Adolescence isn’t an easy time for parents, either. As children move through the various tumultuous transitions that accompany adolescence—physical, emotional, hormonal, sexual, social, intellectual—the pressures and problems they encounter can all too easily seem overwhelming. For many
teenagers, these and other pressures can lead to one or more of a variety of mental health disorders; all are matters of concern, and some are life-threatening.
Key tips for parents
Keep communication constant, open, and honest: Your children should not only know that they can talk to you about anything, you have to be committed to broaching topics of concern and do so openly. Talk about your own experiences and fears when you were an adolescent. Let them know that they are not alone; nor are their
Understand that mental health disorders are treatable: Arm yourself with information about the most common mental health disorders among adolescents; speak with your child’s pediatrician, your local health department, your religious leader, and your child’s school representatives about what sorts of information are available from them.
Be attentive to your teen’s behavior: Adolescence is, indeed, a time of transition and change, but severe, dramatic, or abrupt changes in behavior can be strong indicators of serious mental health issues.
Mental health "red flags" to be alert for
Excessive sleeping, beyond usual teenage fatigue, which could indicate depression or substance abuse; difficulty in sleeping, insomnia, and other sleep disorders
Abandonment or loss of interest in favorite pastimes
Unexpected and dramatic
decline in academic performance
Weight loss and loss of appetite, which could indicate an
Personality shifts and changes, such as aggressiveness and excess anger that are sharply out of character and could indicate psychological, drug or sexual problems
Key mental health issues
While all of us are subject to "the blues," clinical depression is a serious medical condition requiring immediate treatment. Watch for:
Changes in sleep patterns
Unexpected weeping or excessive moodiness
Eating habits that result in noticeable weight loss or gain
Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness
Paranoia and excessive secrecy
Self-mutilation, or mention of hurting themselves
Obsessive body-image concerns
Abandonment of friends and social groups
Body image concerns can become obsessions, resulting in startling weight loss, severely affecting the adolescent’s health:
Anorexia: Avoidance of food and noticeable changes in eating habits should trigger concern.
Bulimia: Purging (forced vomiting) after eating — be alert for both dramatic weight loss without changes in eating habits (which could, of course, indicate other health issues that require a doctor’s attention) and also for immediate trips to the bathroom or other private spot after a meal.
In addition to peer pressure, mental health issues can lead adolescents not just to experiment with alcohol and drugs, but also to use substances for "self-medication." And in addition to being aware of the behavioral and physical signs of alcohol and drug abuse—drug and alcohol paraphernalia or evidence, hangovers, slurred speech, etc.—parents should also:
Be alert for
prescription drug misuse. Commonly misused prescription drugs include opioids intended for pain, stimulants for ADHD, and depressants for anxiety or to help a person sleep.
Know that over-the-counter-medications can be abused as well: Teenagers also frequently abuse
OTC cough and cold medications.
Discuss mental health concerns with your child and their doctor
Concern about your adolescent’s mental health should first be addressed with your child. Fostering open communication goes a long way toward fostering sound adolescent mental health habits.
If your concerns are serious, discuss them with your pediatrician. Because so many mental health issues display physical manifestations—weight loss being the most dramatic but not the only one — your pediatrician can offer both initial medical assessment and also refer you to appropriate mental health organizations and
professionals for counseling and treatment if called for.