Youth in Crisis and Their Families

Often when youth are experiencing crisis they have 2 crises occurring at once: the one they are going through and the ones their family members or caregivers are facing. Providing family therapy, safety plans and step down care can be very helpful for these situations.

Millions of teenagers struggle with alcoholic or drug-abusing parents; violence in schools and on the streets; and overwhelmed caregivers preoccupied by their own personal problems.

Mental health disorders

Youth with mental health disorders are more likely to fail or drop out of school and be involved in high-risk behaviors like drug and alcohol use and suicide attempts. Many do not get the proper treatment and may end up with serious long-term mental illness.

Serious mental illness is defined as a condition that causes significant functional impairment and substantially interferes with an individual’s ability to function in their daily activities. Examples of this include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression and anxiety.

Youth who have these conditions should be screened for symptoms regularly. Their parents and caregivers should know how to recognize warning signs and take action. They can also ask for help from a qualified mental health care provider, which could include child and adolescent psychiatrists, therapists, and psychiatric nurses.

Substance abuse

Adolescent substance abuse can lead to academic difficulties, problems with the law and family. It can also affect peer relationships and emotional well-being. It can even result in a mental health disorder. It’s important to address this issue before it escalates.

Substance misuse can be caused by alcohol, prescription medicines and illegal drugs. It can also be a result of stress, depression and anxiety. Symptoms of substance use disorders include a craving for the drug, secretive behavior and withdrawal symptoms.

While the well-intentioned “mad rush for abstinence” is a popular approach to adolescent substance misuse, experts have been developing new and effective prevention and treatment programs that are more based on harm reduction. These programs can help people who are at risk for substance abuse by teaching them better coping strategies.


Millions of young people around the world face the danger of violence. They cope with alcoholic or drug-abusing parents; gangs in their schools and on the streets; teachers who may be abusive and indifferent, and families preoccupied with financial problems. Many of these risk factors overlap. Yet scientific research also shows that certain risks emerge at different stages of development.

Early risk factors with small effect sizes include poor parent-child relations, harsh or lax discipline, and inconsistent parental guidance. A warm supportive family environment can help reduce violent tendencies. Many violent adolescent offenders begin their criminal careers as child abusers and then escalate to more serious nonviolent crimes, such as burglary, grand theft, extortion, and robbery. They also often begin using illicit drugs. These offenders are likely to have a more lengthy criminal career.

Family issues

If a teenager’s crisis is impacting other family members, it’s important to seek help. A mental health professional may be able to provide a comprehensive evaluation and create an appropriate treatment plan. It’s important to avoid any angry confrontations with a loved one who is in crisis, but expressing how you feel can help them understand the situation.

Chronic difficulty meeting basic family responsibilities may also be a sign of a crisis. This includes lack of food, shelter, clothing, medical care, protection, education and socialization.

Several studies have indicated that the family environment can be either a risk or protective factor. For example, consistent discipline has been shown to moderate the relation between parental problem drinking and children’s antisocial behavior. Other protective factors include positive parenting and frequent family meals.

School problems

During times of crisis, teens often have trouble in school. This can be related to academic performance, friendships, family issues and/or substance abuse problems. In addition, adolescent crisis can occur as a result of losing a romantic partner or experiencing a breakup, having a family member die, natural disasters, witnessing violence and/or other traumas.

Some states have been doing a better job of helping schools respond to mental health concerns. These include offering suicide-prevention training, providing culturally competent educators, and promoting healthy, inclusive school climates that honor students’ preferred pronouns.

Parents should try to meet with teachers and school counselors to discuss their child’s challenges. If a therapist is involved it may be helpful to attend these meetings as well. Getting the school on board can be difficult but with persistence it is possible to get support for your teenager.