Dear Dr. Michelle:
We are looking at options to help our 15-year-old son who has many continuous problems. He is stealing, lying, and cheating. He has violent outbursts when he’s confronted. He self-harms, has inappropriate sexual behaviors, fights, lack of empathy, and more. What is our best solution for these behaviors?
Thank you for reaching out. I imagine you have been dealing with these behaviors for quite some time and this must be very difficult for your family to endure emotionally and physical. There is help and there is hope.
Usually when there are multiple layers of challenging behavior, it generally starts in one area and, over time, when the first behavior is not effective at helping a person experience relief from whatever is going on, things start to intensify. You are right to seek help because if the reason for his behaviors does not get addressed, the behaviors may increase and lead to legal consequences, meaning more pain for your son and your family.
One thing to keep in mind is that while you are not going to be able to focus on all the behaviors at once, more than likely, his behaviors have the same root cause. In fact, the behavior is not the focus. You want to understand what lies beneath his behavior. In other words, you will need to try and discover what has happened to your son that has resulted in expressing himself this way.
From the behaviors you have listed, research tells us that your son has experienced some type of emotional, physical, and/or sexual trauma. It could have been a one-time experience, or it could have occurred over time.
Your son’s behavior is perhaps communicating that he has been hurt and that he feels no sense of control over his life. His behaviors are his attempt to gain that control, and this is now the best way he knows how to protect himself from the feelings that he is going through.
When children or teens experience trauma, it will impact day-to-day functioning, how they think, process information, feel, and perceive interactions. It will also lead to a distrust of others. What your son is displaying are attempts to protect himself from others. In a sense, he is trying to regain control over his emotions, or perhaps his body or physical space.
Questions You Need To Ask Yourself
- Has your son experienced any types of abuse in his past, or is he continuing to endure any type of abuse, such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse?
- At what age did he start to demonstrate any one or a combination of these behaviors? What was going on in his life at that time, or what happened to him at that time?
- Does your son have other mental health, medical, cognitive, or developmental symptoms, issues, or diagnoses as these can also lead to difficult behavior?
- Are there people in your son’s life in which the behavior manifests more strongly, or people in which he is calmer around? Who are those people and what role do they play in his life?
- Are there things you are doing or not doing as a parent that could be feeding into his behavior?
I recommend that you seek a professional counselor or therapist to conduct further assessment. Given everything mentioned, the first way to address your son’s behavior is to understand what has happened to him. If he has experienced trauma, it is not an excuse for his behavior. For him to heal, it will require specific therapy and treatment to address the effects the trauma has had. As healing from the effects of the trauma happens, his need for the difficult behavior will cease.
- Psychological and medical assessments and testing. Ensure that a high-level trauma assessment and history is gathered. Such evaluation should help you learn if medications are in order.
- Individual therapy for your son with a therapist who is trained in Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy (TF-CBT) and/or Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR).
- Family therapy for you and other caregivers. Allow the family therapy to focus on your parenting techniques and be open to learning different ways to interact and intervene with your son.
- If your son’s behavior is unmanageable with these above interventions, seek out programs in your area such as Day Treatment Programs or Partial Hospitalization Programs. These are programs for youth that replace regular education while integrate learning with mental health treatment throughout the day.
- If none of these types of interventions work and your son is consistently demonstrating harm to himself and/or others, then you can consider residential treatment. This is an intervention whereby your child lives in a facility and receives 24-hour supervision and intensive mental and behavioral treatment and the tools needed to then return home.
- Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy
- Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Traumatized Children and Families
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy
- What is EMDR?
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
Submit Your Question on mental health and/or family relations to Dr. Michelle K. Murray.