Adolescence is a time of critical development, both emotionally and physically. At this time, teenagers begin to establish their own identities and seek more independence in their everyday lives. Their behaviors might involve distancing themselves from parents, acting out, or rebelling against the rules, in order to assert themselves as self-sufficient and in-control. While behaviors like these are typical for teenagers, there are red flags that can signal more troubled teenagers.
“Troubled” is a term that is often used for teenagers who are facing distress. This distress is frequently related to one’s mental health, and causes negative behaviors like substance use, skipping school, and acts of violence. These problems go beyond the scope of typical teen behavior. If a troubled teenager is not helped, it can lead to issues in his or her adult life.
Because teenagers are inherently temperamental, it can be difficult for parents to determine when a teenager is struggling and when it is time to get help. If you believe your son or daughter is exhibiting signs of troubled teen behavior, it is important to contact a professional. If you are unsure if his/her behaviors are cause for concern, read on. Below we outline the common signs of a troubled teenager, versus signs of normal teen behavior.
Do You Have a Troubled Teenager?
Almost all teenagers show signs of mood swings, defensiveness, and disobedience. You may find that your teenager is becoming more distant and prioritizing time with friends. He or she may be testing the waters with new looks to draw attention or to develop a sense of style. These are all normal behaviors that come in adolescence. However, there are some signs that can indicate a more troubled teen.
Warning Signs of a Troubled Teen:
- Extreme Mood Swings:
With adolescence comes changes in hormones and body chemistry. This can lead to occasional mood swings in teenagers. However, extreme mood swings – especially those that do not fit the situation – can be cause for concern. If your teen is extremely happy, then severely depressed, for example, that would be classified an extreme mood swing. Or, if your child is exhibiting unreasonable fits of anger, disrespect, withdrawal, hostility, sadness, take note. A radical change in sleeping patterns, such as sleeping all the time to not sleeping at all, can signal troubles with your teen.
- Sudden Change in Friend Groups:
As noted, teenagers tend to spend more time with their friends and are more significantly influenced by their social circles. At this age, it is common to make new friends as they develop their sense of self. However, if your teenager has completely abandoned old friends, like a best friend from third grade, and started hanging out with an entirely new group that you do not know, you may be concerned. This new friend circle may not come around to the house, and cause your teenager to act out more than usual. If your teen has a new questionable friend group, and in turn has changed their behaviors and attitudes for the worse, this is a common sign of trouble on the rise.
- Sudden Changes in Behavior:
Another sign of a troubled teenager is a marked change in one’s normal behavior. As a parent, you know your son or daughter well. You know how long they sleep, how motivated they are, how anxious they are, how they perform in school, and what they enjoy doing in their free time. You know what makes your teenager comfortable and what sets them off. So, if you see a change that is markedly different from your teen’s usual, it may raise a red flag. Examples of abnormal behaviors that teens might display include sleeping too long (or not enough), forgetting to do things, lying to and manipulating others, missing school, hating once-loved activities, disrespecting others, or distancing from friends and family. It may also involve increased signs of aggression, anxiety, and/or depression.
- Sudden Drop in School Performance:
A major, and seemingly random, drop in school performance is another red flag that your teen might be struggling with something outside of academics. If your child is usually consistent in their grades, but performance suddenly tanks, ask yourself if there is a reason why. Did they just change schools? Does it seem like something is bothering them, like depression or a bully at school? Are they attending their classes, or skipping out? Are they using drugs? If you do not have these answers, ask questions to your teen. You may find the answers signal a bigger issue with mental health.
Additionally, it is important to note that some teens struggle with learning disorders. These vary in symptoms and severity, but can include trouble retaining information or learning in certain methods. Parents should note that a drop in academic performance could signal a learning disorder, as well, which would also require professional help.
