Teenage Mental Health: Common vs. Concerning Behaviors

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READING TIME: 4 min.

teen boy staring out window in profile, teen mental health concerns

The teenage years can be difficult. And I’m not talking about the parenting piece, I mean being a teenager is sometimes hard. Because we expect the teenage years to be a bit rocky, it’s common for parents to mistake mental health red flags for typical teenage behavior. Here are some ways to help distinguish what is common versus what is concerning.

Teenage Mental Health: 4 Factors to Consider

Friendships

It’s common for friendships to shift as your child transitions from middle school to high school. As much as you like the friends your child had in elementary and middle school, be mindful that supporting your child’s choice to expand their friendships is important. Get to know these new friends and their parents or guardians. 

What can be concerning is any abrupt changes in friendships. Did your social butterfly all of a sudden become a child who stays in their room all of the time? Have you noticed that invitations or gatherings from seemingly important friendships have stopped? Consider factors that might impact friendships, such as changing schools or commitments to sports or extracurricular activities. 

Grades

It’s common for grades to slip, especially as the courses get more challenging. Your teen is adjusting to the rigor of each class and teacher. High school experiences of today differ greatly from the experiences of 20 years ago. As long as your student typically performs in a range that seems appropriate, don’t let minor grade fluctuations alarm you. Also consider that an educational experience is more than just working for grades. School offers our students the ability to refine social skills, strengthen problem-solving muscles, and build resiliency when things don’t go their way. 

However, major changes to school report cards are something not to ignore. Failing a test for the first time may not be a huge deal. But failing an entire class demands some attention. And before you start to cheer on your straight-A, never-tardy, never-misses-a-class kind of student, consider the impact this behavior or cognitive framework has on their overall mental health. Teenagers are humans, not robots. Teenagers need rest, despite their endless supply of energy some days. Don’t confuse hard working with perfection seeking. A hard-working student is aware of their limitations and can honor boundaries. A student who strives for perfection ignores their body’s signals for rest and compassion and is highly critical of themselves or others. 

Impulsivity

It is developmentally appropriate for teenagers to be impulsive. Teenage brains are still developing. Even the most mature, respectful, caring teenager can do things that make you question: What were you thinking? This is because impulsivity is part of the developing brain, not a defect in character. 

But not all choices carry the same weight. Impulsive behavior can also be hallmark signs of several behavioral, personality, or mood disorders. In these instances, it’s important to notate the severity and frequency of the impulsive behaviors. If you notice a pattern of impulsive behavior centered around high-risk choices or aggression, it might be important to consult with a mental health professional. Another metric to use when distinguishing common versus concerning is the impact these choices have on your child’s life. Are impulsive decisions affecting their education or relationships or compromising important goals? 

Mood

Not all teenagers are super moody, at least not all the time. But it’s typical for there to be days where their mood seems especially off. When you consider all of the stressors that today’s teens live with, from academic competitiveness, the impact of social media, and their awareness of global events, it’s not surprising that some days stress will win. Rapid and intense mood shifts are not uncommon at this stage in life. 

Pay close attention to periods of moodiness and unhealthy behaviors. Isolating themselves from family or friends, having difficulty initiating or completing daily life activities, or disengaging from highly preferred activities can be warning signs of something more serious than typical teenage moodiness. If you suspect or acknowledge that shifts in mood are affecting multiple areas of their life, such as school, home, friendships, work, or extracurricular activities, stay curious.

Unless there is a diagnosis from a mental health professional or doctor, avoid using words like depressed, ADHD, or bipolar to describe particular behaviors. Whether the behavior is common or concerning, all teenagers benefit from adults in their lives who meet them where they are with no judgment. If the teenager in your home could benefit from additional support, you can find mental health resources at websites like Psychology Today or Therapy Den. Your insurance company may also have a list of in-network providers in your area.

Related: 7 Tips to Help Teens Transition to a New School

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