It can be a challenge to distinguish between healthy teen behavior, and something worrying. Teens are going through constant change, coming to terms with their place in the world and learning to cope with growing responsibilities as they mature. It can be a tumultuous period, and they’re sure to make mistakes, not take risks seriously, or get into trouble from time to time.
But parents have a responsibility to shield their teens from real harm and differentiate between normal growing pains and the signs of a more serious issue. Most parents aren’t medical professionals – but you don’t need a degree to catch a few red flags in teenage behavior. It’s important for parents to be aware of these warning signs and act if they suspect their teenager is struggling with a mental health problem.
In this article, we’re exploring some of the most common red flags in teenage behavior.
Red Flags in Teenage Behavior
Understanding teenage behavior can be challenging as adolescents go through significant emotional, mental, and physical changes. While mood swings and a desire for more independence are common, there are certain “red flags” to watch out for that might indicate more serious issues.
Sudden or dramatic changes in behavior, like a consistently high-performing student’s grades plummeting or a once sociable teenager becoming withdrawn and isolating themselves, could be signs of distress. Persistent feelings of sadness, irritability, or extreme mood swings may indicate depression or another mental health issue. Unexplained weight loss or changes in eating habits can signal eating disorders. Drug and alcohol use, frequent aggressive behavior, or acts of defiance could suggest substance abuse or conduct problems. If your teenager talks about self-harm, or suicide, or shows signs of self-inflicted injury, immediate professional help is needed.
Remember, early intervention is key, so if these red flags appear, consider seeking professional help.
Below, you will find 20 red flags in teenage behavior to consider.
1. Eating Habits
You are what you eat – but in some cases, teens take that advice a little too literally. Eating disorders are primarily common among adolescents and early adults and are some of the most physically harmful mental health issues. The starting signs of an eating disorder are extremely rigid eating restrictions, such as only consuming one or two types of foods, or excessive calorie-tracking (with poor health results).
2. Sleep Problems
Teens need sleep – but it’s no secret that they don’t get enough of it. Lack of sleep can heavily contribute to the onset of mental health issues due to increased physical and mental stress. Lack of sleep also affects cognition, mood, and physical processes, from growth to recovery.
3. Loss of Interest
It’s normal for children and teens to be interested in different things as they grow older. But it’s less normal for teens to lose all interest in something they loved doing, with no direct replacement. A sudden loss of interest or anhedonia can be a sign of depression.
4. Social Withdrawal
Some teens are more socially awkward than others. Introverted or extroverted traits are represented equally in most groups and are nothing to worry about. But when your teen struggles massively with meeting new people, suffers from paranoia about what others might think, and feels haunted by a constant dread or worry about other people’s perspectives and expectations, there might be more going on under the surface. Furthermore, total social isolation is a dangerous red flag.
5. Mood Swings
Teens are notorious for being moody, but there’s a difference between a willful teen and a teen struggling to control their emotions at every turn. Inconsistent moods and drastic changes day-to-day, as well as long-term shifts in overall mood (from extreme lows, such as depression, to periods of extreme highs, called mania), may be signs of something more serious.
Irritability in a teen – especially coupled with physical outbursts, emotional tantrums, abuse, and violence – is a serious red flag for a mental health issue, such as a personality disorder.
7. Substance Use
Most people have had a drink before the legal age, and an increasing number of teens have tried drugs like marijuana. Experimenting with substances is nothing new – but it’s still dangerous and can quickly lead to more serious substance use problems. Signs of ongoing substance use need to be addressed immediately.
Self-harm comes in many different shapes and forms. Common ones include cutting or burning/branding, but teens may also pull their own hair out, cause scarring by picking at their skin, or hurt themselves unconventionally. Self-harm is also recognized as non-suicidal self-injury – meaning the intention is never to take a life, but to experience pain, whether physical or emotional.
9. Suicidal Ideation
In contrast to non-suicidal self-injury, suicidal ideation refers to making plans or thinking about suicide. It can be difficult to tell what a teen is thinking – but if they are consistently referring to suicide or talking about death, they may have a suicidal plan in their mind.