- Violence and Abuse:
Teenagers facing mental health disorders will often have difficulty controlling their emotions. They may display unusual amounts of anger and aggression. Some teens may take that anger to a new level, by lashing out on others. This may include starting fights at school, teasing their peers, or acting violently towards those in the home (including people and pets). If your teenager is getting in trouble for violent acts, or threatening others and their belongings, this is a tell-tale sign of a more serious, troubling issue.
Teenagers who are troubled with mental health problems do not always pose a threat to others, sometimes they threaten to hurt themselves. If your teen is displaying signs of self-harm, suicidal thoughts, or dangerous behaviors that could be fatal, seek help immediately. This is a clear sign of mental health disorders in teens, and that something more troubling is taking place. Common signs include self-mutilation, dangerous drug abuse, and threats of suicide.
- Substance Abuse:
It is not uncommon for teenagers to drink or use drugs. This is an age where risk-taking and fitting in with friends is at its peak, and many teenagers will use drugs to make a statement in some way. However, substance abuse at this age is very dangerous—and frequent, recurring substance abuse among teenagers is cause for concern. Outside of peer pressure and the desire to try something new, many troubled teens will turn to drugs and alcohol as an escape. They may try drugs to make them feel better, whether that be to numb a pain or be more social in a situation, due to an underlying mental health disorder. This can start a cycle of addiction.
As a parent, it is important to watch out for signs that your teenager is using drugs. These signs include increased secretive behavior, distancing from family and friends, lying to you about their whereabouts, lack of energy and motivation, and changes in their eating and sleeping patterns. Check out the top signs of drug abuse in teenagers, and know when it’s time to seek help.
Signs of Typical Teen Behavior:
As noted above, teenage behavior can ebb and flow throughout development. Teenagers will be temperamental and moody at times. They will distance themselves from family occasionally, in efforts to fit in with their friends. However, it is important for parents to know the difference between the troubling signs above, with the more typical behaviors below.
Here are some common teen behaviors that get confused with the above:
- Mood Swings:
Teenagers can be irrational, impulsive, irritable, and disrespectful at times. They are growing and figuring life out. Some highs and lows are normal for teenagers to experience. However, jumping from extremes is where the concern begins.
- Friends First:
Teenagers are very social beings, and highly influenced by others. They rely on their friends’ acceptance and perceptions to understand their place in the world. Research shows that teenagers prioritize social interactions and experiences more than any other point in life. As a result, most teenagers want to hang out with their friends more than their family members. It is the rapid changing of friend groups that can be a red flag.
- Changing Appearance:
As teens begin to develop their identities, they will start playing with fashion a bit more. They may choose styles that are more provocative or attention-seeking than their parents might prefer. However, this is a normal stage of development. Changing appearances can become a red flag if it goes beyond fashion, however. Signs of cutting (self-harm) and excessive weight loss or gain, for example, are more concerning changes that are worth attention.
- Desire for Independence:
Becoming a teenager means embarking on a new stage of development. It brings with it an increased desire for independence and sense-of-self. Teenagers have an inherent desire for freedom outside of their home and families. They will, often, do what they want to do (rather than what they are told). However, they still benefit from structure. Parents should continue to implement rules and boundaries during adolescence. Those who are increasingly defiant to those rules, without any regard for their parents or the consequences, may indicate a more troubling situation.
Getting Help for a Troubled Teenager
If you have found that your teen is in fact showing troubling signs, the next best step is to speak with a professional about your options. Many troubled teenagers act out or act negatively due to deeper-seated issues with their mental health. For example, many teenagers display troubling behaviors as they fight against anxiety, depression, trauma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, body dysmorphia, and substance addiction, to name a few.
You may contact your family doctor or therapist for help. If you do not know where to turn, and are interested in a mental health assessment and potential treatment for your teenager, you can always contact Turnbridge for support. Turnbridge is a mental health treatment center for adolescents struggling with a range of co-occurring issues, from substance abuse to eating disorders, to depression and anxiety. We are here for you. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more today.