Parenting an Emotionally Disturbed Teen

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 14.5 percent of American children ages 4 to 17 sought help with an emotional disturbance in 2005 and 2006 1. The CDC also states that approximately 2.9 million children were taking psychiatric medication during that same time period. Learning that your child has an emotional disturbance can be frightening and overwhelming, but you are not alone 1. A network of resources is available for both you and your child.


If you suspect that your child has an emotional disturbance, the first step is to obtain a proper diagnosis 1. The Maine Parent Federation points out in its report "Putting it All Together" that a diagnosis represents the starting point for gathering appropriate resources and making the necessary decisions to help your child heal. Ask your child’s doctor for a referral to a mental health professional that specializes in teens. Depending on the situation, the therapist might use a combination of written tests and oral interviews to arrive at a diagnosis.


Treatment plans vary widely depending on the individual needs of the client and the theoretical orientation of the therapist. Medications and outpatient therapy are the most common treatments for emotional disturbances. Depending on the diagnosis, some teens also attend occupational therapy, social skills training or psycho-educational groups. The therapist might also recommend family counseling to help your entire family learn to cope with the teen’s behaviors.

Inpatient treatment is sometimes recommended, particularly if your teen is violent to himself or others. Inpatient options run the gamut from locked psychiatric hospital wards to open campuses with minimal restrictions. Some teens work their way through a series of facilities, gradually moving to less and less restrictive environments.


Consistency is key when parenting an emotionally disturbed teen. Work with your child’s therapist to create firm, fair boundaries and clear consequences for boundary violations. Set reasonable expectations but avoid becoming the rules police. The Maine Parent Federation points out that many teens with emotional disturbances suffer from low self-esteem. Praise your teen liberally for appropriate behavior. Answer questions about his illness in a clear, honest way, but stress that he is much more than his diagnosis. Avoid shaming your child and teach him not to take himself too seriously.


Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, all American students with recognized disabilities are entitled to an Individualized Education Program. The NICHCY explains that an IEP outlines the student’s learning goals and specifies the services that the school district will provide 2. Each IEP is different, and parents are part of the team that designs the child’s plan. Expect to advocate for your child, as you know her best. Some IEPs for teens include transition plans that set goals for transitioning out of high school and into the real world. Make sure both you and your teen are present for all meetings that discuss the transition plan.

Support Services

Support groups are invaluable, not only for the teen but also for her parents and siblings. An emotional disturbance takes its toll on everyone, but spending time with others who truly understand can help 1. Some emotionally disturbed teens attend summer camps or other short-term programs designed for people with similar conditions.

Depending on your teen’s diagnosis and level of disability, he may qualify for disability income. Your family might also be eligible for respite care, in which a professional caregiver takes care of the teen for a few hours or days while you take a break. Ask your teen’s therapist for a referral to a social worker who can connect you with support resources in your community.