10. Loss of Concentration
It’s normal for teens to be a bit scatterbrained from time-to-time. But if your teen is consistently losing the plot, not paying attention, forgetting when or where they are, or otherwise appearing disoriented or out of it, there may be something seriously preoccupying them – or they may be experiencing dissociation.
11. Academic Problems
A bad report card isn’t a sign of a mental health problem – but a drop from straight As to Cs and worse may be a natural cause for concern with most parents and teachers.
12. Lack of Hygiene and Self-Neglect
Lack of hygiene and self-neglect are common signs of depression. When depression reaches its peak, getting out of bed can feel like an insurmountable task, let alone grabbing a shower and a fresh change of clothes, or thinking about makeup.
13. Panic Attacks and Severe Anxiety
A panic attack is a violent physical reaction with a mental cause, with or without a specific trigger. Panic attacks can occur out of nowhere and can even feel like a heart attack at the moment. They often involve hyperventilation and chest tightness.
14. Body Image Obsessions
Many teens are vain – and there’s nothing unnatural about being preoccupied with your self-image, whether to impress others or feed an ego. But an obsession with self-image or body image can be a serious sign of something deeper, especially in combination with erratic changes in behavior, severe self-harm or suicidal ideation, or strange eating rituals.
15. Hallucinations and Delusions
Seeing and hearing things that aren’t there or misremembering or misinterpreting reality are serious red flags for a psychotic disorder. These include conditions like schizophrenia, which affect a person’s perception or the world.
16. Excessive and Inappropriate Worries
Generalized anxiety is characterized by an overwhelming and constant blanket of worry or dread. It’s okay to be anxious about something here and there, but if every waking moment involves worry, something more serious is afoot.
17. Emotional Dysregulation
Teens can be emotional powder kegs sometimes – but emotional dysregulation involves an inability to keep your emotions at bay, and often co-occurs alongside hefty mood swings and anger issues.
18. Harmful Perfectionism
It’s usually good to be tidy or diligent and to see things through. But when perfection comes at the cost of physical and mental health, it can be a sign of a deeper problem.
19. Sudden Increase in Risky Behavior
Teens aren’t always careful. In fact, they often struggle to process risk in the same way as adults and lack some of the neural pathways needed to fully comprehend the gravity of their actions or the consequences of their choices. However, when a teen consistently puts themselves in danger while knowing it, they may be actively seeking that risk.
20. Relationship Struggles
Teenagers making the transition from childhood to adulthood must contend with rapid changes in social cues and communication year after year. For some teens, it can be difficult to keep up. In other cases, interpersonal connections become harder and harder to achieve due to underlying mental health issues, affecting a teen’s sense of empathy, or causing their behavior to become increasingly hostile towards others.
Not All Red Flags Are Equal
A red flag is not a diagnosis of a mental health problem. These are signs that your teen might be struggling with a mental health issue, but not a guarantee.
Not all of the red flags listed above are an immediate sign of something pathological. Being sad for a period of time, struggling to make friends after moving someplace new, anxious over the midterms, or having difficulty concentrating on upcoming exams constitute normal struggles for teens.
Parents should consider talking to their teen about counseling or professional help when these signs become concurrent or prevalent over months and years, and a simple change of pace or vacation isn’t cutting it.
When Should You Seek Professional Help?
When it comes to taking care of your own mental health, there are many things you can try out. Going for walks in the park, exercising a little more, eating a healthier diet, or improving your sleep hygiene can do wonders for your mood.
However, home remedies often fall short of actively improving symptoms of a serious mental health issue, especially when the condition can cause impairment at school or at work. Teens with ongoing anxiety or depressive symptoms, a history of self-harm, or episodes of psychosis will require a concurrent and intensive treatment plan. Trust your best judgment: if you aren’t sure if your teen needs professional help, it might be the right time to go and ask a professional.