It’s tough being a teenager. While it may seem that things are more difficult for teens now than 60 years ago, all adolescents go through typical changes and challenges, no matter what year it is.
According to Dr. Alisha Carpenter, manager of child and adolescent services at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, parents can expect to see a variety of new behaviors in their children as they reach their teen years. Teens typically sleep more, become more moody and are sensitive about issues related to body image and sexual development. They may also begin to engage in risky behaviors, feel like no one understands them, and express a greater interest in social causes and justice-related issues.
However, some teens will exhibit additional behaviors that might concern parents. These could be warning signs of a more serious problem or mental illness. Dr. Carpenter advises parents to pay attention to the following signs:
- Decreased enjoyment and time spent with family and friends
- Poor performance in school or resistance to attending school
- Significant problems with memory, attention or concentration
- Changes in energy levels, eating or sleep patterns
- Frequent physical complaints, such as stomach aches, headaches or backaches
- Persistent feelings of hopelessness, sadness, anxiety or frequent bouts of crying
- Physical or verbal aggression or disobedience
- Neglect of personal appearance or hygiene
- Substance abuse
- Dangerous and thrill-seeking behavior
- Unwarranted suspicion of others
- Seeing and hearing things others do not
“It is important to remember that no one of these signs is indication that there is a problem,” says Dr. Carpenter. “It might just be a teen acting like a normal impulsive or moody teen. However, if you have major concerns about your teen’s behavior and moods, it is very important to talk to them about it and seek treatment when needed.”
Dr. Carpenter says that parents can gauge whether a child’s behavior is typical teenage behavior or something that requires greater attention by considering the following five questions:
- Is the behavior a significant change for your child?
- Do their attitudes and behaviors match those of other teens?
- How often does the behavior occur?
- Is the behavior negatively affecting or interfering with school, social life or at home?
- Does the behavior interfere with others?
“It is never easy to start a conversation with someone about mental illness,” says Dr. Carpenter. “Your teen will most likely not want to discuss your concerns, and you have to let your child know that you are there to help and that you can work out the difficulties together.”
Dr. Carpenter offers the following tips for starting this challenging, but necessary, conversation if you are concerned about your teen:
- Show unconditional support in your words and actions.
- Be persistent, but gentle — don’t demand that your teen talks to you, but offer continuous opportunities for communication.
- Try to identify your specific concerns — say something like, “I notice that you haven’t been spending time with your friends lately” or “I can’t help but notice you haven’t been eating much at dinner.”
- Be a good listener and don’t lecture.
- Validate your teen’s emotions — never tell them that they don’t have reasons to be sad or compare how much better their lives are than others’ as proof for why they should feel or behave differently.
If you feel you should seek professional help for your teen, start with your primary care doctor to rule out physical causes or illness. If recommended, you can then reach out to a mental health professional for diagnostic assessment and evaluation and to develop the appropriate treatment plan.
“You can play a key role in helping your teen,” says Dr. Carpenter. “This starts with open and honest discussions and unconditional love.”