What’s Normal? What Isn’t? Talking About Mental Health With Teens
What does ‘normal’ really mean? Due to the hormonal and physical changes that happen during puberty, teenagers are famous for being moody, difficult creatures. So at times it can be hard to tell the difference between “normal teenage behavior” and the symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or other mental disorders. Teens may seem irritable or be quick to anger as they begin to separate from the family. That’s why these years aren’t easy for parents of adolescents and teens either. Worried that your teen might be taking it to another level? It’s always a good idea to know the early warning signs of mental disorders, but it really helps to know how to talk about them with teens. When all else fails, you may have to just ask them what they think.
The Drama Years
No family is perfect. It’s natural to see some drama during the teenage years, and it’s all too easy to assume other families have less problems. Appearances can be deceiving. An old joke makes the point this way:
Q: “What’s a ‘normal’ person?”
A: “Someone you don’t know very well.”
Teens and adolescents may feel overwhelmed when they are having troubles with girlfriends or boyfriends or fights with friends. They are often oversensitive and overly self-conscious. Many times they haven’t developed the adequate coping tools to deal with these kinds of events. If your adolescent or teenager has episodes of sadness, anxiety, and extreme frustration, they shouldn’t last more than a few days. Ongoing symptoms, or extreme forms of behavior, like unprovoked anger, however, could be signs of a serious mental disorder. You may want to go through a mental health checklist before you have a dialogue.
Know the Signs
If your teen is chronically anxious or sad, you may be right to have concerns about their behavior. Before you speak with your teen or adolescent, consider this list of red flags for worried parents:
- Decrease in enjoyment and time spent with friends and family
- Significant decrease in school performance
- Strong resistance to attending school or absenteeism
- Problems with memory, attention or concentration
- Big changes in energy levels, eating or sleeping patterns
- Physical symptoms (stomach aches, headaches, backaches)
- Feelings of hopelessness, sadness, anxiety, crying often
- Frequent aggression, disobedience or lashing out verbally
- Excessive neglect of personal appearance or hygiene
- Substance abuse
- Dangerous or illegal thrill-seeking behavior
- Is overly suspicious of others
- Sees or hears things that others do not
It’s important to remember, the experts say, that no one sign means that there is necessarily a lifelong problem. It’s all about the nature, the intensity, the severity, and the duration of the symptom. Identifying mental illness in teens and adolescents can be difficult because young people often have trouble expressing their feelings, and ‘normal’ development varies from person to person.
Know the Mental Disorders
Here’s a rundown of basic symptoms for some of the most common mental disorders that affect teens and adolescents:
While all of us are subject to “the blues” from time to time, clinical depression is a serious mental health condition that could require immediate treatment. Look out 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 himself or herself
- Obsessive body-image concerns
- Excessive isolation
- Abandonment of friends and social groups
Body image concerns can become obsessions, resulting in startling changes in body weight.
Avoidance of food and noticeable changes in eating habits should trigger concern.
Purging (forced vomiting) after eating. Be alert for dramatic weight loss without obvious 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 private spot after a meal.
In addition to peer pressure, mental health issues can lead adolescents to experiment with alcohol and drugs, and also to use substances for “self-medication.” Watch out for paraphernalia or evidence. Be aware of the behavioral and physical signs of alcohol and drug abuse, such as, such as hangovers or slurred speech. Parents should also be alert for prescription drug misuse and abuse. Some teens frequently abuse over the counter cough and cold medications.
Kids with anxiety disorders usually experience excessive distress that‘s out of proportion to a situation, with crying, physical symptoms, sadness, anger, frustration, hopelessness, or extreme embarrassment. Your teen or adolescent may be:
- Easily agitated when in a stressful situation
- Asking repetitive reassurance questions, such as “what if” concerns,
- Acting inconsolable, and won’t respond to logical arguments
- Having headaches, stomachaches, regularly, or too sick to go to school
- Anticipating anxiety, worrying hours, days, weeks ahead
- Having trouble falling asleep, frequent nightmares, or difficulty sleeping alone
- Overly self-critical, very high standards that make nothing good enough
- Overly-responsible, people pleasing, excessive concern that others are upset with him or her, unnecessary apologizing
- Demonstrating excessive avoidance, refuses to participate in expected activities, refusal to attend school
- Disrupting family functions, having difficulty with going to school, friend’s houses, religious activities, family gatherings, errands, or vacations
- Needing excessive time to finish ordinary activities such as homework, hygiene, or meals
Starting a Conversation
Before you make assumptions or an amateur diagnosis, ask your child about their feelings. Open communication goes a long way in fostering the development of resilient teens. Sometimes, they may merely be upset about a recent development at home or in school. Realize that what may seem like a little matter to you can be a huge issue for an emotional adolescent or teenager. Starting a conversation is the first step.
