict rules and procedures. While some teens may be upset at being sent away, it may end up being the wakeup call they need.

Resources for Troubled Teens

As you work to help your teen through his or her problems, seek out some of these resources to help your teen through his problems. Even if your teen is not receptive to professional help, it is often in his best interest to help tackle the problem head-on.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse

  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse offers articles on different types of drugs, stories from teens who have been addicted to drugs and resources for help.
  • The Partnership at features tips for prevention and intervention when it comes to teen drug use.
  • Project Know helps you understand addiction and offers a 1-800 number for those seeking help.

Depression and Suicide

  • The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry's Depression Resource Center contains facts, resources and other materials for families of depressed teens.
  • Mental Health America offers information on depression in teens and help for parents.
  • The Youth Suicide Prevention Program helps you identify a suicidal teen and gives you resources for finding help.
  • Cry for Help from PBS offers a list of phone lines and online help resources for teens facing depression and suicide.

Eating Disorders

Don't Concede Defeat

No matter what you choose to do to help a troubled teen, know that things can and do get better. Getting professional help is not a sign of failure. When a teen is in trouble, you need to enlist all of the help you can to get him or her back on the right track.

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How to Help a Troubled Teen