Red Flags for Parents to Look for in Their Teens

By Katie Hurley Posted April 22, 2014 under Guest Authors

Teenagers can be a bit of a mystery to parents. There are endless behaviors that seem to fall under the heading of “normal.” Sometimes they sleep the day away, while other times they stay up all night and somehow survive on a just a few hours. Some weeks they talk non-stop and let you in on the details of their day-to-day lives, while other weeks they completely shut you out. 

As children move through adolescence, they encounter physical, emotional, hormonal, sexual, social and intellectual changes. They face pressure from peers, parents and even educators. Often, they are their own worst critics and pile on internal pressure.  It isn’t easy being a teen.

It isn’t easy being the parent of a teen, either. The lines between “normal development” and “needs help now” are easily blurred, and it can be very difficult to know when to intervene. Teens are on a quest for autonomy and they don’t always seek help at the first sign of distress. With teen substance abuse and depressive disorders among youth on the rise, it can be useful to know some of the warning signs.

General red flags, which may indicate that a teen needs help:

  • Excessive sleeping beyond your child’s normal fatigue or insomnia
  • Sudden changes in academic performance
  • Dramatic changes in eating habits
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Social isolation
  • Changes in personality (becomes more aggressive, angry, withdrawn, etc.)

Teens often experience shifts in mood and temperament, and everyone is subject to feeling sad and/or overwhelmed at times. However, sometimes your teen’s mood swings may be caused by something other than a bad grade or a nasty breakup.

Red flags, which may indicate depression:

  • Excessive moodiness and tears
  • Anger and irritability
  • Excessive sensitivity to criticism
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Self-mutilation (cutting)
  • Feelings of worthlessness and/or helplessness
  • Changes in eating patterns that result in dramatic weight gain or loss
  • Body image issues
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Social isolation, abandonment of peer group
  • Secrecy
  • Isolation from family members

Teens suffering from depression are at risk for substance abuse. Teens often experiment with over the counter medication and prescription medication as well as alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate.

Red flags, which may indicate substance abuse:

  • Drug and alcohol paraphernalia
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor academic performance
  • Signs of hangover (bloodshot eyes, changes in pupils)
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Tremors or impaired coordination
  • High risk behaviors
  • Poor school attendance
  • Appears fearful, anxious, or paranoid
  • Sudden mood swings
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Unexplained hyperactivity
  • Lack of motivation

Parents are often the first resource for teens struggling with mental health conditions and/or substance abuse. As upsetting as these behavioral changes can be for parents, it’s important to remain calm and seek out appropriate resources for your teen instead of simply punishing the behavior and, consequently, taking a chance on severing the relationship.

How parents can help:

  • Open and honest communication: Talk early and often about alcohol, drugs and depression. Take an interest in your child’s interests and make time for one-on-one conversations without distractions. 
  • Mobilize support at school: One teacher can make a huge difference in the life of a teen. Kids are at school more than they are at home during their waking hours.  They need a touchstone at school so that they have a place to vent, cry or seek support. Help your teen identify a supportive teacher at school and remind your teen to check in with that teacher often.
  • Stay connected with other parents: As children grow, parents sometimes step back and fail to connect with parents of peers. This is a mistake. As much as your child needs independence, it still takes a village to navigate these difficult years. Stay connected to other parents in your child’s peer group.
  • Get help: Don’t wait to seek help! If you see any warning signs of depression or substance abuse, seek immediate assistance. Call your family health practitioner for a list of therapists, psychiatrists and substance abuse treatment resources in your area. 

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist in Los Angeles, CA and Author of the upcoming parenting book, “The Happy Kid Handbook:  How to Raise Cheerful Children in a Stressful World” (Tarcher/Penguin).  She is the child development expert for EverydayFamily and mental health expert for allParenting.  She lives in El Segundo, CA with her husband and two children.  She believes in love, lattes, and the power of play.  You can find more information on Katie on her blog, Practical Parenting.