You know your preteen or teenager is having emotional or behavioral problems.
Maybe they’re getting into trouble at school more than ever. Maybe they’re experimenting with drugs or alcohol. Maybe they have just gotten a mental health diagnosis and don’t know what it means or how to deal with it. Maybe they’re frustrated with something they are not able to do, and it’s coming out as anger and violence.
And you’re worried that this is going to turn into something bigger.
Not every risky behavior is going to get your child involved with the law or the juvenile justice system. But if you’re concerned, it’s good to act early to get them some help. Help could come from a counselor or therapist, their school, or a youth support program (sometimes called “at-risk youth programs” or “juvenile justice prevention programs”).
Getting help early can prevent bigger legal and emotional problems for your family later. This is especially important if your child has an intellectual disability. They might not have a clear picture of the risks of their behavior, and a community group or counselor can help them understand those risks well enough to keep a problem from happening.
When to Act
You can expect preteens and teenagers to have challenging behaviors and act out sometimes. With changing hormones and a desire to do more on their own, they might be less respectful and have more intense moods. We have an entire page on teenagers that tells you more about what to expect.
But there is a time when emotional and behavioral problems go beyond typical preteen or teenage development. There can be so many different reasons why – maybe your child is dealing with a traumatic experience, trying to fit in, coping with their disability, is just bored, or one of many other reasons.
While we have a longer list of when to get mental health help for children, there are also certain “risk behaviors” to watch for that could lead to your child getting in trouble with the law.
- Your child acting differently. You don’t know why. And it’s not just normal teenage behavior.
- Changes in friends or peer group that worry you.
- Experimenting with drugs, alcohol, sex, or tobacco.
- Problems at school, such as cutting class, slipping grades, or getting into fights.
- A history or pattern of aggressive or hostile behavior.
- Missing curfew or staying out all night.
- Defying authority and breaking rules at school, home, and in the community.
These are warning signs, and not all of them mean your child is going to get in trouble with the law. But if you are concerned, it might be time to take action.
Working With Your Child’s School
If the problems are happening in school, it’s important to start working with the school early to get needed protections. Your child may need new or different special education services or 504 accommodations, and these can make a big difference. Or they might find new interests and friends in a school or community program that would give extra support.
Here are some suggestions we’ve collected from other parents and professionals:
- If your child is getting special education services or 504 accommodations and has a mental health diagnosis, have the school add “emotional disturbance” as a reason for getting services. This protects your child because, if you can show that your child is acting out because of a disability listed in Your Child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan, the behavior is treated very differently than it would be otherwise. See more about your child’s right to a public education.
- See if your child’s teachers and counselors know any reasons why your child might be acting out. Is there a bullying situation? Is your child extra frustrated with schoolwork? Do accommodations need to be changed? If your child is receiving special education services, you may need a formal Admissions, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) meeting for this.
- See if the school has any programs or services to help your child, like leadership or work skills programs at school or in the community.
- If possible, spend time at your child’s school. Try to volunteer in the library, in the guidance office, or on another project where you’ll be working with school staff. If they get to know you, they are more likely to call you if a problem comes up.
Connecting With Your Child
Sometimes talking openly with your child and helping them find good friends and interests can get them through the hardest parts of their preteen and teenage years. That might happen through a sports team, an art or music program, a faith-based group, or one of the many community groups we have listed on this page. Other times, you might need more help through family counseling or other mental health support services.
Where to Get Help
There are many programs, services, and supports in the community that can help youth who are struggling, including the following list:
- Texas Youth & Runaway Hotline can help you find a mentoring, job training, or community youth support program near you. You can call them at 1-800-989-6884, text them at 1-512-872-5777, or chat online with a hotline staff member.
- Texas Department of Family Protective Services has many family support programs, including youth and family crisis counseling, emergency respite care, mentoring, job training programs, and other important services. You can find programs near you on the DFPS county search page.
- Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) has funded over 20 probation departments across Texas to offer prevention services supporting youth at risk of law-breaking behavior. Look at the TJJD county list to see if your local probation department has one.
- The Boys and Girls Clubs of America are after school programs that give children a safe place to learn and a positive peer group. See our After School Activities page to learn more about other programs like this.
- Big Brothers Big Sisters of America can give your child a mentor. There are waiting lists in some areas.
- Communities in Schools works in many Texas public schools to offer tutoring, mental health support, and mentoring to students.
- Connect with other parents in your area or visit our regional pages to find other faith-based and community groups.
- Call your Local Mental Health Authority to see if they can offer your child or family counseling. You can also ask to talk to a Certified Family Partner. These are parents who have lived with someone who has a mental health concern who can offer support (and ideas for support programs).