When and How to Intervene in the Life of Your Teenager

As a parent of teenagers, I understand the importance of distinguishing between what I can and can't control and granting my kids the freedom they need in order to make their own choices and learn by their own mistakes. Unfortunately, I have reason to believe that my teens are in serious danger of choosing wrong and messing up their lives. As a matter of fact, my 17-year-old daughter has already gotten into some serious trouble with her boyfriend. What's worse, her defiant attitude is making it increasingly difficult for me to keep her on the right path. What would you recommend?

It’s part of your job as a parent to counsel, advise, and set limits for your teens by teaching and modeling biblical values for them. You can do this by establishing a set of house rules – for example, no alcohol, no drugs, no premarital sex, be home every night by a certain predetermined time, and attend church with us on Sundays. Once that’s done, you can say, “My house, my rules. As long as you live under my roof, you have to abide by my standards.”

We’re assuming that you’ve been working to instill godly values in your kids ever since they were small, shaping their attitudes and molding their conduct through the application of rules, sanctions, life-lessons, and appropriate punishments. But during adolescence the focus shifts to teaching them how to think for themselves. That’s the only way they can grow up and really begin to internalize the lessons you’ve been trying to teach them since birth. Oftentimes this means allowing them the freedom to learn from their own mistakes.

It’s always possible, of course, that some teens will abuse this freedom. In some cases the abuse will take the form of behavior that is unsafe, unhealthy, immoral, and/or dangerous to others. It may involve choices that pose a very real and very serious threat to the child’s entire future. Apparently your seventeen-year-old has been pushing the envelope in this direction. When to step in and intervene – and how – is not always clear. There aren’t always straightforward answers to a parent’s frantic questions. If you think the situation is coming to the point where your daughter is seriously out of control, there are two things you need to keep in mind.

First, you need to seek help, and you need to seek it sooner rather than later. Parents often wait too long, hoping the situation will fix itself. Sometimes things are resolved on their own, but often they only get worse. You don’t necessarily have to reach for a therapist at the first sign of trouble, but you do need to reach out. If the level of help you enlist successfully addresses the situation, great. If it doesn’t do the job, you’ll have to take more serious measures.

Second, you should start looking for outside assistance when your teenager’s behavior is …

  • Intense enough to be considered potentially dangerous.
  • Marked by enough major behavioral and/or personality changes that can’t be otherwise defined.
  • Disruptive enough to everyday routine that he or she can no longer function normally.

We’ve emphasized the word enough in each of these three statements fully realizing that it’s a very subjective term. If you’re concerned, yet uncertain about your ability to resolve the problem, it’s time to get outside assistance.

Does this mean that you’re abandoning the influence-based model of teen-parenting and trying to reassert control? The answer is no. In actuality, by seeking help, you’re admitting that you can’t “fix” your teen by yourself. Instead of trying to grab control, you’re relinquishing it to those who are better equipped to handle the problem. In other words, you’re trying to influence your child more effectively.

So where should you look for help? The good news is that there is a wide range of services available to parents of teens who are struggling with issues that vary from mild to severe. You can think of this as a “continuum of care.” The idea is to begin with the least restrictive form of service – that is, the form that restricts a teen’s freedom least – and move to others only as needed. Here’s a list of options you may want to explore:

  • Parental involvement. Your first line of defense is you. You can head off a lot of trouble simply by staying involved in your teenager’s business in good ways and for appropriate reasons.
  • Mentoring and youth groups. Youth pastors, youth workers, and groups like Young Life or Fellowship of Christian Athletes can have a strong and healthy influence in your child’s life. Mentors may say exactly the same things you’ve been saying as a parent, but since they aren’t “the parent,” their words may actually be heard by your teen.
  • Outpatient therapy. This is what most people think of when they consider “counseling.” It usually involves one to three hours per week spent with a licensed therapist or psychologist. Focus on the Family can refer you to specialists working in your area.
  • Intensive outpatient program. These programs are usually operated by a local hospital and involve three to five days a week of group, individual, and sometimes family therapy. There will usually be a fee for services.
  • Day treatment program. This is an educational experience, often operated by a school district, in which a teenager attends class five days a week for academic credit. Kids are usually placed in these programs by recommendation of the school staff.
  • Living with a relative or friend. This is usually the first step toward moving a teen out of the home. It can be a way of altering your child’s environment, removing him or her from bad influences in the neighborhood, or protecting younger siblings. Sometimes – and for no clear reason – a teenager will do better just because he or she is no longer under the direct authority of his or her parents.
  • Living with your ex-spouse (if applicable). This is simply a specialized variation on the last option. You may want to seek legal counsel before proceeding.
  • Foster homes and group homes. These are long-term placements arranged by the legal system or Child Welfare Services (often known as Child Protective Services). Under such arrangements a teen often attends a public school that offers programs designed to meet his or her special needs.
  • Residential care facilities and treatment centers. Residential care and treatment include group therapy, individual therapy, family therapy, and 24-hour supervision. Teens with major rebellion and behavioral issues and those struggling with alcoholism and addiction often need this kind of placement.
  • Youth detention and department of youth corrections. As will be obvious, these options involve law enforcement and the judicial system. Parents don’t make the decision to place a child in juvenile detention.
  • Medical hospitalization, acute. This involves psychiatric hospitalization with a short stay of one to five days. This is where you will go if your teen is suicidal, has just attempted suicide, or has overdosed on drugs. The hospital can also evaluate whether a person is depressed enough or “out of touch with reality” enough to require further hospitalization.
  • State hospital. State hospitals provide long-term treatment for severe mental health and/or behavioral issues. This is the “last resort” when all other forms of care have failed.
  • Emancipation and relinquishing parental rights. Emancipation is the final step for parents who are dealing with a seriously out-of-control teenager. Legal counsel is necessary when considering it. Relinquishing parental rights eliminates your legal liability for your teenager’s actions. It’s a last-ditch way of making an adolescent responsible for his or her choices.

This “continuum of care” starts with people you already know and moves in the direction of trained specialists. If you need specialized intervention, it’s likely that some of the folks within your immediate sphere of acquaintance – friends, family members, pastors, or teachers – will know where to direct you. As you set out on this journey, remember that trying to find the one “right” program that will “fix” your teenager can become an extremely frustrating process. Always bear in mind that your teen has the right to choose stupid – and to keep choosing stupid her entire life if she wants to. Even the best therapist or program can’t guarantee that your child will turn around and stop rebelling.

In the meantime, make sure you get some support for yourself. Join a small group of parents who can empathize with your pain. Talk with your pastor or mentor. Do whatever you can to get yourself through this hard time. That’s not being selfish – it’s being responsible. Your other children, your spouse, or your employer (if you have them) need you to be as sane and healthy as you can be. Remember that this is not your fault, that your teen has made her own choices, and that the time and effort you invest in the intervention process increase the odds that she will eventually come around.

If you think it might be helpful to discuss these thoughts at greater length, our staff counselors would consider it a privilege to speak with you over the phone. As mentioned above, they can also provide you with a list of referrals to trained therapists practicing in your area. Contact our Counseling department for a free consultation.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Losing Control & Liking It: How to Set Your Teen (and Yourself) Free

Boundaries With Teens

Why Christian Kids Rebel

Letting Go of Your Teen

Loving Your Teen Through Life’s Seasons

Tips for Parenting Teens

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