Adolescence is a period of dynamic brain development, physical changes, and psychosocial growth. During this time, teenagers are navigating puberty—which brings changes in their hormones, emotions, priorities, and desires. They start to crave more independence, distance themselves from family, and discover a sense of self. This isn’t always easy, though; the dramatic changes in puberty can also trigger volatility in teens’ behaviors, attitudes, and moods.
As a result, adolescents are more vulnerable to behavioral and mental health struggles. In fact, adolescence is the time in which most mental illnesses begin to surface. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), half of mental health conditions begin by age 14, and 75 percent by the age of 24. This leads many people to ask, what is it about adolescence that increases the risk of mental illness? Is there a connection between puberty and mental health?
Why Does Mental Illness Increase During Puberty?
There are several theories around the connection between puberty and mental health. These include, but are not limited to:
- Hormonal Changes
Hormone levels have been associated with mental health disorders. For example, research cited by VeryWellMind found that estrogen – which dramatically increases in girls during puberty – is linked to depression. This is because estrogen impacts a female’s levels of serotonin, and low levels of serotonin can cause depression. Overall, it’s important to keep in mind that hormones are also fluctuating in adolescence, and can in turn lead to brain fogginess, anxiety, low self-esteem, and mood swings.
- Stressful Social Changes
Adolescents are not just going through physiological changes – they are also experiencing dramatic shifts in their social relationships and responsibilities. For example, teens prioritize fitting in with friend groups more than familial relationships. They often base their self-worth on what other peers think of them. They also are beginning to explore sexual relationships during puberty. This can all be extremely stressful, as they are developing and exploring their identities. Stress is associated with anxiety.
- Early Puberty
The average age of puberty has been decreasing drastically. Now, the onset of puberty can be as early as 8 years old in girls and 9 years old in boys (versus 13 and 14 years old, fifty years ago). Some children develop even earlier. Early puberty is associated with poor mental health outcomes. According to WebMD, research shows that girls and boys who develop earlier are more likely to have depression, anxiety, substance abuse issues, eating disorders, and an increased risk of suicide. This may be due to them feeling out of place. Those who develop early may look different than other children, and therefore feel self-conscious or isolated, and unable to talk about it.
- Brain Development
The adolescent brain is not fully developed. In fact, the brain does not fully develop until a person’s mid-twenties (on average). Specifically for adolescents, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for rational thinking, emotional control, and behavioral performance—has not yet fully matured. As a result, adolescents going through puberty often have overwhelming and out-of-control emotions. They do not yet have the full mental capacity to cope with their emotions, either, which can be very difficult. It can cause enhanced feelings of irritability, anger, and stress.
Adolescents who struggle with their mental health are more likely to continue experiencing these symptoms as they grow. Research has connected early mental health problems with a person’s stage of brain maturation.
- Physical Development
Some research also points to physical development as a cause for the connection. Specifically, research published in The Journal of Affective Diseases found that the physical development experienced during mid-puberty increased depression rates, more than other any factor that was studied.
How Can Parents Differentiate Puberty and Mental Health Problems?
Because puberty is often accompanied by mood swings, resistance, and irrational behaviors, it can be difficult for parents to distinguish between “normal” teen behaviors and a mental health problem. Therefore, it can be difficult to know when a teenager needs professional help.
Generally speaking, excessiveness can be a key indicator in determining what is normal and what indicates a mental health disorder. Again, puberty can cause mood swings, withdrawal from family, increased risk-taking, and changing appearances in adolescence. However, it should not cause:
- Excessive defiance and trouble-making, such as getting in trouble with the law, skipping class, or ongoing substance use
- Excessive anger or violent behaviors
- Persistent sadness or anxiety
- Drastic changes in sleeping or eating habits, and/or general health
As a parent, you can determine if your child is struggling with their mental health by asking questions at home. How are they doing at school? How do they feel about their friends? Do they have people they trust and can talk to at school? Are they happy? Are they facing any challenges? Keep these conversations open and fluid, and always let your child know you are there to talk.
If you feel your child is struggling with a mental health problem, keep reading to learn about treatment.
Getting Mental Health Treatment for Adolescents
Time and time again, research shows that parents can make an incredible difference when it comes to their child’s mental health. For example, parents can help their children develop healthy responses to stress, which can significantly mitigate the risk of mental health problems.
Parents can also play a key role in helping their child cope with mental health issues by:
- Actively listening to their child, without judgement or punishment
- Being present and involved in their day-to-day life
- Encouraging open, honest, and trusting conversations at home
- Creating a stable, safe, and predictable home environment
- Validating and advocating for their teen’s feelings
- Establishing a plan for intervention
- Seeking professional help when needed
If your child is struggling with any mental health problem, seeking professional is essential. The course of treatment, of course, will depend on the severity of your child’s struggles. Some adolescents benefit from inpatient mental health treatment, while others can recover through ongoing, outpatient counseling and therapy. Common treatments for youth with mental health disorders include behavioral therapies, family therapy, and individualized, interpersonal therapy. Learn more here.
No matter what, seeking treatment is important to ensure your child finds a place of happiness and healing. Treatment also reduces the risk of suicide, self-harm, and worsening mental health symptoms.
Do you think your child is in need of a mental health assessment? Are you looking into treatment options for your teen? Whether you need guidance on next steps, or wish to formalize a treatment plan, you can contact Turnbridge for support. Turnbridge is a recognized mental health treatment facility for adolescents struggling with mental health and substance use disorders. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more.