Ep 46: Handling Problem Teenagers

Episode Summary

David Sortino, author and psychologist, talks about the time he spent working at a school for troubled kids during his twenties. He developed a unique approach, using kinesthetic activities to engage the students. This episode also covers his new book on the neuroscience of learning.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

It’s no secret that teens can be moody and irritable from time to time, but it can become a larger problem when teens start deliberately acting out. Teens can act out in ways that endanger themselves and others. They can end up really causing harm to their health or safety, such as losing sleep, trying illicit drugs, not taking school seriously or even drinking and driving. If their behavior is bad enough, they can end up in serious trouble with their school or even the law. Their consequences could be a serious or even permanent mark on their young lives. 

Of course, there are perfectly healthy ways to take risks and explore the world that is outside of one’s comfort zone. But it is always important to be mindful of the fact that when your teen is still young, they should be exploring the world in a way that doesn’t cause harm at the expense of anyone else’s wellbeing. When parenting out of control teens, the situation should be approached gracefully yet firmly. If not, they can act out even further out of spite or frustration. 

Parenting out of control teens is no easy feat. It can be tiresome physically and emotionally when going through already taxing endeavors such as college applications, learning how to drive, or moving out. You probably have enough on your plate as is! You’re not alone though. I spoke to one of the most knowledgeable and generous experts on troubled teens. This episode will help you communicate with and help seemingly out of control teens flourish. 

David Sortino, author and psychologist, uses the lessons he learned working at a school for troubled students to discuss parenting out of control teens. He developed a unique approach, using kinesthetic activities to engage students who didn’t want to be lectured to. Dr. Sortino was able to connect with teens who would’ve otherwise not been taken seriously. You could even try them for yourself at home! 

In addition to his PhD in developmental psychology and his doctoral work at Harvard, Dr. Sortino has a lot of real-world experience working with troubled teenagers. He’s worked with juvenile offenders in prison, gangsters seeking rehabilitation, and kids who have been expelled from school. His book, The Promised Cookie, is the true story of a school for troubled teenagers where Dr. Sortino worked during his twenties. Readers will find that many of the lessons in this book can be applied to parenting out of control teens

David Sortino’s passion for working with troubled teenagers started during his own childhood when his school administered an achievement test to determine which level of classes each student would be placed in. David threw the test in revolt and was placed in a special education class referred to by everyone else at the school as the “Zoo-Zoo Class”. 

During that year, he noticed how poorly everyone treated the “Zoo-Zoo” students and it inspired his interest in troubled teenagers. He noticed that although they were being treated poorly, his peers were nothing short of intelligent and hard working students. Just because they didn’t fit into the mold of a supposedly “good” student, they were treated as if something were wrong with them. From there, David made it his life’s work to be able to not only understand teens that are labeled as “difficult” or “troubled”, but also help them thrive and reach their potential in life. David strives to make parenting out of control teens easier by sharing tips he’s learned from working with troubled kids. 

If you’re parenting out of control teens and wondering why they’re acting out, look into how they’re being treated at school.  How well (or not) is your teen interacting with their peers and their teachers? Are they being given the right opportunities to be challenged? Are their needs being taken seriously? 

How do I interact with difficult-to-reach teens?

In this week’s episode about parenting out of control teens, David explains how to use what he calls a “behavior contract” with a teenager. A behavior contract is simply a document that you write out that states clearly your behavioral expectations for them. The key, David says, is to appeal to their current stage of moral reasoning. Most teens are in the “Reciprocity” stage, says Sortino. However, as no two teenagers are alike, your teen may very well be in a different stage. David gives an extended explanation about the various stages later in this episode. 

Additionally, writing out a contract will also challenge your teen to think about right and wrong, which leads them to a higher level of moral reasoning. By granting your teen respect and higher levels of responsibilities, you are actively empowering them. Furthermore, having a physical piece of paper with expectations written out will make the situation all the more real and tactile. Having a physical sheet of paper with an agreement and their signature will keep them from trying to bend or change the rules set for them. 

Another tip for parenting out of control teens that David told me is to focus on your expectations for your teenager. Sure you’d love it for them to attend an Ivy League institution or to start a multi-million dollar company, but is it what your teen wants? It’s hard not to project ourselves onto our children! We all have hopes and dreams for our kids. But those expectations can actually cause teens to rebel and push against our influence. 

