Are you baffled by your teenager’s behavior? Welcome to the club. Please step inside my office. Let’s eavesdrop on other parents:

“My son doesn’t sleep at night, so he can’t wake up in the morning.”

“My daughter procrastinates until she has a panic attack, then I have one myself!”

“My kid’s bedroom looks like a crime scene.”

Do these concerns sound familiar to you? Perhaps you watch child-rearing seminars on the Web, talk to other parents, and even buy parenting books. You learn to dole out limits, enforce consequences, and hold family and school meetings just like a pro. Yet, nothing changes.

Finally, you take the leap and hire a therapist. Even then, you feel trapped in despair with your child’s unresolved behavior. Perhaps the therapist shuts you out of therapy, labels your child with some kind of pathology or reinforces your kid’s negative feelings toward you. And you’ve added to your monthly bills!

Adolescence Changes Everything

Adolescence is a minefield of biological, emotional, and psychological maturation — the Bermuda Triangle of development stages. Still, the truth is teenagers’ core needs are not very complicated. Over the many years of providing parenting workshops, I developed a simple, five-item checklist to get you started. The key to influencing your kid’s behavior lies in not trying to control or manipulate it. If you target or aggressively challenge problematic behaviors, especially with certain kinds of kids, that will only increase their defiance and alienation. And the last thing you want to do is make your kid’s behavior worse.

Here’s the core concept to keep in mind: behind every problem behavior there is an emotional gap, an experience that is missing from a kid’s life. Identify what’s missing and you’re halfway home. Unmet emotional needs stimulate disruptive behaviors and create gaps in maturity. For those gaps to close, it’s best to focus on providing new and enriching experiences that will satisfy those unmet needs.

For example, it you try to take a bottle from a baby, you’re in for a battle. But if the baby is well-fed, and you offer him a doll or a teddy bear, he will willingly drop the bottle without a struggle. In fact, he will forget the bottle entirely.

It’s the same with your kid. Rather than try to control or chastise him, give him something better to focus on, a task that will enlarge his sense of self. You will find that your kid’s problematic behaviors vanish with astonishing speed when his needs are met.

Main Task of Adolescence

Each phase in the life cycle comes with specific tasks and challenges. The main task of adolescence is identity formation. Each day that your kid leaves for school, he or she confronts massive feelings of uncertainty and insecurity. With his or her identity in flux, a solid sense of self eludes the teen and this fuels much anxiety, instability, and moodiness.

To ward off these uneasy feelings, teens adopt different personas, especially during early adolescence. They literally try on different identities. Visit any middle school and you’ll discover these clearly defined social groups: the nerds, the jocks, the gamers, the stoners, the skaters, the computer geeks, the bad kids, and the popular kids. When insecure kids pick a particular group, they feel instant relief. Finally, they have found their people — or so they think.

By mid- and late adolescence, his interest in labeling himself should start to wane. Individuality begins to emerge; he develops deeper friendships, recognizes his own unique talents and strengths, and starts to envision a bright future for himself. To his parents’ relief, he is less guarded and defensive. His sense of self has stabilized and he now has a language for expressing his feelings.

What Every Teen Needs

To help your son or daughter along the path to independence, maturity, and personal responsibility, let’s look at what may be missing from his or her life. When your kids act up and start to test you, give this list a quick review.

  1. Tension outlets. Studies have shown that 30 minutes of cardio exercise, three or more times a week, reduces anxious and depressive symptoms up to 70 percent. Kids think more clearly, are more mindful, and sleep better after workouts because they discharge tension stored in their bodies. When kids enter my office, I can tell right away if they are active. This is because teenagers have more feelings than words. In many cases, particularly with boys, cardio is a most effective intervention.
  2. Esteem-building activities. Every teen should have at least three to five sources that contribute to self-esteem. This means it’s crucial to help your kid to scope out and develop his unique talents, skills, and passions. If your teenager has only one source of self-esteem, if he is too defined by just one activity, he is less insulated against life’s tribulations. The moment he fails at that particular thing, he collapses into depression; his entire sense of self-worth is only coming from one source. This is why kids who have numerous sources of esteem are more fortified and better able to manage life’s vicissitudes.
  3. Structure, limits, and boundaries. Life’s unknowns always foster anxiety. Teens crave structure, limits, and boundaries, even though they may rebel against them. These psychic barriers soothe the anxiety and help them to feel safe. When teens know what to expect and what is required of them, they are comforted. When structure, limits, and boundaries fall apart, problematic behaviors flourish. For example, excessive computer usage, unstructured time, erratic sleep or study schedules all destabilize kids and increase moodiness and temperamental behaviors. Most important, without healthy structures, limits, and boundaries, teenagers won’t develop healthy habits to take with them to college.
  4. Teachers, models and mentors. Nothing is more powerful than providing your child with a positive relationship with an adult who inspires and motivates them. An uplifting teacher, a cheering coach, an aunt, uncle, or family friend that believes in him — these positive relationships have the power to turn around problematic behaviors overnight. Children internalize an adult’s confidence in them; they feel reassured and hopeful about themselves; their future is brighter and sense of purpose is clearer because they have someone outside the orbit of their family that believes in them.
  5. Learning diagnostics. Parents often balk when I recommend a learning evaluation. When I hear kids described as lazy or apathetic about their schoolwork, I always consider learning deficiencies. Even mild learning disabilities, such as slow processing speed, executive functioning troubles or attention deficit disorders generate chronic tension in kids, which causes them to fatigue quickly and lose focus. Low grades are demoralizing and take the joy out of learning. A good psychologist can help identify learning issues and get your kid the support and accommodations he or she needs in school to feel successful again.

A More Integrated Approach

The truth is, no single intervention will set your child on the right course. You need to consider the whole child, not just the parts of him or her that aren’t working. Acting out is always a symptom of a deeper issue. A proactive approach is the best prevention. Employ other adults, talk to school staff, reach out to friends and relatives, consider modifying your parenting style, arrange an internship or community service, and engage in altruistic activities. These are just a few ways you can begin to help your kid feel whole again and bring some peace back into your relationship.

Teen in bedroom photo available from Shutterstock