It can be difficult to understand the changes in your child as they go through their teenage years – trying to understand if what they are experiencing is normal or if it is something more. Do you help them navigate through it, or do they need professional help?
Adolescents experience hormonal, emotional, physical, and social changes which can cause them to occasionally feel depressed and moody. They may become short-tempered or get angry more easily. They may want to be left alone more and have less to do with their family. There may be more drama surrounding them – their romance breaking up, a lower than expected grade, not having the proper wardrobe – which can trigger heightened emotions. They may show signs of sadness, frustration and anxiety. Adolescents may begin to feel overwhelmed or feel like they are a failure.
Most adults accept this as just part of their child being a teenage. In fact, these are normal processes as the teenage is working toward separation and gaining independence in early adulthood and they are experiencing many new “firsts” in their lives. The sadness, frustration, and anxiety usually last only a couple of days and they are still enjoying activities with their friends.
However, sometimes their behavior is more extreme, or lasts for a longer period of time, which can indicate a serious emotional or mental disorder that should not be ignored. Studies show that major depression episodes among adolescents and young adults have increased by 37 percent. Time magazine has reported that according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), more than three million adolescents (ages 12 to 17) reported at least one major depressive episode in the past year, and more than two million reported severe depression that impeded their daily functioning. In Maryland 27 percent of high school students reported that they felt sad or hopeless and 16 percent report they seriously considered attempting suicide during the 12 months preceding the survey in 2015. A major depressive episode is defined as a period of at least two weeks of low mood that is present in most situations; sad and hopeless refers to feeling this way almost every day for two or more weeks in a row, to the point where that they stopped doing some usual activities.
According to the Office of Adolescent Health in HHS, common mental health disorders in adolescence include:
- Anxiety Disorder which is characterized by feeling of excessive uneasiness, worry, and fear. It occurs is approximately 25 percent of 13 to 18 year olds.
- Mood Disorder which is characterized by extreme lows and highs in moods. It occurs in approximately 14 percent of 12 to 18 year olds.
- Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) which is characterized by continuing inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with daily functioning or development. It occurs in approximately 9 percent of 13 to 18 year olds.
- Eating Disorder which is characterized by extreme and abnormal eating behaviors, such as insufficient or excessive eating (such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating). It occurs in approximately 3 percent of 13 to 18 year olds.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, warning signs that should trigger seeking help if they last weeks or months, and if they display more than one warning sign, include:
- Often feels anxious or worried
- Has very frequent tantrums or is intensely irritable much of the time
- Has frequent stomachaches or headaches with no physical explanation
- Is in constant motion, can’t sit quietly for any length of time
- Has trouble sleeping, including frequent nightmares
- Loses interest in things he or she used to enjoy
- Avoids spending time with friends
- Has trouble doing well in school, or grades decline
- Fears gaining weight; exercises, diets obsessively
- Has low or no energy
- Has spells of intense, inexhaustible activity
- Harms herself/himself, such as cutting or burning her/his skin
- Engages in risky, destructive behavior
- Harms self or others
- Smokes, drinks, or uses drugs
- Has thoughts of suicide
- Thinks his or her mind is controlled or out of control, hears voices
If you think your child is exhibiting something beyond normal teenage behavior, don’t ignore it. Start a conversation with them. Even if they give you attitude:
- Let them know they can talk to you about anything
- Be prepared to listen and don’t interrupt
- Don’t be sarcastic, threatening, or demeaning
- Don’t assume your answer is the only one or insist on having the last word
- Try not to use words such as “always” or “never”
- Deal with the “now,” not the past
Be open and honest with your child and let them know you are in this together.