Adolescence: When Is It Time To Be Concerned?

Normal adolescence is confusing enough for adolescents and family members. Risk-taking behaviors, mood swings and experimentation become more common. So when is it time to be concerned? At what point do parents confront the adolescent or get help for all family members? This tipsheet will address what isn’t considered simply the ‘innocent’ antics of an adolescent. (For information on Normal Adolescence, please refer to the first tipsheet in this series on Adolescence: When Adolescence Strikes.)

Sudden Changes in Mood

Since you know your child best, you will usually know how far is too far when it comes to their moods and states of mind. But, as with children and adults alike, when mood changes become too extreme, or are accompanied by unhealthy ways of coping, it’s time to intervene.

Symptoms of depression/anxiety include:

  • Extreme changes in appetite/weight
  • Prolonged sense of hopelessness
  • Extreme changes in sleep patterns
  • Prolonged social withdrawal
  • Panic attacks
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

Examples of unhealthy coping:

  • Self-harm (scratching, burning, cutting, deliberately causing him/herself physical pain)
  • Eating disorder behaviors (binging/purging, excessive dieting or not eating, excessive use of laxatives or diet pills, compulsively exercising to lose weight)
  • Alcohol or drug dependence (reliance on substances as a means of coping)
  • Excessive physical aggression (physically harming peers, adults, siblings, or animals as a means of managing difficult feelings)
  • Suicidal or homicidal threats, gestures or attempts (can be verbal, physical, text messages, on Facebook, etc.)

Decreased Energy

If your child is sleeping more than you can tolerate, or their energy shifts dramatically (i.e., going days without sleeping, then “crashing”), there may be more going on that is worth looking into. Substance

abuse or a developing depression or anxiety problem may be contributing to these erratic patterns, and a call to LifeScope or a visit to your child’s primary care physician may be good starting points.

More Focus on Romantic Interests

If you notice an exorbitant amount of time and energy going towards the love interest, while an equal amount of time and energy is being taken away from school, hobbies, or self-care, it may be time to intervene and enforce limits. Additionally, you should watch out for red flags in the behavior of your child’s boyfriend/girlfriend (i.e., excessive calls, texting or emails, excessive visits, ‘stalking’ behaviors, threats, not accepting a break-up, etc.).

More Focus on Friends than Family

This is another tough judgment call. As the parent, you must decide where the limits are (i.e., curfew, unsupervised social time, what types of activities your child engages in with his friends, whether he goes out before or after homework time, etc.). Scheduling family time may be a good way to offset the family getting “lost in the shuffle” of the adolescent’s social life. To some parents the concern does not lie in the amount of time spent with friends as much as it does in the repercussions of the peer group (i.e., do they have a positive or negative influence?).


When it comes to secrecy in an adolescent, the subject matter is more pertinent than the secrecy itself. Some topics are just plain embarrassing for teens, so keeping information from you in and of itself isn’t a red flag. However, it’s important that you keep a casual but close eye on some of the warning signs of a destructive lifestyle. Pay attention to how your teen looks physically. Are there changes to his weight, skin, hygiene, or overall appearance that concern you?

Trying on New Identities

Experimenting with new and different ‘hats’ is all part of the teen’s job to figure out who she is and who she isn’t. While some parents have a higher tolerance than others for their child’s blue hair, ripped clothing or unusual piercings, the bottom line is to keep your eye on what matters most: has this new image affected your teen’s self-esteem, value system or morals? Is the new look just a look, or does it reflect a change in how your teen feels or thinks about something? Is she trying to get your attention? These are all questions you should keep in your back pocket while allowing your child some room to explore her uniqueness.

Testing Limits

Challenging the rules is all part of growing up; however, there is a fine line between “challenging” and “disregarding” authority. If your child is frequently in detention, has started to be involved with the legal system, or is gravitating towards peers with these behaviors, it might be time to exert your power as the parent. Certainly don’t be afraid to use the “it takes a village” approach with your child: involve other relatives, neighbors, school officials, coaches, boss, etc., to create a united front among those who care about him.

Thinking More about Death

It can be unsettling to watch your child become downright intrigued with morbid subject matter. Sometimes this preoccupation can be innocent; sometimes it might reflect a deeper problem such as depression. See the signs of depression & self-harm above; these are not considered part of the normal adolescent curiosity about life/death and should not be overlooked by adults.

Curiosity about Alcohol/Drugs

We frequently hear it in public service commercials: knowledge is a parent’s biggest weapon in the fight against drug/alcohol abuse in children. It’s important to be in your teen’s ear just as often, if not more so, than his peers and the media, who often overtly or covertly encourage substance use among young people.

It is important to remember that you are the most important adult in your children’s lives. Listen to your instincts when it comes to your child’s ‘red flag’ words or behaviors. There are many resources to support you, the parent, as you try to guide your adolescent into adulthood. Besides family, friends, your doctor, school and religious supports, and LifeScope, here are some websites which might be useful:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This is a government website with excellent tipsheets and resources for understanding substance abuse and mental health concerns for all ages.

Focus Adolescent Services. This is commercial website which has extensive resources for understanding and getting help for adolescents in trouble.

American Academy of Pediatrics. This website provides many helpful tips on children’s health. This tipsheet addresses: Some Things You Should Know About Preventing Teen Suicide.


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