Is my Teen Just Being a Teenager?
By Lauren Garfield, LMFT
Your teen has withdrawn to their room, the light is off, their face illuminated by the glow of their phone. You bravely pop your head into their room and let them know dinner’s ready, but they don’t respond. You ask what’s wrong, and get a one-word answer in response: “Nothing.” You notice they’ve been crying, so you ask if they want to talk about it. “Nothing’s wrong!” they snap back. Part of you thinks this is normal teen development and those hormones everyone talks about, but you can’t ignore the nagging feeling that there’s something more going on.
When you find yourself wondering if your teen is “just being a teen” or if they may be struggling with a mental health issue, it may be helpful to ask yourself the following questions:
Has my child experienced a change in their eating and/or sleeping?
Teens change eating and sleeping behaviors for a number of reasons: they may be getting fewer hours of sleep or poorer sleep quality from frequent phone/computer use, or because they’re up late completing homework. They may be eating out with friends more frequently and not hungry or family meals, or have a voracious appetite because they just joined the track team and are exercising more. If you notice that your child has a consistent change in their eating and sleeping patterns with no easily identifiable reason, along with changes in mood or behavior, this may be a clue that your teen is struggling more than usual. For instance, anxiety keeps many teens awake with racing and/or intrusive thoughts and worries, and can also lead to nausea and gastrointestinal distress, causing a reduction in appetite. Too much or too little sleep, as well as appetite changes are common symptoms of depression.
Have my child’s social habits changed?
If your teen was once a social butterfly and is now withdrawing to their room after school every day, this may be considered a change in functioning. People who avoid social situations may do so because of more typical issues including interpersonal conflict, but could also be due to social anxiety, panic attacks, depression, bullying, or other significant concerns.
Have my teen’s grades gone down?
Grades can certainly plummet from an increase in social activities, being spread too thin with extracurriculars, or learning issues, amongst other things. A common symptom of many mental health issues is decreased concentration and/or motivation. For instance, it can be hard for teens to pay attention when they’re having intrusive thoughts about what others are thinking of them, such as in the case of social anxiety. It’s also difficult to feel motivated when you’re feeling hopeless (and hard to have hope when you’re feeling unmotivated), such as in the case of a depressive disorder.
Is my teen avoiding things they typically would enjoy or be able to do?
Teens’ interests may shift naturally, based on age, peers, environment, and/or the changes in popular culture. A change in activities, or lack of interest in something they used to enjoy, doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a mental health issue at hand. If you notice that your teen is avoiding situations that they would normally find pleasurable (eg, athletics, social activities) or activities they were interested in (eg, learning to drive) and not replacing those situations with new interests, it’s possible that the avoidance is driven by anxiety. It’s also possible they lack the energy or motivation to attend events they would typically enjoy, or are finding it difficult to derive pleasure from anything at all, both symptoms of depressive disorders.
In addition to changes in mood and/or behavior, has my child’s functioning changed or become impaired?
All of the questions above are addressing functional impairment. If you notice changes that hinder your teen’s ability to complete their typical daily activities, these changes may warrant additional evaluation. Keep in mind, also, that many teens and children show little to no impairment in functioning, but still struggle with mood changes or anxiety. Even if your child is getting straight As, has tons of friends, and is eating at the family table every night, they may still benefit from conversations (with you and/or a therapist) to address any distress they’re experiencing.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.