How do I manage my own expectations for my teen? 

Dr. Sortino also taught me a great strategy for parenting out of control teens and empathizing with your teenager. He says the key is to think back to the most vulnerable moments of your own childhood and imagine how you felt during those moments. Spend a few moments meditating and reliving some of the most vulnerable moments from your own teenage years. Really try to experience the moments in full detail, using all five senses. To start, write down three memories that make you feel especially vulnerable.

And now think about your own teen and moments that they’ve been scared, worried or embarrassed. When parenting out of control teens, approaching conversations after doing this kind of visualization will make you feel much more connected to them. When you see yourself in your teen’s environment, you can come to a place of better understanding. Maybe then you’ll see why your teen is acting out. Or maybe your teen will feel more comfortable opening up after seeing their parents’ vulnerability and empathy.

During our interview, David told me about the experience of being put in remedial classes for a year and witnessing how the kids were expected to perform poorly and behave problematically. Studies show that people have a strange way of living up to the expectations that are placed upon them. When parenting out of control teens, set an expectation for your teen to behave in an upstanding manner and don’t automatically assume the worst from them. 

Learning More About Parenting Troubled Teens

We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of parenting out of control teens. In this week’s extended episode, Dr. Sortino elaborates further into the psyche of a troubled teen, mentioning how the following circumstances can shape their mindset: 

  • Past physical/sexual abuse 
  • Substance abuse 
  • Volatile home life 
  • Grief after significant loss
  • Disconnect with or complete absence of parental figures 
  • Toxic school environment 

Dr. Sortino’s expertise has helped both teens and parents come to better terms with each other. Rather than being quick to punish a teen for acting out, try and see where you can help them heal. Parenting out of control teens is not easy, but it is not impossible! With the right mindset, you and your teen can both be on your way to a better path.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1.  When your teen seems “lost”:

“Look, I really understand what you’re going through. Just believe in yourself and try to get through this period. Go with where your heart is.”

-David Sortino

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Appeal to Your Teenager’s Sense of Reciprocity:

Most teens are still in a stage of reasoning that focuses on reciprocity, David told me. This means they respond very well if you can always make them feel like they are getting something from you whenever you want something from them. One great way to do this, David says, is to ask for way more than you want so that you can bargain down to a lower number and make your teen feel like they are winning. This is similar to what I learned from FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss. For instance, you could ask your teen to do 45 minutes of work and then let them talk you down to 30 and then 25. Think about the top things you want your teenager to do right now and write them down. Then think about how you could ask for double what you really want. Try asking for this instead of what you really want. Then, be willing to bargain.

2.  Define Your Expectations for Your Teenager:

(Members Only)

3.  Feel Your Teen’s Vulnerability:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I have now read two of your books here, The Promise Cookie, and A Guide to How Your Children Learns. And I got to say, we’ve spoken a few times now and every time I talk to you, it’s like I discover more crazy things about your life. There seems like there’s just been so much packed in there, but all around, education and really educating hard-to-reach students. And so I wonder just if you could talk a little bit about how that all started or what kicked you into this whole crazy mess of things?

David: Well, everybody has a story and I tell that to my students and my clients, that everybody has a novel, believe it or not. And for me, I came out with The Promise Cookie because it’s something that I held within myself for years. And it actually affected a lot of my ability to learning, learning potential because I was always questioning, “Well, am I up to snuff?” Sort to speak.

David: The interesting thing is in third grade, what had happened was that I spent half the year out in the hallway for behavioral problems. And no one knew why this suddenly happened, because kindergarten, first, second grade, I was fine. All of a sudden third grade, something happened.

David: Well, what had happened was my grandfather passed away and in Italian families, it’s an open casket. So for the first time in my life, not only a person who was deceased, but it was someone who I knew. After that, a couple of months later, my father who had a good job, he was like a CPA in a large corporation, they had suggested that he move to Los Angeles and take over this large company. And so he was flying out often, let’s say once a month and he had a couple of emergency landings. And I started having nightmares and that carried over into third grade.

David: And eventually, they sent me to a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist said, “Well, what’s going on? You’ve been fine up until this time.” I was having nightmares or whatever, and come to find out years later, I realized that I was sort of unconsciously trying to keep my father from flying because I was afraid he was going to die. And I came from a family that was very academic. I have cousins, the boys became MDs, and the women became teachers. But when I say MDs, we’re talking about there’s one that’s world-famous, he discovered the AIDS virus. He grew up next to me and I grew up with him. He’s 10 years older, his name is Dr. Robert Gallo. He discovered the AIDS virus. He discovered the leukemia virus.

