The teen years can be a difficult time. Just as adolescents struggle with conflicting desires, parents wrestle with the question of how to protect their kids while also encouraging independence. It can be a particular challenge to find that balance with troubled or angry teenagers. When should you stay out—and when should you step in?
Knowing your child and keeping the lines of communication open are key to identifying serious problems. “Obviously, a person’s strategies will need to be varied based on the needs of their child—how they learn, how they react, their temperament,” says Gary Blau, chief of the child, adolescent, and family branch of the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration in the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Because it can be a complex and emotional time, Blau recommends that parents educate themselves about what teen life is like. “It’s important to practice empathy,” he says. “Read books and think back to your teen years, remember your own struggles as teenagers. Remember their development, their mood changes, their need for independence.”
Setting aside time to spend with your child is important, too. “Maintain as much communication as possible from an early age,” he says. If you and your child have always talked to one another, you’re better equipped to recognize when something is wrong.
Keep an eye out for warning signs. A decline in performance at school is one signal that your child may be experiencing problems, according to Mental Health America, a national nonprofit organization. Habitually bad grades are a different story—the real warning sign is a teen who suddenly does poorly in a subject in which he or she has always been consistent. Try to avoid getting angry about the grades themselves. Instead, look beyond the report card: See poor grades as a symptom and not the problem itself.
Teens are famously moody, but swinging from one emotional pole to another can be an indicator of troubled behavior. “The issue here is about extremes,” Blau says. “When there’s extreme behavior, drastic behavior, or certain things that extend weeks on end, then you have to start to be concerned.” If they become angry to the point of violence, or if they suddenly and frequently shift from depression to euphoria, the problem may go beyond typical teenage surliness. Watch for changes in weight or sleeping patterns, too, says Blau. While teens have notoriously irregular sleep schedules, extremes such as sleeping or staying awake for days can be indicators of other problems.
Repeatedly skipping or refusing to go to school or other activities, especially ones they’ve previously enjoyed, is another warning sign, according to Mental Health America. As with grades, if it begins to happen regularly, try to focus on the root of the behavior instead of punishing the act itself.
If your child has run away from home, frequently threatens to do so, or often sneaks out at night, it may be time to take action. Visit the National Runaway Switchboard or call 800-786-2929 if you’re concerned that your child may run away or to anonymously report a friend or family member who has run away. The site also has resources for runaways who need help returning home.
Troubled behavior is frequently accompanied (or caused) by mental disorders such as depression. If you’re concerned that your child is at risk for depression, visit the Kelty Foundation for resources, warning signs, and programs. Suicidal thoughts or threats of suicide should always be taken seriously and dealt with immediately. Get help by calling the National Hopeline Network at 800-SUICIDE (800-784-2433) or the CrisisLink suicide hotline at 703-527-4077.
Rape can have devastating effects on teenagers still coming to terms with themselves and their bodies, and a strong support network of friends and family is essential in dealing with its aftermath. If your child or another loved one has been raped, be patient and understanding, and avoid pressuring her to talk about what happened before she’s ready.
For more information on troubled teens along with resources for programs, treatment, and professional evaluations, visit Troubled Teens of America or the National Institute of Health’s guide to teen mental health.