Determining whether an adolescent needs professional help when she or he engages in problem behaviors is not an easy task. Adolescents, by nature, tend to have mercurial moods and engage in behaviors that are distasteful to adults and ran counter to their values. In many cases, though, such behaviors are only part of the adolescent's search for identity, are normal, and do not require professional help. Too often when an adolescent first shows a problem behavior, such as drinking or stealing, parents panic and fear that their adolescent is going to turn into a drug addict or a hardened criminal. Such fears are usually not warranted - virtually every adolescent drinks alcohol at some point in their transition from childhood to adulthood, and, likewise, virtually every adolescent engages in at least one or more acts of juvenile delinquency. By overreacting to such initial occurrences of adolescent problem behaviors, parents can exacerbate their relationship with the adolescent and thereby contribute to increased parent-adolescent conflict.
What are the circumstances under which parents should seek professional help for their adolescent's problems? Laurence Steinberg and Ann Levine (1990) developed five guidelines for determining when to get professional help if an adolescent is showing problem behaviors:
• If the adolescent is showing severe problem behaviors, such as depression, anorexia nervosa, drug addiction, repeated delinquent acts, or serious school-related problems, parents should not try to treat these problems alone and probably should seek professional help for the adolescent.
• If the adolescent has a problem, but the parents do not know what the problem is, they may want to seek professional help for the adolescent. An example is an adolescent who is socially with drawn and doesn't have many friends, which could be due to extreme shyness, depression, stress at school, drug involvement, or any of a number of other reasons. If parents do not know what the adolescent's problem is, how can they help the adolescent? Professionals can often make specific diagnoses and provide recommendations for helping the adolescent.
• If parents have tried to solve the adolescent's problem but have not been successful and the problem continues to disrupt the adolescent's life, then parents may wish to seek professional help for the adolescent. Frequent truancy, chronic running away, or repeated, hostile opposition to authority are examples of such problems.
• If parents realize they are part of the adolescent's problem, they may wish to seek professional help for the family. Constant, intense, bitter fighting that disrupts the everyday living of the family is a good example. Rarely is one individual the single cause of extensive family dissension. A therapist can objectively analyze the family's problems and help the family members to see why they are fighting so much and to find ways to reduce the fighting.
• When the family is under extensive stress (from the death of a family member or a divorce, for example) and the adolescent is not coping well (for example, becomes depressed or drinks a lot), professional help may be needed.
Because many people have difficulty in managing stress themselves, psychologists have developed a variety of stress management programs that can be taught to individuals. Stress management programs are often taught through workshops, which are increasingly offered in the workplace (Taylor, 1991). Aware of the high cost of productivity lost to stress-related disorders, many organizations have become increasingly motivated to help their workers identify and cope with stressful circumstances in their lives. Some stress management programs are broad in scope, teaching a variety of techniques to handle stress; others are more narrow, teaching a specific technique, such as relaxation or assertiveness training. Some stress management programs are also taught to individuals who are experiencing similar kinds of problems—such as migraine headache sufferers or individuals with chronically high blood pressure. Colleges are increasingly developing stress management programs for students. If you are finding the experience of college extremely stressful and are having difficulty coping with taxing circumstances in your life, you might want to consider enrolling in a stress management program at your college or in your community. Let's now examine one of the techniques used in many stress management programs—relaxation training.
How relaxed are you right now? Would you like to feel more tranquil and peaceful? If so, you can probably reach that feeling state by following some simple instructions. First, you need to find a quiet place to sit. Get a comfortable chair and sit quietly and upright in it. Let your chin rest comfortably on your chest, your arms in your lap. Close your eyes. Then pay attention to your breathing. Every time you inhale and every time you exhale, notice it and pay attention to the sensations of air flowing through your body, the feeling of your lungs filling and emptying. After you have done this for several breaths, begin to repeat silently to yourself a single word every time you breathe out. The word you choose does not have to mean anything. You can make the word up, you could use the word one, or you could try a word that is associated with the emotion you want to produce, such as trust, love, patience, or happy. Try several different words to see which one works best for you. At first, you will find that thoughts intrude and you are no longer attending to your breathing. Just return to your breathing and say the word each time you exhale. After you have practiced this exercise for 10 to 15 minutes, twice a day, every day for 2 weeks, you will be ready for a shortened version. If you notice stressful thoughts or circumstances appearing, simply engage in the relaxation response on the spot for several minutes. If you are in public, you don't have to close your eyes, just fix your gaze on some nearby object, attend to your breathing, and say your word silently every time you exhale.
Audiotapes that induce the relaxation response are available in most bookstores. They usually include soothing background music along with instructions for how to induce the relaxation response. These audiotapes can especially help induce a more relaxed state before you go to bed at night.