Real Life

Life Lessons: Solutions For Teens In Trouble

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 In Issue #2, we featured a story (Crime and Punishment) which described the new Youth Criminal Justice Act and the prevalence of violent crimes committed by youth. We offer our readers this sequel in order to present essential solutions for what has truly become a national issue.

boy-getting-arrestedAny teen who has served time in a Youth Detention facility, knows that there are greater worries to deal with than how to get along with others who are bigger and more dangerous, or how to adjust to rules which dictate when you can go to the washroom and when you can eat. The larger life lessons are about how to get your life backon track, and how to make positive, long-lasting changes that will enable you to feel good about yourself.

Recently, I was given the opportunity to provide treatment for a youth held in a secure custody facility. This experience reminded me that the real solutions for teens in trouble, lie in our ability as a society, to teach all of our members — self-responsibility. This article addresses the fundamental factors influencing the choices of today’s youth, and how youth in trouble may begin to develop self-responsibility in order to make significant changes in their lives.

Because family is the biggest influence from birth to the beginning of teenage years, it is probably the most significant factor in defining the plight of youth. Yet, family is not the only factor. At a certain point (often as early as ages11 or 12), the ‘family’ gets replaced with the ‘peer group’ as having the greatest impact on a teen. How that teen interacts with their peer group (whether they are a leader for the group and whether they want to gain respect from the group), and the kind of peer group it is, are important factors in the choices a teen makes. Teens typically want admiration from their peer group. If the peer group has a negative influence, then to gain respect of the group means that a teen may do negative things. The father of Daniel* (a 15-year old teen currently serving time in a Youth Detention for uttering a death threat) suggests that, “being negative is easy and you get attention quickly.”

Daniel’s father who, along with his mother have been extremely proactive and involved in all aspects of their son’s case, recommends that teens “choose their friends carefully. There will be those people who nurture you – who motivate and inspire you. When you are with these people, you have fun, you are challenged, and you have positive experiences. There are also those people who are negative. When you are with them you get into trouble, you feel uncomfortable with what the group does, and you’re not having fun. It’s like putting your friends on one side or the other of a line.”

Sheldon Schleiffer, a Probation Officer with Probation and Community Services in York Region agrees that teens need to be self-responsible. “Recognize when peers have a negative influence so that you don’t get involved in those activities that will get you in trouble.” Sheldon suggests teens who have good self-esteem, “feel good about what they are doing and have someone to talk to before making impulsive decisions.” He recommends that teens look to guidance counsellors, teachers, coaches, parents (yours or your peer’s) and mentors (Big Brothers & Sisters of Canada) as natural sources for healthy support. Sheldon also advocates that teens get involved in organizations where there is a positive influence, structure, and direction. Youth groups, clubs, organizations such as scouts and pathfinders, community volunteer work, as well as organized sports allow you to be “well rounded while teaching you about making good decisions.” Self-responsibility means surrounding yourself with positive influences. Since it is true that what you think about most you become, it is extremely important that you align yourself with people who can help you become something great.

Joshua* (not his real name) is another 15 year old who has spent the last 3 1/2 months in a secure custody facility. He has 3 more months of his sentence to serve before being released. This is his second offense. Joshua explains, “I was charged as an accomplice even though I didn’t know my friend was going to rob someone until it actually happened.” He spoke with me about how he has changed over the last three and a half months. “I’ve matured a lot. I am starting to think clearly. I know what to do when I get out. I am going to get a part time job, go back to school, and stay out of trouble. I used to think about what I’m going to do today and not worry about tomorrow. Now, I’m thinking ahead and looking at my future.”

Joshua offers these words of advice for other youth who are getting into trouble, “I’m not going to preach…but I would suggest that you get your head straight. Make sure that you know what you are doing. I never thought I’d end up here…but it can happen to you.”

Important for all youth to remember, is that what you do now – your actions and behaviors, does affect the rest of your life. Even something as simple as getting good grades will open doors for future possibilities. Having goals to work toward, and spending time thinking about your future are important aspects of self-responsibility.

asian-girl-with-gunLisa Chotowetz, a Social Worker at Kennedy House Youth Centre in Uxbridge, Ontario, maintains that, “if teens really want to change and do well, they can achieve that here.” While in detention, youth attend school every day, and participate in structured programs that accommodate their individual needs. Yet, their future is ultimately up to them. While Lisa, like other Social Workers in similar facilities carry a large caseload (Lisa had 19 youth on her caseload when we spoke), their role is to work individually with the teens to: address factors which led them to offend, provide supportive counselling, assist with family issues, and facilitate goal setting for when youth are released either to an open facility (group home), or the family home.

