Dealing with Concerns About Your Teenager
Teenage behaviour can be so radically different from anything that has gone before that many parents find it hard to distinguish ‘normal’ from ‘problem’ behaviour.
At the same time, parents also worry about teenagers developing mental health problems, from depression to eating disorders, or starting to adopt risky behaviours such as drug-taking.
This page provides some advice to help parents to identify and act on behaviours which may indicate potential problems.
What is Normal Teenage Behaviour?
Just as ‘normal’ varies hugely in all other age groups, so the range is enormous in teenagers.
The question, then, is not “What is normal teenage behaviour?”, but ”What is normal for my teenager?”
The real difficulty in identifying variations from ‘normal’ lies in the fact that teenagers are changing so rapidly that what is normal today may not be so tomorrow or next week.
For more about the changes that happen during adolescence, see our page on Understanding Adolescence.
Experts advise looking out for behaviour that seems out of character.
For example, if your teenager has always been chatty, but suddenly becomes (and remains) withdrawn, this may be a sign of trouble. A child who has always been quiet and stay-at-home but now seems to want to be out every night, could also show a potential issue.
Changes in spending habits may also signal problems: excessive spending could be linked to a drug problem, or perhaps to bullying involving stealing.
Signs of Specific Problems
The main areas that parents of teenagers worry about are eating disorders, drug-taking, depression and self-harm.
It is worth noting that there are a number of signs of potential problems that may be associated with any or all of them, and also with normal teenage behaviour, so it is as well not to jump to conclusions.
Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders can affect both boys and girls. Signs that a teenager may have an eating disorder, or may be moving towards a problem in that area include:
- An expressed concern that they are gaining weight (which may or may not be true);
- Wanting to lose weight, especially if you are concerned that they may already be underweight;
- Not wanting other people to know when and what they are eating (for example, avoiding family meal times, and not telling you what they have eaten at school). This may be linked to letting you think that they have eaten when they have not done so;
- Showing anxiety or guilt when you ask them to eat; and
- Vomiting after eating.
There is more advice about eating disorders on the NHS website.
Taking illegal drugs is a serious issue. It can lead to a criminal record. Signs that your teenager is taking drugs can include:
- Dramatic behavioural changes, for example, becoming suddenly unsociable, or developing a completely new group of friends;
- Avoiding activities such as sport or hobbies which had previously filled their time;
- A failure to focus on personal appearance or hygiene;
- Being very tired, or losing their appetite (although this can also be an issue connected with eating disorders);
- Spending a lot more money, and not saying why, and even stealing money from you or other people;
- Dilated pupils and red eyes. Bad skin may also be an indicator, but many teenagers suffer from acne and bad skin anyway.
If you find certain items in their room or in the house, you may also want to ask some questions. These items include pipes, tobacco-rolling papers, tinfoil, butane lighters, eye drops, small medicine bottles, razor blades and syringes.
Like eating disorders, depression can affect both boys and girls. There is perhaps a perception that it is more likely to affect teenage girls, but this is not true.
Signs of depression are particularly hard to detect because teenagers are already more likely to want to spend time away from family. However, some possible signs include:
- An ongoing or long-term feeling of being ‘down’ or sad;
- Saying that they feel hopeless or helpless;
- An ongoing lack of energy and motivation, and finding it hard to enjoy things;
- Moving or speaking more slowly;
- Being very tearful, or irritable;
- Changes in weight and appetite (usually, those who are becoming depressed want to eat less, but they may also eat more, especially if they have a tendency towards ‘comfort eating’);
- Having aches and pains for no apparent reason (this may also be linked to a wish to avoid school, which could be for other reasons such as trouble with school work or bullying). You may also realise that they are losing interest at school or not attending at all. Again, this could also be for reasons other than depression; and
- Trouble sleeping, perhaps difficulty falling asleep, or waking in the night.
There is more about this in our pages on Depression.
Self-harm is closely linked to depression, and also feelings of low self-esteem, so it is worth looking out for signs of these as well. Young people who blame themselves for problems, or who think they are not good enough, may well be at risk of self-harming. Specific signs that may indicate that someone is self-harming include:
- A tendency to wear long sleeves and trousers to cover their limbs, even when it is very hot weather;
- Sore or painful patches on the scalp, where they have pulled out hair;
- Unexplained cuts and bruises, or burns, often on arms, wrists, chest and thighs (areas that are easy to access);
- Signs of alcohol or drug misuse. (See our page: Teenagers and Alcohol for more information.)
Young people who self-harm are often trying to take back control in at least one area of their life, so keep an eye out for signs that they may be struggling to stay in control of school work or another issue. The issue is quite common - in the UK it is estimated that up to 20% of 14 year-old girls have self-harmed.
There is more about self-harm on this NHS webpage.
It is important to stress that teenagers, and indeed, adults, showing signs of any of these problems may need professional help to overcome them.
In the first instance, you may want to consult your doctor, but be prepared for a referral to specialist services.
Getting Help and Support for Your Teenager
The first challenge is to get your teenager to talk to you about the problem/s they are facing. This, in itself, can be a huge issue.
It may be easier if you have maintained good communication channels more generally, as they then have a number of options for a chat.
For more about this, see our page on Communicating with Teenagers.
If your teenager does not want to talk to you about the problem, you may be able to persuade them to talk to someone else, such as a trusted family friend or relative, or a professional.
It can be helpful to give them a choice of two options, both of which will be a step forward in addressing the problem. For example, offer them the choice of a visit to the GP, or a chat with a relative or particular friend whom you both trust (a godparent may be a good option).
This allows your teenager to remain in control, by being able to make a choice, but both choices will help. This creates a ‘win-win’ situation, which is always helpful (for more about this, see our page on Transactional Analysis).
Teenagers, whatever they wish, are not yet adults. You, as their parent, retain parental responsibility until they are 18 years old. This means that you have a responsibility to protect your child.
If you think that they are doing something that may harm them, therefore, you have a responsibility to take action.
You can also consent to medical treatment on their behalf (although the law is slightly grey in this area, because it also recognises that young people are increasingly able to make their own decisions).
What this generally boils down to in practice is that if your child is so ill that they are harming themselves, or unable to consent to their own treatment, you may be able to consent on their behalf to treatment, including for a mental illness such as depression or an eating disorder.
For more about parental responsibility in the UK, you may like to consult this government webpage.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Whatever the problem, you do not have to manage it on your own. There is plenty of help and advice available, both online and from trained professionals. The first step in accessing it is to ask.