Teens don't always turn to their parents when they are having problems so it can be hard to know what's really going on. But experts reveal which five behaviors parents should pay attention to.

By Beth Ann Mayer
Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Tetra Images/Getty Images (1)

When raising teenagers, it can often feel like the only constant is change. One day, they want to go shopping with you, the next they don't want to be seen together.

It can be tough to differentiate between typical behavior and red flags to look out for when parenting during this age. It's also a slippery slope—parents don't want to overreact, but statistics show anxiety and suicide rates are rising among children and teenagers.

"Adolescence is such a complex period of development, so it's very hard to ascertain when the issue is problematic," says Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., who has counseled parents and children for more than 25 years. "It is a judgment call on the parent's part."

Knowing red flags to look out for when parenting teens—and what they could mean—can help parents provide guidance and take appropriate actions.

Change in Sleep Patterns

Teenagers' sleep patterns often differ from adults. Blame an altered circadian rhythm. "They naturally want to stay up later at night and sleep later during the day," says Dr. Dorfman. But if they are sleeping drastically more or less for several weeks, it could be a sign of issues including depression, anxiety, insomnia, and substance abuse.

Loss of Interest in Favorite Activities

A good student may struggle in a class, and it's normal for a child to want to switch from say, soccer to drama club. But watch out for children who become more withdrawn or start cutting school. It could be a sign of several issues, including depression, anxiety, suicidality, bipolar disorder, bullying, or undiagnosed ADD. "Sometimes, kids are able to compensate academically for attention or focus issues in the earlier years," says Dr. Dorfman. "As the work becomes more rigorous or demanding, the ADD interferes."

Substance Use

If a parent finds pills or smells alcohol on a teen’s breath, the child likely used a substance. Determining whether or not the child is addicted takes more observation and a conversation. "Kids try stuff, but if you notice they are doing this frequently, that is a dangerous sign," says Janice Morgan, a mental health awareness and substance abuse recovery advocate whose memoir Suspended Sentence details her child's struggle with bipolar disorder and addiction.

Cuts or Frequent Pulling of Hair and Eyelashes

Teens who are self-harming will often go to great lengths to hide their behavior, including wearing long-sleeved clothes in warm weather to cover up cuts. Dr. Dorfman notes it's common to confuse this behavior with suicidality. "Those are not necessarily suicidal behavior—they can be—it's more that there are mood regulation issues that are interfering," she says.

Anger Issues

Anger is expected from time to time, but it's problematic if it turns violent in any way. "Everyone gets angry, but most people learn you can control that," says Morgan. "People who have really strong impulses find it difficult." Anger management groups may be useful. A pediatrician or behavioral health center can provide a recommendation.

What to Do if You Notice These Flags

Talk to Them Rationally

First, do not go on the attack. "Accusatory behavior is only going to put a teen on the defensive," says Dr. Dorfman. "Take the angle that, 'I'm concerned. This is indicative to me you must be in some kind of pain.'"

Then, listen to them. "You want to understand their perceptions," says Morgan. "With that information, you have a clearer picture. You already know what your expectations are, but you don't know what their world looks like until you ask them."

For example, a child might say he smoked because it relaxes him, which can help a parent suggest healthier stress-relief methods or find a therapist.

This is not the same as enabling. After a child crosses a boundary, a parent may impose a consequence, such as grounding, or establish more oversight, like calling other parents to ensure they will be home before allowing the teen to visit.

Enlist Help From Other Adults in Their Life

If a teen doesn't open up to a parent (that's totally normal), other adults in their life, such as coaches, may be helpful. It can be a difficult situation to navigate since the other adult may want to keep a trusting relationship with the teen while also helping the parent.

"As a general rule, you can say, 'You don't necessarily have to tell me the intimate details of what gets revealed. The only thing that you need to tell me is if you are at risk of hurting yourself or someone else,'" says Dr. Dorfman.

Find a Professional

If the situation doesn't improve, Dr. Dorfman and Morgan both recommend finding a licensed therapist. Parents should do this immediately if teens appear to be at risk for harming themselves or others. Stress that the therapist is there to help if a teen is hesitant.

"You want them to feel more comfortable," says Dr. Dorfman. "The sooner you can understand what is going on, the sooner you can prevent something from worsening."

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