David: I’m just saying that the pressure to succeed in school was dramatic, and so I started acting out. And so what happened was after seeing the psychiatrist, who reminded me of my grandfather, actually, I was fine. But I always carry that year with me throughout. Eventually what had happened was that in The Promise Cookie, my first major job with children who had behavioral problems, who had been sexually, physically abused or whatever, from The Promise Cookie, I felt when I walked on campus, I felt that I was in these kids’ bodies because I’d been there. So a lot of the things that I did was intuitive with these kids, because I felt that in order to reach kids who have issues, such as sexual abuse or whatever they have, they’re very kinesthetic.

David: These are kids that do not like to be touched. So I figured by doing something kinesthetic, which is what I needed, but they forced me to sit in my desk. I ended up developing an academic program, like The Promise Cookie, where I try to incorporate a kinesthetic type of program with kids who had been physically abused, very much like Montessori.

David: Montessori had orphan kids she worked with and she did a lot of the stuff that had to do with the kinesthetic parts of our brain, because that’s a part of kids’ brains that had not been touched. So basically, that was a major turning point for me. And from then on, I’ve always went in and did residential treatment, juvenile hall, stuff that was always with kids who had behavioral issues. And for me, the connection was that I understood what these kids were going through.

Andy: So that was before you had studied all of developmental psychology and had become Dr. Sortino. This was just-

David: Well, don’t forget though, as an undergraduate, I got a degree in psychology, but I was always interested in the brain. I got a B in psychology or whatever, but I was always interested in some aspect because I was trying to figure out my own particular problems. And until I walked onto that campus in The Promise Cookie, I didn’t really make that connection of how important it was for me kinesthetically to be able to express my stuff.

David: And it was the 50s, so they sat me in a desk all day and I was losing my mind. “I can’t do this.” And then after that, then I went to graduate school, I worked with Colbert at Harvard, stuff like that. And then I taught graduate school in the Bay Area and I taught child development and then I got a PhD in clinical psychology. But I was always interested in the brain. A lot of that is my own particular needs to nurture myself and to have a better understanding of kids. And then now for five years I’ve done the neuroscience, I do neurofeedback on children, abuse, et cetera. And that’s been successful, so that’s where we’re at.

Andy: That explains there’s a neurofeedback essay in A Guide to How Your Child Learns.

David: Exactly.

Andy: Okay. But I got to say this book, The Promise Cookie is incredible. You said you wrote it when you were 24 years old. It was not what I was expecting. I mean, there’s a love story in here. There’s these vivid characters. It reads almost like a novel, it’s beautiful.

David: Oh, thanks. Again, like I said before, everyone has something that they need to express, whether it’s through painting or physicality, through dance or whatever. And I think that’s what I did with the children. And the program was called Rescue. I call it [inaudible 00:06:53]. When people are repressing something, it has to come out physically. And unfortunately, you get to talk therapy, whatever, that doesn’t hack it for about 99% of people, particularly the kids. They need to be able to express stuff with their body. Sorry, I got off on a tangent.

Andy: No, but I think that’s such a theme of the book. And there’s a story in here where you take a break from school and you’re spending 10 days in Jamaica and you can’t even escape it. There’s a dad there who recruits you to come talk to his 15-year-old son. And he’s like, “Oh, you got to talk to my kid. He’s so lazy.”

David: That was very heavy.

Andy: Right, and it was interesting-

David: I met with the kid. The father’s a Yale architect, very famous guy on the island doing all this stuff. He has no clue about who this kid is and I go into his bedroom and he’s got Jimmy Hendrix on the walls and stuff. And I said, “Look it, I really understand what you’re going through.” And I said, “Just believe in yourself and try and get through this period and stay with …” He was a musician, wanted to be a musician. Father wanted him to go to Yale, that type of stuff. And I said, “Go with where your heart is and stay with your music and you’ll be fine.” It was cool. I forgot all about that. That’s really amazing that … I was in Jamaica and this guy says, “I want you to meet my son. He’s really screwed up.” The kid was phenomenal.

