Raising a teenager can be challenging enough on a good day, let alone when they suffer with mental health and or addiction struggles.
We long for our “little girl or boy”, the sweet and compliant child in awe of their parents. But, every parent who has lived through the teen years can tell you about their day of reckoning, the grim day when your child suddenly knows everything and you know nothing because you just don’t understand!
The struggle for a parent is found in the tension between meeting your teens need for independence with your own need to remain in control of their safety and well being. How do we keep them safe and out of harms way? We worry about whether or not they will be influenced by their peers. Have we taught them all they need to know? How do we navigate their constantly changing moods?
These are tough questions to answer as parents and the answer lies in how well we prepare them. The morals and values we instill in them, the ways that we model coping, communication, and resiliency skills, all matter. When we are confident that we have prepared them, we can then allow them to live their life not ours, and I repeat living their life, and hope that if there are any mistakes made that they are not too costly.
The truth is, the world of a teenager is complex, challenging and a constant emotional roller coaster. Given the myriad of things that a teen is navigating each day, it is no wonder that they can become sullen, moody, aloof, and uncommunicative.
It is important for me to remind you, I am not an expert in child and adolescent psychology, psychiatry or social work but I am a parent who has lived experience with my own three children (3 entirely different individuals). In my both my work and personal life, I have supported families who have experienced severe and problematic behaviors with their children.
As a parent, how do you distinguish between a moody teenager and a youth struggling with their mental health? What signs should we be looking for?
- Look for trends. Consistent behaviour over time, that is out of the ordinary, overly intense, or a marked decline in behaviour is a good indicator that your teen is in trouble.
- Change in behaviors – change of friends, skipping school, grades dropping, a sudden hyper focus on one topic, loss of interest in regular activities; sports, dance, etc. and defiant behavior
- Alcohol or drug use
- Mood changes – depression, anxiety, excessive anger
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Contact with the law
- Health issues
You see all behaviour has a purpose, and your teen may be trying to get your attention. Pause and really examine what is happening. Talk to someone. Share what you are seeing and hearing from your child. Get the perspectives of others. Most importantly, listen to your gut. Listen to the voice that comes from the core of your body to confirm what you know and feel is going on with your child. Let the voice of your instinct temper the voice of reason in your head that can make excuses and dismiss those things that may be painful, inconvenient, outside of your plan. It can be so challenging for us as parents to fully comprehend that our child may not be telling us the truth. We are so blinded by our love for them it is difficult to see the situation for what it truly is.
- Be nosey. Ask questions, lots of questions. Ask them what is going on. They may not answer at first, but keep asking them. Each day that you ask, your teen hears “I care.”
- Frame your questions so that they are open ended and cannot be answered with a yes or no alone.
- Their communication can be complex and includes what they say to you, what they say to others, the lyrics of their music, the tweets and posts that they broadcast to the world.
- Call them out on their behaviour. Do not ignore it, as this only condones the behaviour.
- Say, “I noticed that you came home drunk last night, tell my more?” or “I don’t see you hanging out with Sarah anymore, what’s up?”
- Ask, how can I help?
The teen years are the most challenging times for all and a sense of humour will be much needed so that you can run that extra mile. Try not to let fear guide your decisions, pay attention to the situation at hand and reach out for professional help. Let your son or daughter know that your love is unconditional and that this difficult time is part of your journey together as a family. Tell them that you are there for them, no matter what.
Make clear to them, they are not wrong or broken and that there is help.
You will find the help. You are the help.
When our children struggle, we turn a critical eye inward and question what we did wrong. We replay in our minds ever action, conversation, and search our memories for what we should have seen as clues.
Recognizing the signs above, and listening to your heart and mind together will lead you to know if your child is caught up in the day to day struggles of teenhood or whether you may need to see professional help to support your child. 1 in every 5 people struggle with mental health and addiction issues according to the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health. If not your teenager then certainly the child of someone you know will be impacted.
Watch, Listen, Talk, this is how you will know if your teen is struggling but also, how you will know who your teen is and this, is the best way to know if they are in trouble.