Treating a Rebellious Teenager

rebellious teenager

A woman came to see me because of a problematic and rebellious 16 year-old boy named Martin. She was the founder of a philanthropic organization dedicated to offering shelter and care to abused or abandoned adolescents and youth in the city. Martin was one of these young boys housed in the shelter. Unfortunately he was the cause of much anxiety. Inside the shelter Martin wouldn’t respect the staff and outside, he had been repeatedly caught shoplifting by the police. But since he was under-age and already enrolled in a social program for difficult youth, he was not criminally charged but merely reprimanded by the judge and sent back.

She had taken him to numerous psychologists who had tried their best to reason with him. Some psychotherapists had talked to Martin about his current situation as an abandoned child and how he could constructively cope with his anger. Other therapists had listened to him in order to understand the origin of his arrogant and rude behavior, trying to unearth the ‘nice boy’ underneath all those layers of misconduct.

I also learned that as part of the social program Martin received an allowance of $12 per month. As well, he enjoyed many other social privileges: a cell phone, weekend outings, swimming pool, horseback riding, jacuzzi, soccer games, trips and summer vacations.

On the scheduled day of our session, Martin walked into my office accompanied by the two young women who worked with him almost every day as his tutors. They explained to me in detail their numerous efforts aimed to help Martin become more cooperative at the youth center and how they had tried in different ways to stop his negative and destructive behavior. They had punished him for things they didn’t want to encourage, rewarded him for behavior they wanted to encourage and even at times ignored him completely hoping that he grow out of his ‘childish’ behavior. As I was listening to these two meek and gentle young girls, I noticed the smirking expression on Martin’s face as he sat there with a very arrogant and disrespectful posture.

I knew that he had seen different child psychologists, and I knew that he had ‘won’ the battle with them all because they had been trying to be understanding towards him. However, sometimes, when faced with arrogance, one must reciprocate with arrogance. The mistake of Martin’s previous psychotherapists had been that they treated him nicely and paid too much attention to him. Moreover, it was obvious that the two young girls that were working with him as tutors were, also quite gentle and polite in their approach.

As they continued to explain and detail their history with Martin, I listened carefully and watched the smirking teenager. I asked a few questions from the young boy, but he was not too eager to talk, and above all, he maintained a haughty attitude. After a short pause, I said that I understood what the problem was and I knew what the solution need be. Then from this point on, I avoided looking at Martin.

I looked at Martin’s meek tutors and told them that the young man didn’t have any problems. He was fed regularly, had money to spend, clothes to wear and a warm bed comfortable to sleep in. He was enjoying a good life. I said emphatically that there was nothing to be done. He couldn’t be helped because he really didn’t need any.

I then pointed at the two young girls sitting in front of me and added:

“But you two have a problem. You have taken him to different psychologists and also tried to reason with him. I think you two, being well-trained tutors, know exactly what to do with a rebellious and over pampered boy.”

Then with a harsh expression on my face, and still without looking at Martin I said:

“I don’t want to see him again (gesturing with my thumb towards Martin). If you still don’t know what to do, then you can come and make and appointment to see me because you need therapy, not him. I’m a specialist and can help both of you. But don’t bring him here because I don’t want to see him again.”

From my peripheral vision I could see Martin’s expression of surprise. He certainly was not smirking anymore. Maintaining the stern look, I then quickly got up and showed all three of them out of my office.

Two weeks later I saw the tutors for a followup session. They told me that Martin was very cross with me. After being ushered out my office, he had repeating murmured to himself in anger, “He doesn’t want to see me. He doesn’t want to do therapy with me!”

More importantly, the tutors explained that they had received my indirect message and had started treating Martin with a firm hand. I congratulated them and added that from now on they should avoid explaining things to him. If there was task to be done, they should write it down on a piece of paper and hand it to him. They should avoid lecturing or giving him a sermon or explaining why he should do the chore.

I also instructed the tutors that they must give his allowance on a weekly basis and that it would be conditional on his behavior. So from then on, he would receive $3 at the end of the week, only if he had performed all his tasks. They had to put up a billboard outlining three to five tasks and responsibilities. Then at the end of each day, the tutors would either mark them as satisfactory or not. By the end of the week if he had not received enough positive marks, he would not receive his pay. I also told them to have Martin memorize the following quote:

“Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues.” – Baha’u’llah

One month later I saw the tutors again. They told me that their rebellious teenage boy had started to calm down and be obedient. As well, after so many years of getting into troubles, he had stopped shoplifting. We then talked about how to fine tune Martin’s billboard in order to adapt it to his new improved situation.