Andy: It’s an instinct. It’s like we are looking for what’s wrong in our kids, and so that we can fix it. But a lot of times there’s nothing wrong. Or if you were in that situation, you behave in exactly the same way. And it just has to do with the environment-

David: Exactly.

Andy: … that they’re in. You’re saying that we all have something that needs to come out, that we need to express, and that’s why I brought that up because it was like what you did with the kid in however many minutes, you sat down with him, was just like … say, “Hey, you need to tell your dad about how passionate you are about music. And you need to convince him that you’re serious about this and that you want to go to music school and you want to … you got to go make this case to him.”

Andy: And it was like he had this thing that was inside of him, but he just hadn’t like … he didn’t have the ability to communicate it yet, because he’s 15 years old.

David: And his father was so closed. That’s the thing about adolescence is that adolescence is that period where they’re ready to break out. They are ready to be creative. And the parents repress, out of fear, because the parents are repressed in everything in their own life and they won’t let these kids break out because these parents are trapped emotionally.

David: And the thing is, is that they don’t respect or trust that these kids are going to be safe and phenomenal and creative. And then what they do is they repress it and then the kid ends up getting into drugs or whatever it might be for them to escape the repression of their fathers or parents who never were able to get out of that hole.

Andy: There’s a passage in your book that really stood out to me. There’s a guy named Frank that kind of comes to work at the school. And he’s-

David: Oh.

Andy: He’s asking you, “How am I ever going to teach these kids? These kids that are so troubled.” And you ask him to think about his own past and he remembers baseball and how important baseball was when he was a kid. And then it says, “Well,” I said, “take your knowledge of baseball or think back to your school days and find out how you would have wanted to be spoken to or taught. That’s how you should teach these kids. Remember your own childhood. You remember the most vulnerable times, get into that feeling and maybe you’ll be able to understand what it’s like to be in our kids’ shoes.”

David: Oh, that’s cool, because he’s about the only one who … I still have a connection with him because we played ball against each other in semi-pro baseball and he became a professional dancer, ballroom dancer. But you know what he’s doing now, he’s working as an eighth grade teacher, a history teacher in New York City. But he’s a professional dancer. And the other one, the music guy who taught music to the kids, I don’t know if you remember that chapter-

Andy: Oh yeah, [crosstalk 00:11:32] as well.

David: … George, he passed away. But he came from the same neighborhood as Joe. His name was Frank, but his name was Joe. And I enlisted them because they came from really, really difficult home environments. And George was the same way. He said to the kids, “Feel the music. Feel the music.” The kid, whatever, [inaudible 00:11:58] and taking the guitar breaking it.

Andy: And smashes the guitar.

David: And George says, “That’s fantastic.” This is bringing back a lot of stuff. But I enlisted my friends who I knew thought like me.

Andy: I just thought it was so cool that it was what your instinct was, was to get them to look back at when they felt vulnerable. And then that, that place was where they could then connect with the kids because the empathy I think is so important.

David: Oh yeah. They had to get in touch with their own essence, so to speak. And that’s what baseball for George, was music. And then Joe, of course, was a dancer and he used to do ballroom dance with these kids. But I don’t think I wrote about that, but it was pretty cool. These two guys are just amazing, amazing. And George unfortunately passed away last year and he was a professional musician. But we spent a period of time together. It was cool. It was like playing baseball.

Andy: I’m just wondering as a parent how you try to find that vulnerability in yourself so that you can kind of connect with your own teenager in that same way?

David: I mean, just today I just had a session with a kid and these parents are very upwardly mobile, educated, affluent, they own a winery, a high-end winery and blah, blah, blah. And I told them, I told the parents, they’re freaking out that you can’t do this or that, which is really minor. And I said that not only you have to trust the child, but you got … we’re so over-read, we have so much knowledge. The kid’s six or seven and they’re taking away his childhood because they try and make everything controlled and predictable.

David: Kids have to fail. How else are you going to … When I was a kid, we used to go up into the hills and spend the whole day there. No one ever worried about us getting abducted. We played for hours like Tom Sawyer. And someone referred to my book that it was like Tom Sawyer, the kid’s behavior or whatever.

David: And think of Tom Sawyer, we got to stop trying to control kids, their development, their emotional … and the thing of no one can fail. It’s unbelievable how much we’re screwing the kids’ brains up. They’re young children, we’re treating them like they’re adolescents or young adults. They’re losing their childhoods. It’s unbelievable.

