What Works for Troubled Teens?

When kids have behavioral problems—but not severe disabilities—experts say the best treatment is not boot camp, but plain old family therapy.

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


The most effective treatments for troubled teenagers have these things in common: They use family-based therapies; they treat adolescents with empathy, dignity, and respect; and, except for very short periods of emergency stabilization, they keep teens at home.

Research has proven the effectiveness of a number of methods for treating youth with behavioral and other problems—including functional family therapy, cognitive-behavioral family therapy, and multisystemic family therapy (the latter, ironically, is available almost exclusively to kids in the juvenile justice system). All of them focus on improving communication between children and parents, setting clear boundaries, and ensuring that teenagers’ developmental needs for increased freedom, social connection, and responsibility are recognized and met in safe and healthy ways. Inpatient treatment happens only on a short-term basis when a child is a threat to himself or others.

Since most problems involve fractured family relationships, recovery requires repairing those bonds—connections that can be harder to rebuild if a child spends years away from home. “Youth will modify their dangerous behavior in response to practical, problem-solving, behavioral therapies—if they feel respected and cared for by the therapist,” explains Charles Huffine, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice in Seattle.

Effective therapies also recognize that different problems require different approaches. What helps a kid with autism or Asperger’s is different from what is needed for a child with conduct disorder or depression or drug addiction. Appropriate medication and talk therapies tailored to these conditions can make all the difference. Residential programs, on the other hand, are generally one size fits all, even while they claim to offer individualized care.

Huffine notes that getting youths to change their behavior often takes longer than parents realize (or hope for). He recommends avoiding programs that promise too much, as well as those that exaggerate the danger of problematic but common teen troubles such as poor grades, bad attitudes, and experimentation with drugs. “Such programs,” says Huffine, “exploit parents who feel desperate.”


IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate