Parents of teenagers are all too aware of the mood swings, impulsivity, rebelliousness and reliance on their peer group that can be characteristic of this developmental stage. But do you find yourself questioning if something more is impacting your child? Maybe their characteristics seem more extreme than their peers’ or you’ve noticed sudden changes in their behavior that leave you worried that they are experiencing mental health issues or abusing substances.
Here you will find some valuable warning signs to watch out for that can prompt a conversation with your child, along with some recommendations about where to begin if you believe your child is struggling with mental health or addiction problems.
Signs of Mental Health Issues or Substance Use
- Sudden changes in behavior
- Increased or decreased sleep, along with difficulty getting out of bed
- Poor hygiene
- Suddenly changing peer groups
- Money or valuables missing
- Secretive behavior
- Angry or aggressive outbursts
- Isolating, not making plans with friends, or spending more time alone than is typical
- Not participating in activities that they usually enjoy
- Declining school attendance and/or performance
- Sudden changes in mood with no precipitating event
- Racing thoughts, restlessness or rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty being in large crowds
- Avoidance of activities i.e. always thinking of an excuse to avoid participating in activities
- Increased or decreased appetite
- Making statements to harm self or others
If you think that your child is struggling with these things, go right to the source. Sit down with your child and start a conversation about the changes that you’ve noticed in their behavior. This can be a very stressful, intimidating conversation to begin, and you want to be sure that your concern comes through in a way that doesn’t make your teen feel challenged or threatened. This can cause them to shut down or be more hesitant to honestly discuss what is going on, especially if they are fearful of being punished for their feelings.
For example, as a parent it can be difficult not to want to implement consequences like taking away your child’s phone if they don’t bring their grades up or start contributing more at home, but for some teens struggling with mental illness, these simple tasks can feel very overwhelming and cause increased stress and anxiety. If you are concerned that these issues are impacting your child, it is important to understand these symptoms before deciding the most appropriate recourse. That’s not to say that you will never want to implement consequences for your teen, but that you want to have an understanding of the full picture before reacting.
When speaking to your child, you also want to ask open-ended questions that facilitate the conversation, rather than simple yes or no questions that can make it harder to move the discussion forward. If you have concerns that your child is minimizing their symptoms or not being completely honest, you can enlist the help of other supports. You can reach out to any other adult your child feels comfortable with (such as a coach, guidance counselor or teacher) to help facilitate your conversation. And you can always contact a therapist to further assess your child’s current needs.
Concerns for safety may also arise through your discussion with your child or in the behaviors they are exhibiting. You may hear your child make statements about “not being here anymore” or “this would be easier if I wasn’t here.” These passive statements are key indicators that your child may be thinking of harming themselves in some way. Some teens also struggle with self-injurious behavior, be it cutting, burning or hurting themselves in any way. Signs of self-injurious behavior in teens include: frequent cuts or scrapes that cannot be explained, wearing long pants or shirts even when it is hot outside, scars, or frequent “accidents.” If you notice these signs in your child, even if you don’t believe they would ever follow through in harming themselves, never hesitate to call 911 or take your child to the closest emergency room.
Reaching out for help can feel overwhelming, especially if you aren’t sure where to start but you think that these symptoms sound like something your child may be struggling with. You can contact a therapist to further assess your child’s current needs. Your insurance company can provide a list of resources as can your child’s guidance counselor. They most likely have some valuable resources in your community that can be a good starting point as you begin to explore the variety of services that exist. Getting help for your child is the first step in dealing with mental health or addiction problems and offers support to both your child and the rest of your family as they begin working on their recovery.
— Jennifer Baldassarre, LCSW
High Focus Centers, a member of the Pyramid Healthcare treatment network
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