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How to Respond When Your Troubled Teen Calls in Crisis

5 Steps to Communicating With a Distressed Teen Over the Phone


How parents can help a teen who calls in crisis.

Parents can use these 5 steps to help a teen who calls in crisis.

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Quick Links: Troubled Teens | Quiz: Is Your Teen At-Risk?

Parents who are raising a troubled teen often have to deal with this difficult scenario: a child who calls emotionally upset, or in trouble due to poor choices they have made. Mental health professionals who treat adolescents are specifically trained in how to respond to a teen calling in crisis. Here's how parents can use these same techniques to respond effectively when an upset or angry teen is on the other end of the line.

Step 1 - Make an Initial Connection With Your Distressed Teen

When your teen reaches out to you it's important early in the call to get across the message that they will get what they need from talking to you, helping to minimize the chances they will hang up before finishing -leaving you even more worried.

In this initial step it's important to do your best to remain calm, to respond compassionately to your teen, and to offer reassurance that talking about their troubles will most likely be helpful. Although you'll be eager to know what's going on, it's important to spend as much time as needed on this step, helping to focus your teen and stating that you want to hear what they have to say. It's time to move on when your teen seems able to talk with only occasional crying or cursing.

Step 2 - Clarify the Problem Your Teen is Having

Now it's time to encourage your teen to clarify the reason for the call, to describe the problem they are having that is upsetting to them. Be careful at this point not to jump ahead because in order to problem solve, it's essential to first clarify the problem. Many times the first words from an upset teen's mouth don't really get to the meat of the matter; they are just a warm up due to uncertainty about how to communicate what's going on or a test of how you will respond.

The most helpful response at this point is to listen attentively and ask open-ended questions to keep your teen talking. When you feel you have a good grasp of what's going on, summarize this understanding to your teen and if they agree you've 'got it', then it's time to move on to the next step.

Step 3 - Empathize With How Your Teen Feels

When you express that you not only understand the problem but also have a sense of what it may be like to go through this, your teen will feel understood and is likely to share more detailed information with you. Do this by considering what your teen might be experiencing and how they may feel about it, a process known as empathy. By putting yourself in their shoes, imagining what they are feeling and sharing this information your teen will get the picture that you are there for them.

Examples of empathic responses include:

  • I imagine that would be a difficult situation to be in.
  • If that happened to me I'd feel hurt.
  • I think I understand the anger you're feeling about this.

Step 4 - Brainstorm Possible Solutions

Assist your teen in figuring out what to do next. Rather than offering your opinion or telling your child what to do, help them brainstorm possible solutions. This technique encourages your teen to consider all the options available to help improve the distressing situation.

This is the time to get creative, to come up with possibilities without initially making any judgments about which ones might work or be the most effective. Define all the options and then look at which make sense and which don't. Depending on the complexity of the problem, it may help to write down all the ideas; offer to do this for your teen as you're talking.

Step 5 - Reach Agreement on a Follow Up Plan

In the final step, encourage your teen to define the solution they will implement. Keep in mind they are most likely going to use the solution they feel works best for them, rather than one you suggest or insist on. If needed, help your teen break down their solution into smaller steps. For example, if this is a relationship problem help your teen figure out what they want to say to the other person, perhaps offering to role-play how this conversation might go.

This is the time to talk about what to do if the solution doesn't have the hoped for results, creating the need to try other solutions. It's also your opportunity to let your troubled teen know how much you'd like them to let you know how they're doing after the call. Agree to a time frame during which they will provide an update, as well as how to do so, perhaps agreeing to call back or text you within 24 hours, or whatever makes sense based on the seriousness of the problem and the extent of your teen's upset about it.

Working through these steps may at first feel awkward to parents, but they provide an effective structure for helping troubled teens work through problems they are struggling to deal with. Approaching the crisis in this way when your teen calls not only gets your teen through the current situation but also teaches valuable problem solving skills to use on their own in dealing with future crises.

Quick Links: Troubled Teens | Quiz: Is Your Teen At-Risk?

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