By Michelle Moorhead, M.A., LPC, Executive Director of Teen Lifeline

Being the parent of a teenager is a difficult job. Many parents look at their stressed out teens and wonder what happened to their sweet child. The truth is, adolescence is a time of great change and, as soon as you think you have a handle on things, they change again. To put it simply, the teenage years are very complex, characterized by changes in physical, physiological, and cognitive development.

Considering how much the world we live in today has changed, it’s not enough to compare your teenage experience with your child’s. Teens today live in a world where everything is at the touch of their fingertips and, while some of these things can be helpful, other times it makes it hard to unplug and get away from all the “noise.”

As a parent, it is sometimes difficult to recognize which problems are typical versus those that are more serious. One of the most perplexing issues a parent faces is how to determine if their child is at risk for behaviors such as drug/alcohol abuse, school failure, depression, self-destructive behavior or suicide. There’s no right or wrong way to be a teenager, so how do you know if your teen is in trouble or if this is just a “normal” part of being a teen?

The key is to pay close attention to your teen. How frequently are they showing signs of distress?  Warning signs don’t usually show up just once; your teen may be in trouble if these signs continue for a few weeks and don’t go away. Take notice of how extreme the behavior is. If it’s extreme or vastly different from their usual behavior, then it might be a sign that your teen needs some help. Remember that no one sign means that there is a problem; you must pay attention to the nature, intensity, severity and duration of a behavior. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to act on them.

Getting through the teen years starts with open and honest communication, helping your child to develop positive coping skills, and ensuring they have a strong support system. When your concerns are more serious and you’re worried that your teen may be considering suicide, the first step in prevention is educating yourself on what to look for. Most teens that consider suicide do not want to die; they just want a way to end the pain. Knowing the signs can help you recognize the difference between typical problems and those that you need to take more seriously.

Watch and listen. Keep a close eye on a teen that seems depressed and withdrawn. Poor grades, for example, may signal that your teen is withdrawing at school. It’s important to keep the lines of communication open and express your concern, support, and love and not to minimize what your teen is going through, as this can increase his or her sense of hopelessness.

Ask questions: Some people think that by talking about suicide they are planting the idea of suicide in a child’s head. That’s not the case. It’s always a good idea to ask, even though it’s scary, “I’ve noticed you’ve been talking a lot about giving up. Have you been having thoughts of suicide?” Your language, tone of voice, and body language can allow your teen to open up or shut down. Be aware of the ways you are expressing yourself to your teen by utilizing nonjudgmental, supportive, and reflective language.

Get help: If you learn that your child is thinking about suicide, get help immediately. Your doctor or insurance carrier can refer you to a mental health professional. If you or your teen needs to talk to someone to get help, call Teen Lifeline at 602.248.8336.

Teen Lifeline’s mission is to provide a safe, confidential, and crucial crisis service where teens help teens make healthy decisions, together. For 31 years the hotline has been a CONNECTION OF HOPE for teens in crisis. Whatever the reason, we are here 365 days a year to listen and help. For more, visit www.teenlifeline.org/forparents.

Here are some concerning behaviors to watch out for:

  • Decrease in enjoyment and time spent with friends and family.
  • Significant decrease in school performance or absenteeism.
  • Problems with memory, attention or concentration.
  • Big changes in energy levels, eating or sleeping patterns.
  • Physical symptoms (stomach aches, headaches, etc.).
  • Feelings of hopelessness, sadness, anxiety, crying often.
  • Frequent aggression, disobedience or lashing out verbally.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Dangerous or illegal thrill-seeking behavior.
  • Is overly suspicious of others.

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