Kennedy House teaches self-responsibility by exposing youth to a graduated consequence system. As John Scott, Program Supervisor explains, “a graduated consequence system means that they control their own fate. We only respond or react to what they don’t do.” John describes one of the goals at Kennedy House as creating positive change through behavior modification. “By teaching them to get into the ‘habit’ of making their bed, or referring to adults as ‘Ms’ or ‘Mr’, you are creating habits that hopefully will remain habits when they get out.”

Family, Community and the Media
Sheldon Schleiffer maintains that half of his job is already done if parents are willing to get help. Yet, many parents are still in denial. “They think that this is an isolated incident that is going to go away on its own. A lot of the time it doesn’t.” Sheldon reminds parents that “usually the school has picked up on a child’s history of behavioral problems or delinquency early on. The issues, however, don’t always get addressed by the parents.” The reason? Sheldon, himself a parent of two teenage girls, insists that, “it is very difficult for parents to admit that it’s their own kid. They tend to blame the school system.” Sheldon encourages parents to advocate for services within the school system before their child gets into trouble. “Parents need to look for solutions that can help them such as modified programs or special education services”.

Similarly, Lisa Chotowetz sees a need for more community support and more transition planning. “While the youth may work on his or her issues in youth detention, often they go back to the same environment and the same circle of friends. There needs to be changes made within the family in order for the changes to be longer lived. The teen may have good intentions, good expectations and high hopes that things will be different. Yet, the truth is that if they return to the same environment with all of a sudden no support, no one pushing them to do well, and no positive feedback, they often re-offend right away. Some basic needs are not being met out there.” Changes within the family may include changing less effective parenting habits, establishing consistent rules and discipline in the home, and family counselling.

According to John Scott, whose career at Kennedy House has spanned 28 years, “80-95% of youth that we see come from broken homes.” The modern family lacks many of the supports of the nuclear and extended families of twenty-five years ago. Because many parents work outside of the home, teens are expected to become self-responsible but perhaps without the skills or knowledge to do so. Daniel’s father agrees, and claims that “single parents are overwhelmed. It’s a horrendously difficult job to raise kids.”

One of the solutions posed by Daniel’s father (who took matters into his own hands and hired a therapist to provide treatment while his son was in custody), is to teach teens skills. “It is important for teens to learn how to think. We also need to teach kids Cognitive Therapy — it’s incredibly useful.” Daniel’s father also faults the media as, “giving us a very poor example of how teens should be. We see teens being rude with each other and there are no consequences. The media portrays authority figures in television shows as not really deserving respect.” John Scott recalls that, ‘it used to be the average kid that got caught doing something wrong. Now we are seeing horrendous crimes.” John attributes this to the fact that “we’ve lost a fundamental respect toward people.” As youth, if we want to be respected, both by our peers, as well as adults, we need to be respectful of others. That is a basic life lesson for all of us to practice.

Cognitive Therapy Explained
Cognitive Therapy is one of the most widely researched and practiced psychotherapies in the world today. Cognitive Therapists work with clients to understand the origin of problems by assessing thoughts, (beliefs, images, memories), moods, behaviors, physical reactions, and environment (past and present). Cognitive Therapy places particular emphasis on identifying and evaluating thoughts and on behavioral change. The process of Cognitive Therapy allows you to bring meaning and understanding to your life experiences, and subsequently you develop effective ways of solving problems. While originally developed to treat depression, Cognitive Therapy is used to successfully treat anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, relationship issues, alcohol and drug dependence and abuse, eating disorders, and a wide range of other issues clients bring to therapy.

Self-responsibility begins out of self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is the ability to be comfortable with who you are, as how you currently are. While the majority of teenage years are spent trying to be accepted and respected by peers, truly the most important person that needs to accept and respect you – is you. Self-acceptance often takes years to actualize yet it remains a fundamental component of self-esteem and self-concept (how you see yourself and how you feel about yourself).

If you can be happy with aspects of yourself, the acceptance and respect of others will be far less important. Practicing self-acceptance also comes from acknowledging your accomplishments and achievements, personal triumphs, and most importantly, ‘being compassionate with yourself’. Allowing yourself to be who you are in the presence of others, and being honest with yourself about what you want for your life are two incredibly valuable life lessons.

Websites to Check Out
OACCPP Ontario Association for Counsellors, Consultants, Psychometrists and Psychotherapists to locate a Psychotherapist in your area who specializes in Cognitive Therapy

Ontario Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (a division of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy

Canadian Psychological Association

Big Brothers and Sisters of Canada

For info on the Youth Criminal Justice Act

Dorothy Ratusny, B.Sc., M.A., (C). OACCPP is a Psychotherapist in Toronto, specializing in Cognitive Therapy. Dorothy works with adolescents and teens, as well as adults and couples on a wide range of issues. You may contact her directly at (416) 490-9970 or by email at

*While the stories are real, the names of the teens and their families have been changed in order to maintain confidentiality.

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