Redefining Help: How Can I Get Help for My Teenager?

A father named Sean and a mother named Mary come into the Goose Creek Coaching office to make an appointment with me because his teenage daughter is having difficulties attending school because of anxiety and is having emotional outbursts at school that don’t fit the traditional profile of a mood disorder.

In a family session prior to my first meeting with their 16-year-old daughter, Michelle, we go through her history of performing well academically in schooling, but failing out of classes because of attendance problems. We discuss the crowd of people that she hangs out with and their drug use. We discuss the physical altercations she has been involved with over the years. We talk about the impact on her 13-year-old sister. Michelle has no history of legal interaction other than a court order stating that her parents must make sure she attends school.

Over the course of many months of treatment, we are able to work with a child psychiatrist that I have recommended to stabilize her mood and reduce her anxiety. Problems with Michelle’s mood and anxiety creap up less frequently. Michelle is compliant with the doctor’s orders when it comes to medications and says she sees positive results on the mood stablizing and anxiolytic medications her doctor uses. In coaching, we work on coping skills and social skills that help Michelle better manage her anxiety about school and social situations. There is no need to work on academic skills, because, as her teachers say, when Michelle is in class she does exceptionally well. Our  rapport is good and we have positive results. Michelle still struggles with getting to school, but she is doing her best. Her father is happy that the truancy officer is off his back and that Michelle is getting a better education.
A problem begins to emerge about three months into the school year. Michelle is making it to school more, but there have been several instances where she has ended up in altercations with other girls at the school and has had arguments with teachers. We notice a pattern between these altercations and arguments with teachers. In the following days, it is almost impossible for her to make it to school.

The truancy officer shows up at her parent’s door. He is demanding that Michelle attend school or her parents face charges. In Loudoun County, two parents were charged last year with truancy, so, even though this is Fairfax County, my client is taking this seriously. We have several options to consider here, so I recommend to the father that we meet with Michelle’s psychiatrist to see what he would recommend, and then get an educational advocate and a family law firm that has worked with our clients before involved in order to protect Michelle and her family.

My first recommendation is to sit down with Michelle’s psychiatrist and see her recommendations. After the meeting, we see that the psychiatrist is still hopeful that Michelle will be able to attend school in a normal setting, but said she will begin working on home-bound school paperwork in case that step needs to be taken. We meet with the educational advocate so the advocate, the parents and Michelle can begin looking for alternative school options in the event that’s necessary. Michelle is frustrated by now and has said she plans to run away.

I reach out to the guidance counselor at school, who has been working with us and Michelle, and also the school psychologist. We decide it would make sense to meet with school administrators, Michelle’s teachers and family members for an eligibility meeting to determine whether we should consider looking at an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) for Michelle and what steps we could all take before then.

We meet with the school officials, including the guidance counselor, the school psychologist, two assistant principals, two of Michelle’s teachers who have a good rapport with her. We inform the school that we have engaged an educational advocate in the event that the county school system is unable to provide her a free public education (in that case, the school system would be responsible for paying for any alternative placement) and a family lawyer in the event that truancy charges become an issue. Another reason we have engaged the family lawyer, which we don’t say here, is in the event that we need to file a Child In Need of Supervision (CHINS) petition with the Fairfax Juvenile Domestic Relations Court. A CHINS petition is a non-criminal procedure that brings the state’s resources in to help manage problems with truancy, running away or behavior that may result in threat to well-being or psychical safety, and events that are prohibited but would not be criminal violations for an adult, such as tobacco possession and curfew violations.

From the school records I have gathered, I can see that Michelle scores As on virtually every in-class assignment she is present for and turns in most of her homework.  We would like an IEP on the table as a possibility for the future, but we’d like to work on less restrictive steps, including allowing Michelle to do work at home on some days when she is too anxious and me coaching teachers on how to respond when she experiences anxiety, mood swings or behaviorial problems.

We create a weekly reporting system where Ms. Dowd, the guidance director, solicits overservations from all of Michelle’s teachers and the team involved in the situation once a week and then sends a report to the father, who forwards it to me and her psychiatrist. I recommend that teachers continue to encourage her in her successes and that only counselors engage her on the difficulities caused by her mental illness. I continue to work with my client on coping skills, but am able to use information received by the school officials to make adjustments to our regime and to pass on information that her psychiatrist says will be helpful to her medical treatment.

In my experience, parents and schools often work well together once the misconceptions about what is happening with a student are cleared and a uniform approach is adopted among the parent-school team. In this case, we had the family lawyer and educational advocate  lined up in case it did not work out that way or in the event that we need to revisit the situation at a later date.

In the end, we determine that the high school Michelle is attending is not the best one for her. The educate advocate has luckily lined up a placement an a therapeutic boarding school for girls in West Virginia.. But Sean and Mary are hesitant because of the costs associated with the program. We work with the education advocate to find a financing company that specifically provides parents loans for these types of schools.

Michelle heads off to spend her senior year in the West Virginia boarding school, which provides a similar level of care as the one she received at Goose Creek. She graduates with a 3.7 GPA, no academic problems and has stopped using marijuania. She plans to attend George Mason University to study psychology in the Fall.

This example highlights the benefits of a mental health coach, who can coordinate care with health providers, family members, school officials an education advocates.

Stay tuned for the next blog, which is the first in a three part series on the involuntary and voluntary mental health hospitalization process in Virginia. The blog includes what you should expect, what the legal and medical standards are for hospitalization, the impact on your job, how the family should prepare for transition, aftercare planning and even information about the impact of mental health hospitalization on security clearances.

Jayson Blair, Certified Life Coach

To find out more information about Goose Creek Coaching, contact us at or (703) 574-6271, Ext. 700.

Disclaimer: Blogs in the Redefining Help series are hypothetical stories based on the experiences of clinicians at Goose Creek Coaching. They often draw from the experiences of clients and families that we work with, but are general amalgamations of several experiences. They are designed to educate you about the services we offer and realistic outcomes.

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