If you have major concerns about your teen’s behavior, try to focus on a specific activity that troubles you. If at all possible, try to verbalize it in a non-threatening way. It may help if you can ‘normalize’ the concept of mental illness or make it easier to relate to. You can do this by referring to someone they might know that has a form of mental illness. You can also tell them that mental illness is common. One in four people have some form of mental illness, it’s just that most people don’t talk about it.
- Create an atmosphere that welcomes an open discussion by asking them what they notice and understand about the symptoms and behaviors.
- Present fact-based information about the illness that you have researched and what you think you see.
- Give them information about symptoms, recovery, and the range of options that might help them.
- Lead them to information they can read themselves, such as the simple explanations in the kids and young peoples’ section of mental health websites or magazines.
- Teenagers often find it more comfortable to ‘talk while doing.’ For example, you might find it easier starting a discussion while you’re riding in the car, going for a walk, or throwing a ball.
- Try to make your child feel safe, so that they will ask questions and express their feelings.
It is never easy to start a conversation with someone about their mental health issues (or your own), but the following pointers may offer ways to alleviate some of the tension during a tense discussion with a teen:
- Speak in a calm voice.
- Say what you mean and be prepared to listen.
- Try not to interrupt the other person.
- Avoid sarcasm, whining, threats and yelling.
- Don’t make personal attacks or be demeaning.
- Don’t assume your answer is the only answer.
- Try not to use words such as “always” or “never.”
- Deal with the now, not the past.
- Don’t try to get the last word.
- Acknowledge that you are in this together.
Be prepared to hear things that might disturb you. If you feel that your teen is not able to function well enough to get by in life, or that their behavior is out of control, ask questions. Take action! The key to successful recovery is an early intervention. Prolonging the problem could lead to much more trouble and possible health risks.
Take Care of Yourself
Helpguide.org reminds parents that the stress of dealing with any teenager, especially one that’s struggling with symptoms of a behavioral disorder, can take a toll on a parent’s mental health, so it’s very important to take care of yourself. This means looking after your emotional and physical needs as you learn to manage the daily stress.
Be sure, the experts say, to take time to relax every day. Find ways to regulate your own feelings when you start to feel overwhelmed. If you are a single parent, don’t be afraid to ask for help from friends, relatives, teachers, school counselors, coaches, or religious leaders. And get professional help if you need it.
Need More Advice?
Don’t despair. If your teen or adolescent is struggling with the symptoms of depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, or a behavior disorder, Discovery Mood can help you. Creative coping strategies are just one part of our successful comprehensive approach. Our personalized behavior modification programs are tailored to fit your needs, in warm, supportive residential settings. We’ve been helping families find ways to long-lasting recovery for more than 18 years.
Call Us Now at 800.760.3934
Discovery Mood provides multi-faceted levels of care for adolescents and teens with anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, self-harm behaviors, gender identity, oppositional defiant disorder, eating disorders, and other serious mental health disorders. Call now and speak with one of our highly trained admission specialists today or click on the link below for a free assessment or virtual tour of our centers. All calls are completely FREE and strictly confidential.
HelpGuide.org: Help for Parents of Troubled Teens. Retrieved October 10, 2016.
Healthy Children Magazine: Mental Health and Teens: Watch for Danger Signs. Retrieved October 10, 2016.
National Alliance on Mental Health; Know the Warning Signs. Retrieved October 10, 2016.
Red Flags for Anxiety: What’s Normal, What’s Not?. Retrieved October 10, 2016.