Typical Teen Behavior or Mental Illness?

Learn to Spot the Difference

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Only twenty percent of American adolescents go through their entire teen years with no symptoms of or impairment from mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Those who suffer recurring moderate to severe impairment are more likely to suffer into adulthood, making it an imperative to get teens the help they need and not write off mental illness as just “typical teen behavior.”

Popular culture and hazy memories of ‘back in my day’ have given many people a preconceived notion of what constitutes typical rebellious adolescence: moodiness, withdrawal from family, argumentative behavior, sleeping in late and maybe even getting into some harmless trouble. These growing pains come from a teenager attempting to learn their place in the coming adult world. Symptoms of mental illness, however, reflect poor coping abilities when confronted with stress and/or trauma.

These symptoms can be seen across many aspects of a teen’s life and commonly include anxiety, excessive or sudden crying, mood irritability, low energy (excessive sleep or insomnia), social withdrawal from family as well as peers, eating excessively or not enough, problems with emotion regulation, a drop in quality of schoolwork, negative thinking, direct or indirect suicidal statements (ex. “I wish I were dead”) and conduct or behavior problems related to school discipline or substance use. The presence of any one of these symptoms in isolation does not necessarily point to mental illness; however, parents should look for symptoms sustaining over a period of time and for multiple symptoms developing together.

It is also important to compare the development of symptoms with what was previously normal for the child. For example, a child who was always very outgoing and sociable, but now does not leave his or her room or hang out with friends, may be suffering. Conversely, a normally quiet and calm child who now has frequent irrational or angry outbursts could also be experiencing problems with mental illness. Sudden departures from previous behavior are strong indicators of mental illness.

“Generally, people, and adolescents specifically, make changes as they mature, but these are pretty gradual and not really significant changes in terms of their temperament or their personality. They remain consistent over time,” said Colleen F. Kubisch, MS, CNS, BC from the Center for Human Development. “So, when you see a dramatic or disruptive variability in behaviors, that’s when it’s cause for concern.”

If parents are noticing these changes and are worried about their child, it is natural to want to reach out and ask what is going on. However, they may fear that “prying” may cause their teen to emotionally withdraw further. Establishing and maintaining a rapport with teenage children can make it easier to notice changes in behavior and approach them when those changes are noticed. Increased communication and social support can also make a teen feel more comfortable reaching out for help when they need it and provide them a foundation from which they combat the effects of mental illness.

“Have family time where it’s not just about discipline or arguing about rules and regulations,” said Kubisch. “Family activities really help the family to communicate better and then allow the adolescent to be more open about what they might be struggling with.”

Being present, observant and communicative with your teen can make the difference for detecting mental illness.

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