Mental Wellness…Reading the Signs in Middle & High Schoolers

Who stole my child and replaced them with an alien?

Anxious, rebellious, irritable, moody, distant…Some of this behavior from your child during adolescence (roughly ages 12 – 25) is COMPLETELY normal. So how do you know the difference between normal adolescent development and when your middle- or high-school age child needs help?

Most teens display the following behaviors in varying amounts. Most teens get through adolescence with no major problems. Normal changes in teenage behavior and development look like:

  • I’m going out with friends: It is completely normal for teens to shift their focus from the family to their friend-group and social scene. Normal teens want to spend more time with friends and less time at home.
  • I don’t want to get up and go to school: Teens are TIRED. The fast changes occurring in the body and brain make sleep very important. Teens also start to feel tired about 2 hours later in the day and want to sleep much later than they did in childhood. Teens also need more sleep at night than younger children. Sleeping in on weekends and a wish to not get up for school is totally normal.
  • I am SO HUNGRY: A lot of physical growth and development happens during adolescence—usually earlier for girls and a bit later for boys. During growth spurts, your teen may eat you out of house and home. Not to worry; increased appetite during growth spurts is completely normal.
  • I got caught doing….: Minor risk-taking and experimental behavior is normal. By their late teens, most adolescents have tried alcohol and many have experimented with sex and some with drugs. These minor-risk behaviors are normal, but they are not to be completely ignored.
  • Does this dress make me look fat? Almost every teen goes through a phase when they worry about physical appearance. Experimenting with clothing style and hairstyle is incredibly common. A shift to healthier eating and increased interest in physical fitness is normal.
  • Moodiness and Irritability: A teen who is moody, frustrated and irritable at times is completely normal. This is especially normal after a break up or fight with friends. Teens are managing a lot of new experiences and emotions. Learning to do this takes time.

When the changes in your teen’s personality or behavior are extreme, there may be a more serious underlying mental health issue. Some teens will struggle a lot during adolescence. Some teens may need the help of a mental health professional. Some potentially concerning behaviors may look like:

  • I’m not coming out of my room: Not wanting to spend time with family or friends and choosing to socially isolate is not normal teen behavior.
  • I’m not going to school: Absolute school refusal is not normal teen behavior. Extreme changes in grades is not normal in teens.
  • I’m not getting out of bed: Sudden or drastic changes in energy level is not normal in teens. Sleeping abnormally long or not being able to sleep is not normal in teens.
  • Extreme Risk-Taking: Delinquent behavior, extreme defiance, excessive alcohol or drug use, frequent self-injurious behavior (cutting) as a way of physical or emotional release is not normal teen behavior. Extremely dangerous or rebellious behavior, including law-breaking, that may affect a teen’s future is not normal.
  • I’m not eating: Sudden or drastic changes in appetite – overeating or restricting food intake – and significant or rapid weight change is not normal in teens. Likewise, over-exercising to lose weight is not normal in teens.
  • Extreme Moodiness or Anger Outbursts: Constantly escalating moodiness, irritability, or anger is not normal in teens. Being unable to cope with day-to-day life without melting down or acting out is not normal teen behavior. Violence is also not normal teen behavior. Threatening suicide or harm to others is not normal and needs to involve the immediate help of a mental health professional.

Parents can often prevent these concerning behaviors by talking with their teens before normal behaviors become something that is not normal. If you, as a parent, see concerning signs, the best first step is to sit down and talk with your teen about their behavior. After doing this, if you have no idea what to do or how to help your teen, get the help of a professional. The school counselor is a great place to start. You can also reach out to your teen’s pediatrician or to a mental health therapist or psychologist.