Teenage Mental Health: Red Flags Every Parent Should Watch For

by Nancy Reynolds

This post: Teenage Mental Health: Red Flags Every Parent Should Watch For

By Arastou Aminzadeh, M.D.

Raising teenagers can be the most vexing phase of parenting. Most parents remember their own struggles during the tumultuous teen years and brace themselves for those four or five years when their own teen might act out or meltdown on a regular basis. 

 True, certain characteristics of the teen years are timeless, such as moodiness, sassing back, and social dramas. But in the 21st century, teenage mental health has become more concerning than in years past.

Teens today have a very different landscape to navigate than their parents had in the 80s or 90s. Adolescents now grapple with more intense academic pressure, but may not have the support they need to manage it. This can lead to chronic stress and a lack of confidence. In addition to heightened stress, today’s teens live in the land of the smartphone, with all that goes along with the omnipresent online existence.

Social media pressures, exposure to adult content, and constant distractions can have negative effects on adolescents.

Gaining a general understanding of the warning signs that may indicate that your teen is struggling with a mental health disorder can allow you to be proactive in obtaining help for your child. Undiagnosed and untreated mental health conditions often worsen, leading to substance abuse, declining academic performance, and more serious mental illness. The sooner professional intervention is provided, the better the chances are of diverting any condition that may seep into adulthood.


Teen Mental Health Red Flags

It may be difficult to discern whether your teen’s behavior is just typical for their age or a reason to worry. When unsure, it helps to pay attention to the length of time the concerning behaviors have persisted. Chances are that when there is a protracted change in habits and a significant decline in social activity, your teen should be evaluated by a doctor. Some mental health warning signs include:

  • Changes in sleep patterns. Teens may sleep excessively or experience insomnia.
  • Isolating and social withdrawal. Declining social invitations, avoiding family members, no interest in attending school events.
  • Loss of interest in usual activities. Loss of interest in extracurricular activities or hobbies.
  • Significant decline in grades. Declining academic performance that persists and worsens.
  • Changes in eating patterns. They may lose their appetite and show sudden weight loss, or may experience an increased appetite and swiftly gain weight.
  • Vague physical ailments. Teens may complain of stomach issues, headaches, and fatigue.
  • Interpersonal problems. They may begin to have social difficulties, relationship issues. They may be bullied or be the bully.
  • Substance abuse. Emotional distress may turn to marijuana, pills, or alcohol to self-medicate.
  • Aggressive or violent behavior. They may exhibit uncharacteristic aggressive behaviors.
  • Self-harming behavior. Self-inflicted injuries by cutting, scratching, burning, or biting themselves.
  • Reckless behavior. Teens may exhibit impulsive, reckless behaviors such as reckless driving, driving under the influence, promiscuous sex, and illegal activities.
  • Lack of interest in appearance. Loss of interest in maintaining their appearance or personal hygiene.

Common Mental Health Disorders Among Teens

There are certain mental health disorders that are common in teens: 

  • Teen Anxiety. The most common teen anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, and panic disorder. Generally, the symptoms involve excessive worry or fear, irritability, racing heart, shortness of breath, sweating, feelings of dread, and avoidance behaviors.
  • Teen Depression. Symptoms of teen depression include feelings of sadness or despair, fatigue, change in appetite and eating habits, sleep problems, decreased interest in the hobbies or activities usually enjoyed, difficulty concentrating, a negative view of self, and thoughts of suicide.
  • Bipolar Disorder. This mood disorder is often misdiagnosed as ADHD or depression. It features symptoms of extreme mood shifts between mania or hypomania, and depression that may cycle rapidly. 
  • Borderline Personality Disorder. This disorder features extreme emotional reactions, a distorted self-image, intense fear of rejection or abandonment, difficulty bonding with others, and narcissism. 
  • PTSD. Trauma disorder results from exposure to an intensely disturbing or shocking event, such as physical or sexual assault or abuse, death of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a serious auto accident. This can lead to nightmares, flashbacks, mood swings, anxiety, impulsive behaviors, and avoidance behaviors.
  • ADHD. Symptoms include difficulty staying on task or concentrating, easily distracted, forgetfulness, impulsivity, disorganization, and hyperactivity.

Outpatient and Residential Treatment for Teen Mental Health Condition

When a parent becomes aware that their teen is in distress, a medical exam is a good starting point. A physician will conduct an exam and order blood tests to determine whether a health issue is at the root of the presenting mental health symptoms. Certain underlying medical conditions, such as thyroid conditions or hormone imbalances, can cause psychological symptoms. If a medical problem is ruled out, the doctor will likely refer the teen to a mental health professional for further evaluation. 

Outpatient treatment

In most cases, a teen struggling with a mental health disorder will have the condition managed through private outpatient services. A psychiatrist who specializes in pediatric psychiatry will provide a treatment protocol, which may involve medications. Whether or not medications are prescribed, the teen will usually begin to see the therapist on a regular basis. Some teens will benefit from group therapy as well.

There are more intensive outpatient services available for teen mental health treatment. These services may be provided at an outpatient mental health center and involve more treatment hours.

Residential treatment

In some cases, the teen mental health disorder may deteriorate regardless of outpatient interventions. The teen may be exhibiting serious symptoms, such as threatening suicide, acting out violently, intensified self-harming behaviors, or signs of psychoses. Other teens may simply not be responding effectively to outpatient treatment efforts and need a more intensive program.

A residential teenage mental health program offers a focused, individualized treatment approach. These programs may involve extended stays, which allow the teen to attend to their emotional issues away from the daily stressors at home or school. Intensive psychotherapy, group therapy, family therapy, and experiential activities provide a comprehensive treatment approach that can help restore functioning and mental wellness.

About Dr. Arastou Aminzadeh

Dr. Arastou Aminzadeh is a triple board-certified physician in psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, and addiction medicine, and is the co-founder of BNI Treatment Centers in Agoura Hills, California.

If you enjoyed “Teenage Mental Health: Red Flags Every Parent Should Watch For,” here are a few other posts you may enjoy reading: 

Teen Suicide and Depression: Answering the Quiet Calls for Help

Dear Daughter, You Don’t Need My Permission to Take a Mental Health Day

6 Self-Love Strategies to Help Your Teen Stay Mentally and Emotionally Strong

10 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Your Teen’s Brain

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