If you’re parenting a teenager, you may feel that there’s no such thing as normal behavior. Mood swings, changes in attitude, and dramatic reactions to minor events can leave you feeling as if you don’t know your child anymore. Rest assured that most of this will pass with time, and most teenagers navigate the changes in their bodies and minds relatively unscathed. However, adolescents today do face some significant challenges, and it is important for parents to know the difference between normal teen behavior and maladaptive development in the teen years.
The ability to recognize the signs of difficulties such as substance abuse and mental health problems can help parents manage these unique challenges. When you know the symptoms of a serious problem, you can get help for your child to recover and overcome the challenges. Effective treatments are available to help your child find a way successfully to adulthood.
Substance Use and Abuse While no one condones the use of alcohol, tobacco, and/or drugs by teenagers, the reality is that most adolescents will try at least one of these things at some point. The best way to prevent these behaviors is to keep an open line of communication with your children on these topics. Difficult as they may be, these conversations should start long before your child reaches the teenage years. Talk about the health consequences of smoking, drinking alcohol in excess, and other risky actions.
As your teen gets older and starts spending more time with friends and out of your sight, discuss peer pressure. Make a plan for how your children can contact you discreetly to pick them up if they find themselves in a situation where they are not comfortable. Parents should watch for these signs that a child is using alcohol, tobacco, or drugs regularly and habitually.
• A sudden drop in grades and loss of interest in school
• Abrupt changes in behavior at home that go beyond typical teenage mood swings
• Drug paraphernalia or empty bottles or cans in the youth’s room or car
• Missing pills from prescription drug containers
• Keeping secrets about where he or she is going and who else will be there
If you observe any of these in your teenager, take action right away. Consult an expert in the field of a teenage addiction to determine the best course of action. Also, inform your child’s pediatrician since mental health has a direct impact on physical health. Resist the temptation to see this behavior as a failure on your part as a parent. Stay available to your child and keep talking. Though they may ignore you or resist your efforts, don’t give up. With professional help, you can get through this together.
Mental Health Diagnoses
According to the Teen Mental Health Institute, estimates indicate that as many as 20% of young people are living with some form of mental illness. Anxiety disorders, depression, and eating disorders are some of the most common, along with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Part of the difficulty for parents is that the early symptoms of mental illness can closely mimic typical teen behavior. The United States Department of Health and Human Services recommends taking action if you observe any of the following behaviors in your adolescent.
- Talk of suicide or suicidal ideation
- Self-harming behaviors such as cutting or burning
- Dieting or exercising obsessively or compulsively
- Hurting animals or other people or destroying property
- A lack of anger management skills
- Isolation and loss of interest in being with friends
The best course of treatment for a child with a mental illness starts with an accurate diagnosis by a trained professional. Every child is different, and possibilities for treatment range from medication and counselor to inpatient residential treatment. Educating yourself on your child’s diagnosis can help you gain an understanding of what he or she is experiencing. These are some of the more common disorders you may encounter.
It’s important for parents to realize that mood swings are a normal part of adolescence. However, in young people with bipolar disorder, these behaviors go far beyond what is observed in their peers. Bipolar disorder is an illness within the brain that results in extreme mood swings. Also known as manic-depressive illness or manic depression, this condition causes the person to experience “high” periods of super energy and activity (manic episodes) followed by very “low” or depressed periods (depressive episodes).
Every aspect of the child’s life can be affected, including sleep and the ability to think clearly. Friendships and relationships with family can be difficult to maintain for a child with bipolar disorder. Peers may not know how to deal with extreme swings. Manic episodes can lead to risky behaviors, while depressive episodes can lead to suicide attempts. While the diagnosis is frightening, with the right professional help, young people with bipolar disorder can learn to manage their symptoms successfully.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) is another common mental health condition among children and teenagers. Experts believe that as much as 10% of youth are impacted by ADHD. The disorder affects boys more often than girls and the cause is unknown though theories abound. It is commonly characterized by an inability to sit still, pay attention, and focus.
While it is usually diagnosed in childhood, the symptoms of ADHD may continue on into adolescence and adulthood. The difficulties in focusing and paying attention can lead to low school performance, disciplinary issues, and substance abuse. Just as with bipolar disorder, teenagers can experience some level of these issues as part of normal adolescent development. However, if they begin to interfere with the teen’s ability to function at daily activities, they may require clinical intervention.
Self-harming is also referred to as Non-Suicidal Self-Injury or NSSI. A child or teen who injures himself is not necessarily trying to commit suicide. Self-harm is usually an unhealthy coping mechanism that evolves as a response to mental or emotional trauma. For a self-harming youth, this is a way to control feelings or separate from painful circumstances.
Most research links self-harm to brain chemicals that bring relief from emotional pain for a short time. It may reduce anxiety, loneliness, and anger, to name just a few. The most common form of self-injury is cutting the skin, but burning, hair-pulling, and piercing the body are also observed. Self-harming is always cause for seeking professional help.
Adolescence is a time of rapid changes in the body and the brain. Such a transition doesn’t happen without disruption in mood, personality, and habits. Parents should try not to take these changes personally but to see them as necessary for the young person to establish themselves as an individual. However, these chaotic years also create an opportunity for more serious problems to masquerade as typical teenage behavior. Educating yourself on the warning signs that a troubled teen may exhibit can help you identify a problem if it develops. Contact Lakeside Academy to learn more about how we can help.