Monthly Archives: August 2011

Rolled eyes, slammed doors and sleeping till noon: the difference between typical teen behaviours and signs of trouble

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 Have they withdrawn into their rooms?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:






Parenting pledges for a great school year

This morning, my 12-year-old twins had their very first morning of high school. My youngest would be starting third grade if it weren’t for the fact that she had a really high fever last night (score an extra day of summer for her, an extra day of childcare for me).

Like many families, we are in serious back-to-school mode. Supplies, uniforms, clothing and new shoes have been purchased. Items have been labelled. Student bus passes are ready to go. Desks have been organized. Backpacks are packed.

It’s a lot of work, and a fair bit of expense. But it’s also very exciting, a time to reflect on transitions and growing up. It’s made me think about the kind of parent I want to be to my kids, especially now that they are entering their teenage years.

So I’ve come up with a list of back-to-school resolutions. My intentions are good, but my will and patience are not perfect, so I fully intend these more as a set of self-imposed guidelines, and not an iron-clad code. I find it useful to have these kind of things to look up to, especially in the darker moments of parenting (and we all know what those are like!).

Know when to say no, and when to say nothing. Sometimes the word “No” has to be enough. I don’t have to justify all of my parenting decisions to my kids, and what passes for explanation is really their attempt to negotiation. If I think those shorts are too short, or they are too young for a school dance, or they’ve been Skyping for too long, that’s all I need to say.

Conversely, sometimes I need to bite my tongue. They don’t need to hear my opinion of everything. They don’t always want to know what it was like when I was 12 (really? That’s a shocker). I don’t need to pass along my issues from adolescence. This is their turn.

Take advantage of natural consequences, when appropriate. I’m a big fan of Barbara Coloroso. When my kids were toddlers, I went to hear her speak, and was particularly impressed by her adamant insistence on kids learning things for themselves. As long as it isn’t immoral, illegal or unhealthy, they’ll learn more from their own mistakes than our rules or lectures.

Let them go outside without their jacket and realize how cold it is.  Let them goof off instead of studying for a test and get a bad mark. Let them forget their lunch and go hungry for one day. It may sound harsh, but none of those things are immoral, illegal or unhealthy. The stakes aren’t particularly high and the consequences are tolerable and contained. If we do everything for our kids, they never learn to do it for themselves. And we are reduced to shrill, nagging parents. Sure, if any of these things become more than one-off problems, we need to step in with guidance and supervision, but most kids, most of the time, will quickly learn their lesson.  (Another amazing parenting book with this philosophy is The Blessing of a B Minus, by Wendy Mogel).

Set firm boundaries for technology use. How much screen time total can you (and they) tolerate. At what point does it eat into their time for exercise, family interrelationships, homework, sleep? A recent study found that one-third of American teens sleep with their cellphones by their bedside or under their pillows, and text well after their bedtimes. Many said they set the phones to vibrate so they will wake them without alerting their parents. Phones, laptops, iPads should all be outside of their bedrooms when they go to sleep. Teens already have enough issues with sleep without this extra distraction.

Get them to eat breakfast. This is one of the hardest pledges to keep. My older girls are simply not hungry in the morning. They feign nausea at the mere sight of food. Chalk it up to their adolescent circadian rhythms or their natural metabolisms, but I struggle to get anything into them at all. Going to school hungry pretty much guarantees a lack of energy and focus for the first couple of hours, so that’s no OK. We’ve tried smoothies, Greek yogurt, cereal.

Out of desperation, I’ve given up on my usual insistence on whole-grains, no high fructose corn syrup or refined sugars. I find myself buying the crappy processed crap that used to make me all self-righteous at the grocery store, like “What kind of parent would serve that to their precious children?”

Me, that’s who.

At this point, even Aunt Jemima frozen pancakes are looking pretty good. If they want pizza or a chicken sandwich, fine. My minimum requirement is a glass of orange juice or chocolate milk and a cereal bar.

So that’s what I’ve come up with for now. I’m sure I will stumble a few times (feel free to call me on it, but remember that thing about people living in glass houses…). I’m sure there will be more pledges necessary. What resolutions do you make in your household?


Parenting by cellphone



[louder] “Dinner’s on the table. Come down now.”


[shouting] if you don’t come down now, you aren’t getting dinner and the kitchen is closed till tomorrow morning!”

I am the very model of effective parenting.

Why would they even listen to me the first time, since they know I will repeat myself 3 times? They can get in a whole other level of Angry Birds or use that time to post something witty and misspelled on Facebook.

But I have a new tool now, one that has revolutionized family communication in our household.

My older girls now have their own cellphones, in anticipation of the new freedom that comes with high school and the use of public transportation to get them around town.

I text “Dnnrs on the tbl” (if you don’t use texting spelling, you can hear the eye rolling from the basement. It’s epic. I have been questioning the point of all those years of spelling workbooks and quizzes. But I digress.)

I hear giggles. They’ve heard me. There is movement upstairs. The graceful stomping of two pairs of 12-year-old feet on the stairs.

And through some form of cellular magic, here they are. In our kitchen. Dinner is still hot. I have not had to issue any more empty threats.

Not two bites into dinner, the vibrating starts. The ringing and buzzing and whirring of customized tones.

They have been contacting every person they’ve ever met to exchange phone numbers.

My husband tells them that phones must be off during mealtimes.

Sigh. The rules come flying out of thin air.

When they were 8, they got their first iPods (little Shuffles). They tuned out in the car, upstairs in their rooms. I worried about how it cut them off from the family.

Then they got Nintendo DS’s. Same thing, but much worse. The games sucked them in. They ran restaurant kitchens, designed zoos and ran ultrasounds on virtual farm animals when we used to talk or look out the windows together. They trained their digital dogs while their real dog lay unwalked at their feet.

More rules.

Then the iPod Nanos entered our lives, effectively rendering meaningless the no TV policy in our family car (I thought I was so clever). they carried their movies and Wizards of Waverly Place around with them on tiny screens.

Then the iPads arrived last spring. Portable email, Facebook and Skype.

But the cellphone is the epitome of digital distractions, the ne plus ultra of mobile communications when you are 12 years old.

I am beginning to realize that the rules have to be made up as we go.