One of the biggest challenges for parents of teens is how to discern what’s normal for adolescence and what may be a teen mental illness. Sure, teens can get moody, but if a teen swings from one mood to the next, does that mean they have bipolar disorder? Yes, a teen can be sullen and solitary, but does that mean they are depressed? Teens can also pull away from parents and spend time with peers who appear questionable, but does that mean they are using drugs or alcohol?
All these questions might run through a parent’s mind, especially if a parent doesn’t have a close relationship with their teen. So, how do parents determine whether their child is suffering from a teen mental illness? How can they decipher if what their teen is going through is perfectly normal? The following article will address these questions. Here are 7 signs that might indicate a teen mental illness. If you notice these signs in your teen, consult with a mental health professional.
1. Declining Grades
There tends to be a clear relationship between teen mental illness and how well a teen does in school. If you notice that your adolescent is coming home with poor grades, it could be an indication your teen needs mental health treatment. Typically, mental illness can affect the following functions, which can get in the way of doing well in school:
- clear thinking
- ability to rise to a challenge
- ability to execute a task
- relating to peers and school staff
- processing information
The inability to utilize the above functions can impair a teen’s ability to do well in school and establish healthy relationship with his or her peers. In fact, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and ADD are illnesses with a symptom of lack of concentration, among other symptoms, which can immediately become an obstacle for learning in school.
Keep in mind, however, that worsening grades alone is not an indicator of mental illness. However, if you’re seeing symptoms of mental illness, along with lower grades plus a concern that something is wrong, then there may be reason to bring your teen to a mental health provider. Nonetheless,. In fact, lower grades might be the first noticeable sign of depression.
2. Changes in Behavior
As parents you’re certainly going to notice differences in your teen’s behavior as they transition from childhood to adolescence. However, if you feel that their behavior is concerning for whatever reason, then it’s a possible sign that a mental illness exists. To distinguish the difference between adolescence and a mental illness, parents might look for behavior that is one or more of the following:
- out of character
- odd or unusual
- out of control
The above list can help parents identify if their teen’s behavior is concerning. However, as with any sign, it’s important to take into consideration the entire picture.
3. Mood Swings
Moodiness, for instance, is a typical symptom of being an adolescent. A teen is going to be naturally moody because of the developing brain and a teen’s tendency to be more emotional than logical, more impulsive than rational. In fact, teens are full of emotional responses. Although this can often appear as moodiness, it points to the change that is happening inside an adolescent. Furthermore, a teen can often be incredibly impulsive. Typically, a teen wants to try new things, explore the world, and role-play. Their impulsivity is another sign of their developing brains.
However, these same characteristics of teens – emotionality and impulsivity – can also be symptoms of mental illness, such as Depression, Bipolar Disorder, and ADHD. So how can you tell the difference? Swings of mood from high (mania) to low (depression) is often an indicator of mental illness. However, occasional mood swings are typical for teens. To discern the difference, parents can look for the following signs:
- mood swings are out of character for your teen
- extreme mood swings from very low depression to high mania
- depression or mania includes self-harm
- mood swings include dangerous, impulsive, or risky behavior
- pattern of stormy, intense relationships with others
If your teen is not showing these signs, but you still feel concerned, schedule an appointment to have your teen assessed for a psychological illness.
4. Changes in Sleeping or Eating Patterns
Teens tend to like to sleep a lot. They might be in their bedroom for long hours, while you’re wondering what they’re doing in there. And it’s normal for teens to sleep 9 to 10 hours at a time. Typically, teens need about 9 hours of sleep each night.
However, when parents begin to see signs of unusual sleep patterns, then it might be a sign – among others – that a mental illness may exist. Along with a drastic change in sleep, parents might also look for these signs of physical discomfort to determine if their teen has a mental illness:
- lack of energy
- drastic change eating patterns (little to no eating or overeating)
- neglecting personal hygiene
- having persistent nightmares
These are signs that a psychological illness may be present.
5. Excessive Need to Escape
Everyone wants to get away from the stresses of life from time to time. However, some teens might take this need to an extreme in order to escape symptoms of mental illness that may be hard to manage. If you see your teen engaging in one or more of the following, there may be reason to be concerned:
- abuse of alcohol or drugs
- self harm, such as cutting or burning the skin
- excessive eating
- not eating at all (or controlling the intake of food)
- excessively engaging in sports or exercise
- any other behavior that is harmful to the body
These can be signs that a teen has an inability to cope or manage internal experiences. These could be signs of a teen mental illness.
6. Problems with Peers
When a teen has a mental illness, or is struggling with the symptoms of one, it can impact their relationship with peers and school staff. For instance, a teen might see his or her best friend as being the most wonderful person in the world one day and then his or her worst enemy the next. When a teen exhibits one or more of the following in relationships, there may be a reason to be concerned:
- frequent outbursts of anger, aggression
- threats of harm to hurt others
- lacking a desire to go out with friends
- sexually acting out, such as being promiscuous or engaging in risky sexual activity
- suddenly spending time with a new peer group
- acting out at school
- strong resistance to attending school; absenteeism
- opposition to authority, thefts, or vandalism
Although it can be difficult to discern normal teenage behavior from what might be a teen mental illness, the above signs can provide guidance for parents who are concerned. Typically, mental health providers will also want to know if any of the above signs exist in your teen’s life. If you’re seeing one or more of the above signs and you feel concerned about your teen’s well being, contact a mental health professional today.
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Paradigm Treatment Centers, who has been a respected leader in the field of adolescent mental health for more than 20 years. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, his Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, his Doctoral degree from Pacific University’s APA approved Clinical Psychology program, and completed his training at the University of California, San Diego’s APA approved psychology internship program.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.