If you decide your teen needs more help than you are able to provide, your first call should be to someone you feel comfortable with. Call a trusted school counselor, teacher, or physician and ask for a referral.
The most important criteria you should look for—whether you choose a social worker or psychologist—is someone who sees lots of teens and has plenty of experience with this age group.
Help comes in all types of degrees (M.S.W., Ph.D., etc.). It may be helpful for you to know a little about the meaning of what they are:
- School counselor. The school counselor has a Master's Degree and counseling skills. If your school also has a school psychologist, that person should have a Ph.D., Ed.D., or a Psy.D. in psychology or counseling.
- Psychologist. A psychologist has a Doctoral Degree (Ph.D., Ed.D. or Psy.D.). To earn this degree, the psychologist must complete a rigorous program of academic courses, research assignments, supervised clinical practice, clerkships, field assignments, and a year-long supervised internship. Some psychologists are specially trained in counseling or therapy; others have a specialty in diagnostic testing which may be helpful in some circumstances.
- Social worker. Social workers have Master's Degrees in social work (M.S.W.) and have usually received supervised clinical experience as well. Because they are trained to analyze and work with emotional problems in a social context, they are sometimes particularly aware of family dynamics and peer group interaction. If you'll be using insurance to foot part of the bill, be certain that your social worker can sign insurance forms for you; some can't.
- Family therapist. A person specializing in family therapy has an advanced degree (a Master's Degree or a Doctorate), and is specially trained to treat family problems. A family therapist's work may focus on communications and relationship dynamics within the family.
- Psychiatrist. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in psychiatry. Some practice therapy and may combine it with use of medication to treat a particular condition. While all psychiatrists are able to prescribe medication, some prefer the use of therapeutic methods (such as psychotherapy) over the use of medication. In addition, psychiatrists can hospitalize a patient when necessary.
In addition to the specific warning signs, professionals recommend that you seek help if your teen exhibits any of the following behaviors on a regular basis:
- Reclusive behavior
- Self-destructive behavior ranging from excessive dieting to threats of suicide
- Sudden changes in personality
- Noticeable drop in academic performance
- Compulsive behavior that interferes with daily functioning
- Fears or anxieties that are incapacitating
- Outbursts of violence or sadistic behavior
- Seemingly “out of touch” with reality
- Poor self-esteem
If you decide to use a specialist, you should begin by asking for referrals. Look for a person who is known for being terrific with teens or families. Then make sure he or she is a licensed practitioner.
If you're worried about the cost of therapy, consider school counseling services. You might also look into university counseling services, clinics at psychological counseling training programs, and low-cost services offered at most state psychological associations. Otherwise, many individual practitioners offer sliding-scale plans, and public agencies will usually charge a rate based on what your family can afford. Your health insurance may offer some options, too.
Seeing a teen through a crisis is an extraordinarily draining experience, partly because a crisis-prone teen isn't likely to lead you into the woods once and let you come back out again. Once you realize your teen is battling demons bigger than a hard math test or not being invited to a party, you're likely going to need to be vigilant through the years.
As you go through a rough period with your teen, take a look at his or her siblings, too. One family member's problems will affect all of you. Check to see how everyone is coping. (And develop ways that you can give yourself a break as well.)
The gratifying part of this is that most teens desperately want to be helped. If you can recognize a crisis (or crises) and meet it head on, the odds are good that you'll slowly begin to make some progress. Every coping strategy or support system you can provide for her will be a gift that may help her re-build her life over the years.