It is common to worry that they may be affected by mental health issues such as depression or eating disorders, or be involved in risky behaviour such as taking drugs, abusing alcohol, having unprotected sex, or committing crimes.
Normal teenage behaviour or something more serious?
Teenage behaviour can be erratic and upredictable, so it can difficult to distinguish when they are just ‘being a teenager’ and when something more serious is going on. But, as a parent, there are certain warning signs to look out for.
Linda Blair, clinical psychologist, advises: “As a parent what you can do is look out for unexpected and persisting changes.
"Have they changed in any way that is particularly out of character for them? For example, if your teenager is usually very sociable – and he or she withdraws socially to a large degree – there could be a problem.
"If they’re normally very chatty and they become completely uncommunicative, it may be worth exploring whether it’s due to more than just teenage angst.”
Encourage teenagers to talk
Most teenagers become moody and uncommunicative from time to time. This is often due to hormonal changes, which make the teenage years an emotional time. Many teenagers haven’t yet developed the skills to talk about emotions, so communication becomes very difficult.
Teenagers also have to go through a process of setting themselves physically and emotionally apart from their parents.
However, if you’re worried about them, you may be able to encourage them to open up. Direct questioning can make them feel very threatened, so a more subtle approach is more effective.
Linda Blair suggests: “If you’re having trouble getting them to open up to you, be available to them as much as possible. Take every opportunity to be there for them at times when they feel comfortable talking freely.
Eat together whenever possible
A great example is to provide a taxi service – being in the car is a non-threatening situation for them because you’re not looking at one another. Have meals together whenever you can – perhaps take them out for a pizza, for example.
If they refuse to talk to you and you are worried that something more serious is going on, you may need to open up other channels of communication for them.
Be honest and explain that you’re worried that they’re going through something difficult, and if they can’t talk to you, that’s fine, but they should talk to someone. Try offering helpline numbers, or suggesting a GP or a friend of the family.
Let them `choose` where to go for help
Allowing them to make a decision about how and where to seek help can also be beneficial. Linda explains: “If you’re very worried, whether about drugs or an eating disorder, you can try offering them what’s known as a ‘forced choice decision’.
"Present them with two choices, both of which represent a positive step. For example, suggest they talk either to your GP or to a named family friend. That way, they feel more in control."
Spotting the signs of abnormal teen behaviour
Many of the symptoms listed below can often be attributed to normal teenage behaviour. However, if you’re worried, it can be helpful to know the signs of a possible problem. You may then choose to discuss your concerns with your teen, or get advice from your GP.
Depression in teenagers
Noticeable symptoms of depression in teenagers can include:
- continuous low mood or sadness
- voicing/showing feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
- frequent tearfulness
- being irritable and intolerant of others
- apparent lack of energy or motivation, and little or no enjoyment of things that were once interesting to them
- slowed movement or speech
- changes in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased)
- frequent unexplained aches and pains
- disturbed sleep patterns (for example, problems going to sleep and/or waking throughout the night, particularly in the early hours of the morning)
- losing interest or being disruptive at school or playing truant
- constantly complaining that they feel bored or lonely
Read more about depression.
Teenage eating disorders
The most common eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. Signs of eating disorders can include:
- having a preoccupation and concern about food and gaining weight
- a desire to lose weight even though their friends or other family members worry that they’re underweight
- letting people around them think they have eaten when they haven’t
- being secretive about their eating habits
- becoming anxious, upset or guilty when asked to eat
- vomiting, or using laxatives in order to lose weight
Read more about eating disorders.
Get advice if you have a child with an eating disorder.
People who self-harm usually try to keep it a secret from their friends and family and often injure themselves in places that can be hidden easily by clothing.
If you suspect that your teenager is self-harming, look out for any of the following signs:
- unexplained cuts, bruises or cigarette burns, usually on their wrists, arms, thighs and chest
- keeping themselves fully covered at all times, even in hot weather
- signs of depression, such as low mood, tearfulness, a lack of motivation or lack of interest in everything
- changes in eating habits or being secretive about eating, and any unusual weight loss or weight gain
- signs of low self-esteem, such as blaming themselves for any problems or thinking they are not good enough
- signs they have been pulling out their hair
- signs of alcohol or drug misuse
Read more about self-harm.
See a leaflet for parents and carers of young people who are self-harming.
Teenagers who take drugs
Signs that your teenager is taking drugs can include:
- losing interest in hobbies, sports or other favourite activities
- losing interest in their appearance or personal hygiene
- dramatic changes in behaviour
- suddenly forming an almost totally new group of friends
- excessive tiredness and lack of appetite
- playing truant from school
- dilated pupils, red eyes, bad skin
- spending an increased amount of money, coupled with a refusal to explain why
- stealing money from you
Finding any of the following items in their room or in the house, could indicate that they are using drugs:
- rolling papers
- small medicine bottles
- eye drops
- butane lighters
- homemade 'bongs' (pipes that use water as a filter) made from tin cans or plastic drinks bottles
- scorched tinfoil
- razor blades
Find out more about drug use and getting help.