It’s easy — and a little unfair — to prepare a stereotypical list of unpleasant teen behaviours: moodiness, surliness, disrespect, dramatic changes in sleeping patterns, eating patterns and relationships with other family members. We expect them to blow off their chores, roll their eyes at family activities, spend all their time online and on cellphones and listen to music we parents find discordant, inappropriate or offensive. It’s almost as if in steeling ourselves for battles to come, we expect them to fight us on the clothes they wear, the friends they chose, and how late they get to stay out at night.
But not all teens are like that. Most of them (most of the time) are loving parts of their families, good big sisters and brothers and concerned about their communities and the world around them. But the caricatures of teenagers tend to dominate in the popular imagination, and can blind us to all of the wonderful ways our teens enrich our lives.
That’s my standard response whenever I discuss signs and symptoms of real teen problems with groups of parents. The lists of red flags can sound a lot like the behaviours described above. Has your teen gained weight? Lost weight? Been listless? Have their friends changed? Have they withdrawn into their rooms? There’s always one parent who voices the concern that these sound like pretty typical teen behaviours.
And they are.
But a teen at serious risk for depression, drug or alcohol problems tends to have more than one of these things, and there is a pattern of marked decline, and usually more than one or two instances of emotional outbursts or slammed doors.
So when should you worry? Sometimes things do go wrong. The following types of behaviours warrant immediate investigation:
*money going missing around the house without satisfactory explanation;
*pattern of lying about whereabouts and activities;
*aggression, hostility, irritability;
*pattern of withdrawal;
*rapid weight loss;
*wearing of long sleeves in warm weather (a sign of non-suicidal self-mutilation);
*sudden drop in grades (not just one lousy mark);
*unexplained absences at school/ work;
*sudden trouble with headaches;
*rapid increase in muscle definition or sudden dramatic increase in acne (a sign of steroid use);
*loss of interest in activities;
*extreme, persistent fatigue lasting more than a couple of days;
*sudden change in personal hygiene – unkempt appearance, lack of washing;
*sudden use of new slang or jargon related to drugs or gambling;
*speculation or fascination with death/ suicide.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it does cover some of the more worrisome signs, particularly if there are more than one.
So what do you do as a parent? First, speak to your child. If you are still concerned, speak to their doctor. Call the school guidance counsellor. Call a therapist who specializes in teens. Call your CLSC if you live in Quebec.
If you are concerned your teen might be an immediate danger to yourself or others, take them right away to the emergency department of a children’s hospital. Here in Montreal, there is a psychiatrist on call at the Montreal Children’s Hospital 24 hours a day who can do an emergency assessment. Be aware that in Quebec the age of medical consent is 14, so you may not be privy to their discussion.
Some other excellent resources: