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Is Your Teen Troubled, or Typical? Here’s How to Tell

Adolescence is a difficult time. Adolescents are transitioning from childhood to adulthood, and dealing with tough physical, hormonal, and mental changes. They’re establishing their independence and attempting to withdraw from their parents and become adults. It’s normal for teens going through this process to become moody, emotional, irrational, inconsistent, rebellious, argumentative, and generally hard to get along with.

But sometimes, teen rebelliousness isn’t a sign of normal adolescent development but rather it’s a sign that your teen is in serious trouble. It can be hard to tell the difference between normal teen rebelliousness and genuine mental, emotional, or personality problems. It’s normal for teens to have mood swings, to argue with their parents, and to experiment with seemingly bizarre fashion statements. Troubled teens, though, may use alcohol and drugs habitually, have trouble following rules or maintaining relationships, and show signs of seriously problematic behavior or mental illness symptoms.

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Extreme Changes in Appearance

Teens are very concerned with fashion and trends, and they’ll naturally want to wear the latest clothing, accessories and hairstyles. You may be shocked and even scandalized by some of the outfits and hairstyles your teen sees fit to wear out of the house. But by and large, you don’t need to be worried about the clothes, jewelry, accessories, or hairstyles your teen is wearing. If you think about it, you probably wore some pretty outrageous stuff when you were that age.

However, if your teen is exhibiting drastic physical changes, like extreme weight gain or weight loss, it may be time to seek professional help for him or her. Extreme weight gain or weight loss can be a sign of an eating disorder or a substance abuse problem. You should also be on the lookout for signs of cutting or other forms of self-harm. A teen who is self-harming may wear long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather, to hide signs of injury.

Trouble at School or Home

Any teen could have an occasional problem with a classmate or teacher; that will eventually work itself out. Teens may struggle academically as they transition into more advanced high school classes, or they may need help coping with the pressure of preparing for college. But these are normal problems that all teens might face.

A teen who is truly troubled will have problems following rules at home and at school. Some teens may have trouble following rules but never attempt to harm themselves or anyone else, while other teens will be actually violent. A troubled teen may be intelligent and perfectly capable of completing school work, but will nevertheless be unwilling to finish assignments. Serious problems may include skipping school, breaking the law, getting in fights, escalating arguments with parents, threatening others, and damaging property. At home, a troubled teen may make it difficult, if not impossible, for the family to function. Troubled teens may have problems making or keeping friends, or may only have friends who are clearly a bad influence.

Habitual Drug and Alcohol Use

Normal teens may experiment a little with drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. But typically, talking to your teens about the consequences of substance abuse will be enough to make them rein in their experiments.

A troubled teen may use alcohol or drugs, even hard drugs, regularly. If habitual substance abuse is accompanied by a change in friends, issues at school or home, personality changes, or other troubling changes in behavior, it could be a sign of a substance abuse disorder.

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Mental Illness Symptoms

It’s normal for teens to have trouble managing their emotions and to have temper tantrums and mood swings. But a troubled teen will experience overwhelming anxiety, persistent sadness, or problems sleeping that could indicate something’s wrong. Sleeping too much could also be a sign of mental illness in teens. But these symptoms could also indicate bullying, too much academic stress, or other concerns that aren’t indicative of mental illness. It’s important not to take symptoms out of context; sleeping too much on its own probably means your teen just needs a little extra rest right now, but if it’s accompanied by behavioral changes and problems at school, it could be a sign of a deeper problem. No matter what, never brush off talk of suicide.

No matter how well-adjusted your teen is, you can expect a little difficult behavior during adolescence. It’s normal for teens to have mood swings and butt heads with their parents, but if your teen is having problems functioning, it could a sign of a serious problem. Know how to tell when your teen is truly troubled, so you can get them the help they need.