David: And that’s a big thing, I get a job … I spent a year up in Northern California, a residential program for sexually abused kids ages five to 12. I’m talking about five year olds sexually abused, which meant that we-

Andy: Wow.

David: … would have to work with them and then reunify and bring … the courts would reunify them back to the homes and they’d immediately get sexually abused by an uncle or whatever. And what I did with them was basically set up a program that was nomadic in the sense that … It’s actually these children, they’re like adoptive, abandoned kids and they sexually act out.

David: I mean, it’s amazing. That’s how they can relate to people because they’ve been sexually abused and they’re so angry. And so what I did was I go to the school as director and all the teachers are sort of doing their own thing. And people who get attracted to this population, they get overprotective. So they would do their own thing, own thing, own thing, all these teachers.

David: And I said, “This is nonsense. We got to incorporate everybody’s talents into a thematic type of program, academically, to get everybody involved.” And basically they were all freaked out because they’re afraid to let these kids interact with each other because they would basically fight or sexually act out sexually.

David: And what’s remarkable, because after five or six weeks with these kids, I remember the first week I was there, I said to the teachers on Friday, “We’re going to do a barbecue. We’re going to put all the tables out in the middle of the school grounds, where the kids went to school, and we’re going to have a barbecue.” And this teacher said, “We can’t do that because they’re going to kill each other. They can’t socialize.”

Andy: Yeah. Set the bar high for them.

David: What I did was I put the tables out. We had the barbecue and it was like, these kids were the most well-behaved kids you’ve ever seen. They’re so happy. And the teachers all go, “Oh my God, this is amazing. They’re acting like normal kids.” Sometimes when you treat children in a normal way, they act normal. It was the teachers who were abnormal.

Andy: It’s like Dale Carnegie said, “Just give people a-“

David: Yeah, exactly.

Andy: “… reputation to live up to. And if you expect good things from them, then you’ll be amazed at what they do. But if you expect them to be terrible-“

David: And I made the Friday barbecues not only a major thing, but kids have to achieve certain things physically, running or pushups. When they changed this particular thing at the barbecue, they would get a watch. I gave them all a watch, and it never got anything … But the bottom line is these kids, they just got to normalize. But the problem is that they ended up reunifying and it screwed them up again.

Andy: They had to go back.

David: And for a year, this was the most amazing program. I have never written about it. But what I’m saying is that I normalize a situation, whereas all these teachers were acting out of fear and saying the glass is half empty. I was saying, “Go to the human being’s highest self. [inaudible 00:00:18:32].” It was phenomenal. It’s like The Promise Cookie towards the end when things really came to. I’ve never had such a really good feeling about how the human potential that can be achieved. Even with the teachers. The teachers just became phenomenal.

Andy: Well, it strikes me too that that’s the same thing. You gave them a reputation to live up to.

David: Yes, exactly. Everybody operates out of fear. Actually, I’m talking about the population that I deal with, that a lot of the adults who work with these kids or whatever, they’re so repressed, they operate out of fear that something wrong is going to happen to these kids. And in a sense, they hold back and the kids hold that.

David: I did this at juvenile hall, the same thing. I worked five years at the hall and I would go in and do moral development groups with them. And I would take juvenile offenders who were highly … they had assaulted individuals, they were gang bangers and whatever. And I would take maybe four at a time in their red uniforms, the jumpsuits or whatever, to a place where it was a senior type of living place, where all the seniors, they hit golf balls. And so all these senior citizens who are looking at these kids in their … they knew where they were from, jumpsuits. We’d be aiming golf balls … It’s fantastic. I’m just thinking about that because the kids were like … they loved it.

About David Sortino

With a Master’s degree in Human Development from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Clinical/developmental Psychology from Saybrook University, Dr. David Sortino is a leading expert on dealing with difficult children. David is the author of two books. The Promised Cookie is the story of a group of troubled students he worked with during his twenties. A Guide to How Your Child Learns is a collection of essays David wrote about educational neuroscience, with many relating directly to the teenage years.

David also holds additional credentials for working with learning handicapped students, specialized resources, and multiple subject teaching. He consults with  parents and schools in the areas of achievement motivation and school success.

Want More David Sortino?

You can find David at the Neurofeedback Institute or at his personal blog.