It can be tough to tell when a teen needs help. Because adolescence is a time of transition — and even turbulence. Your teen is likely irritable and moody. They question their identity. In fact, they try on different identities, which can lead to inconsistent behavior.
According to psychotherapist Sean Grover, LCSW, this is known as developmental depression, which is totally normal for teens. “[T]eenagers go through a dramatic transformational period driven by biological and psychological maturation, hormone imbalances and irregularities in brain development.” Which fuels their emotional instability, he said.
What is problematic is atypical depression. It has all the qualities of developmental depression but it’s much more severe, he said. “In my experience, atypical depressions are driven by outside forces, such as divorce, family conflicts, difficulties in school, difficulties with academics, social conflicts, etc.” Grover noted that teens are unresponsive, combative and withdrawn.
Liz Morrison, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in teen counseling, mentioned these additional signs of trouble: sinking grades; frequent fights with parents or peers; persistent sadness or anxiety; changes in behavior, such as going from being very social to isolating oneself; and run-ins with the law.
Other red flags are “losing interest in previous hobbies or activities, or expressing hopelessness about the future, said Laura Athey-Lloyd, Psy.D, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan, who specializes in adolescent and family therapy. These might be signs of a mood disorder or another deeper-seated problem, she said.
Again, it’s key to pay attention to your teen’s behavior. “Any behavioral problem is a symptom of internal struggles,” said Grover, also creator of award-winning youth programs. “Teenagers express themselves through their behavior, rather than their words.”
If you’re nodding your head to some of these symptoms, start with the below tips. Also, stay tuned for a second piece with more suggestions.
Talk to your teen about your concerns. Calmly.
Let your child know that you’re aware that something is different and you’d like to help, said Morrison. She shared this example of what you might say:
“I have noticed some changes in your ____________ (attitude, behavior, etc.), and I want to check in with you to see if there is something you want to talk about. I know it can be hard to share your feelings or thoughts with me. But just know that I am here to listen and help in whatever way I can.”
Then, depending on what your teen says, be supportive, calm and compassionate without judging them, she said.
Talk about your own struggles.
Athey-Lloyd encourages parents to share examples of their own adolescent struggles. This helps you connect with your teen and normalizes how they’re feeling. However, she noted, be sure you’re not comparing or criticizing—as in “you have it easy; my parents were much stricter and made me come home right after school.”
Instead, you might say: “I can still remember how tough it was to negotiate curfew with my parents. We disagreed, too.”
Teach your teen healthy habits.
That’s because most teens don’t develop healthy habits naturally, said Grover, author of When Kids Call the Shots: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully—and Enjoy Being a Parent Again. Plus, it’s much easier to supply positive activities than it is to challenge or undo negative behavior, he said.
In fact, when Grover starts working with a teen, he first asks, “What’s missing from this teenager’s life?” According to his piece on Psych Central, there are five things that every teen needs. This includes: tension outlets, such as cardiovascular exercise, which reduces anxious and depressive symptoms; at least three to five sources that contribute to your teen’s self-esteem; and healthy structure, limits and boundaries, such as limits on computer time and a regular sleep and study schedule.
For instance, Grover worked with a young girl who had a history of behavior problems both at home and at school. Her parents were enforcing limits and punishments and trying to control her behavior. They were monitoring her all the time, and it was ruining their relationship.
When Grover delved into the five things every teen needs, he learned that she didn’t have any tension outlets, self-esteem building activities or models or mentors (see below). He also speculated that she had learning difficulties.
The client joined Grover’s therapy group and started forming friendships with teens who were positive influences. Her parents signed her up for a hip-hop dance class, which she loved. She started taking three classes a week. The studio even offered her an internship. This boosted her mood and self-esteem, gave her adult models and mentors and created a tension outlet.
It also turned out that she had auditory processing difficulties, which naturally made it impossible to keep up in class. She received academic accommodations and started working with a learning specialist. And her relationship with her parents drastically improved.
Morrison also stressed the importance of giving your teen healthy alternatives. She shared this example: Your teen is becoming increasingly argumentative, which is affecting them emotionally and socially. You talk to them about strategies they can use to calm down when they’re upset. This might include everything from taking deep breaths to riding their bike to visualizing a happy place to writing in a journal, she said.
Find other supportive adults.
According to Grover, it’s vital that parents involve other adults, such as teachers, mentors or coaches. Because adolescence is partly about separation and individuation, when a parent tries to do everything, their teen only becomes more resistant, he said. “The child does not want to be dependent on the parent, and will grow defiant and combative.”
Reflect on your own actions.
“Too many parents don’t consider how their choices are actually producing their child’s negative behavior,” Grover said. He suggested taking a hard look at yourself and taking full responsibility for the behaviors you’re modeling.
Are you asking your teen to be calm during conversations while you’re usually yelling? Is your teen struggling with a negative body image while you’re criticizing others’ looks? Also, if your child is in therapy, consider if you’re unwittingly stalling their progress.
Parenting a teen can quickly get overwhelming. You might feel anxious, burnt out and maybe even helpless. But there are many things you can do—like starting with the above strategies. And if you need extra support, consider counseling.