Recognizing the Red Flags of a Teen in Crisis

By Jerry Weichman, Ph.D. Posted December 09, 2014 under Educating Yourself, Guest Authors

Today’s teenager does not come with a handbook – and even if they did, it would need to be updated and reprinted almost daily.  The speed at which dangerous trends develop and social media enables adoption amongst teens presents a real challenge to parents ability to identify trouble in their child.

I have found that substance abuse and addiction is often a camouflaged creeper for teens. It initially starts off as an experiment and then the frequency begins to increase. They go from once every few months, to once a month, to only on weekends to daily over a prolonged period of time. It slowly begins to break them down with their mood, motivation, and academic performance and alters the priorities in their life. Often, the teen and their parents do not notice they have a problem until it is too late. I cannot convey to you how many times in my 15 years of private practice I have heard highly invested and educated parents proclaim “we had no idea” or “we had no reason to suspect” upon hearing that their son or daughter had been abusing substances for a prolonged period of time. Believe me, subtle changes in your teen with your very busy life are not always all that noticeable. Teens are smart and they share techniques with each other of how to mislead their parents and not get caught using. 

To make sense of adolescent attraction to substance abuse, realize that the many of the teens in my practice tell me that many of the discussions online and even in class amongst their classmates on Thursday and Friday are about “how wasted they are going to get” and then the discussions on Monday and Tuesday are about how wasted they got. Whether your teen parties or not, these are the discussions they can hear all around them and unfortunately, many of the party kids are still the “cool” kids.

Is your teen in trouble?
Things that you should be looking for on a daily basis to monitor if your teen is depressed, anxious, and could be abusing substances:

  • If they are eating too much or too little
  • If they are sleeping too much or too little
  • If you see a significant drop in their grades
  • If they do not have as much enjoyment in normally enjoyable activities
  • If they have sudden concentration problems
  • If they are complaining of body aches (headaches, backaches, stomachaches, etc.) that do not have a medical basis after being checked by a physician
  • If they are socially isolative
  • If they are more irritable than normal

These are all warning signs. If you see even one of these symptoms – act and get your teen evaluated. I have seen too many parents who dismissed these or were too busy to notice, and their teen ended up in a really bad place accordingly. If your check engine light goes on in your car, you don’t keep driving it. These symptoms are the closest you are going to get to your child’s “service your teen” light. Act. It is better to be safe than sorry.

If your child does come home under the influence and does not need to go to the hospital, do not take this time to discuss what they did, why they did it, and the consequences that are going to come from it. You cannot be rational with irrational people. Let them sleep it off and discuss it later the next day. The additional time might help you to gather your thoughts more appropriately as well as the consequences.

Dr. Jerry Weichman Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and adolescent specialist as well as an author, speaker and parenting expert. His clinical practice at Hoag Hospital's Neurosciences Institute in Newport Beach, California provides a window on contemporary teen and pre-teen behavior. He also founded The Weichman Clinic and its Teen Brain Program – the first and only truly comprehensive mental wellness program exclusively focused on children and adolescents.A popular and well respected media resource, Dr. Jerry has been interviewed by the New York Times, Washington Post and LA Times and has been asked to appear on major networks, ABC and Fox. He also sits on the Advisory Board for the Crisis Text Line, a subsidiary of and is a regular contributing expert at award winning parenting website