Some teens seem to have more trouble than others. They may need additional support to do well in school, stay out of trouble, and achieve independence. They may need the help of teachers, counselors, and neighbors, if parents are not available. This article will explain what qualifies a teen as at-risk and discusses steps that parents and caregivers can take to help support at-risk teens.
Defining At-Risk Teens
Typically, at-risk teens are those who have had distressing childhoods and by virtue of their circumstances are more at risk to fail academically, occupationally, and socially. They tend to have a poor or little attachment to a primary caregiver, tend to be vulnerable to one or more of the following:
- harm against others
- drug use
- early sexual activity
- suicide attempts
- mental illness (depression, ADHD, anxiety, etc.)
- gang violence
- domestic violence
- early pregnancy
- poor academic performance
In many cases, at-risk teens do not have a caregiver who is providing the kind of supervision they need, supporting their education, and/or meeting their emotional and physical needs. Without the support from caregivers, teens are more likely to experience hardship. Some parents of at-risk teens may be incarcerated, suffering from addiction, or for other reasons unavailable to provide their teen with the care they need. For this reason, other caregivers, teachers, principals, neighbors, and school counselors can help an at-risk teen.
How to Help an At-Risk Teen
If you are a parent, caregiver, friend or relative of an at-risk teen and you want to be more involved in a teen’s life, here are some ways you can help:
Listen. It may seem simple, but what most at-risk teens say is that they wish they had someone who would listen to them. Be willing to be by your teen’s side and listen to their thoughts, feelings, and struggles. By listening you let a teen know that you care about them. You communicate that a teen’s life is important to you. Many teens who feel that those around them don’t care end up not caring about life in general.
Lend a hand. Sometimes an at-risk teen simply needs a meal or a ride to school or money for a bus pass. If you know a teen who needs support, ask them how you can help. You may be surprised at the simplicity of their answers.
Connect them with others. Along with having basic needs, such as those described above, teens may have emotional, educational, and psychological needs. Although they may not specifically ask for it, you can help an at-risk teen by connecting them with a tutor, counselor, social worker, or another supportive adult.
Mentor a teen. Mentors can help teens look at their lives in new ways. Without a mentor, a teen might not see the importance of school, behave in ways that are risky or cause trouble, and not place value on relationships. Yet, when a teen has a mentor they can relate to, it can make a big difference in a their life.
Discuss your concerns with others. If you notice a teen who is having trouble in school or with the law, there may be a larger problem to be addressed, such as domestic violence at home, a parent who recently passed away, or a sibling who was recently incarcerated. Talk with teachers, family, community leaders, and even faith leaders about the larger problems that are affecting teens. If you want to support at risk youth, having these types of conversations are necessary.
Help create a web of support. Research shows that when a teen has one primary caring and supportive relationship as well as a network of support they have greater chances of succeeding. If you recognize that a teen doesn’t have the support they need, help build a network of support for them. You might begin by talking to teachers, counselors, older siblings, neighbors, or extended relatives.
Volunteer at youth-focused organizations. There are plenty of teen-centered organizations that assist teens with homelessness, addiction, domestic violence, mental illness, and more. If you want to support a teen you know or teens in your community, find an organization where you might volunteer your time.
Talk to teens. Sometimes, teens simply don’t know what to do. They may not have any direction in life and may lack how to protect themselves. They may give in easily to peer pressure or not know how to say no. In the right context and through building a relationship with a teen, they may yearn for your guidance and direction.
Use mindfulness with teens. Using mindfulness with high-risk teens can be incredibly useful, particularly because of the effects of mindfulness on the developing brain. The brain can build strong connections that can last a lifetime, such as learning how to self-regulate emotions, as one key skill that most high-risk teens need. Other skills that mindfulness can deliver to teens are focus, presence, compassion, empathy, less impulsivity, and the ability to be aware of oneself.
Let them know you care. Even if you are not a parent or relative, letting a teen know that you care or appreciate them can help them feel good about themselves. It can help them feel important, seen, and accepted. And if a teen isn’t hearing “I love you” from parents or relatives at home, letting them know you care might mean a great deal.
What To do When At-Risk Teens are Hard to Work With
Many parents, teachers, neighbors, and counselors may experience at-risk teens as difficult to work with. Teens may be aggressive, rude, dismissive, or non-receptive. It can be challenging to work with high-risk teens. Yet, in most cases, teens who are disruptive, abrasive, resistant, and violent tend to need professional and personal care the most. Their experiences certainly have contributed to their inability to trust adults or any advice or direction they are given.
However, it is worth noting that high-risk teens come from all walks of life. The high risk factors present for adolescents go beyond any stereotypes or socioeconomic categories. With this in mind, a teen that is challenging to work with can be best met on a human-to-human level. It is often precisely what teens are looking for in the first place. Although they might be frequently at odds with the law and with authority figures, these teens need human-to-human connection, and this is what the above suggestions are meant to facilitate. Although it may require more effort, time, or dedication, ultimately a teen is looking for someone who isn’t going to abandon, betray, hurt, or ignore them.
They say in the mental health field that those who are the hardest to love need it the most. If you can hang in there with an at-risk teen and build a relationship with them, you may be saving a life.