As a parent, I can't imagine how hard it is to always recognize when your teen is struggling. The parents I work with often shame themselves for "not catching it sooner." They say, "I had no idea she/he was having a hard time until she asked me to take her to see someone." My response usually is, "I'm so glad she asked and I'm so glad you listened."
The truth is you aren't always going to know. You will do the best you can and you will do what you can. Our job is to be curious, to ask questions and to believe them.
There are signs you can look out for (see below) that will help guide you to dig deeper into possible changes within your teen.
They flat out tell you they are struggling.
Nobody knows us better than we know ourselves. Most teens find it difficult to reach out for help and they find it even more difficult to admit that they are not feeling well emotionally. A big reason why this happens is because there are so many outside forces that make it difficult for them to trust others and vulnerability can feel more excruciating than suffering in silence. So, when they finally muster up the courage to share, we should listen, empathize and believe them.
They keep declining outings with friends and family.
Teens can find it difficult to be around others when they are not feeling emotionally well. They avoid their friends and family because they are anxious that others will pick up on their sadness and "ask too many questions." This can look like hiding out in their room all night and weekend, not wanting to join the family for dinner, choosing to do homework instead of socializing or connecting with friends and they may even spend most of their free time sleeping.
They start to miss a lot of school and the reasons are unexplained such as, "I'm tired. My head hurts. I feel sick. I just need a day off, I'll go tomorrow."
Now, your teen may legitimately be sick in which case they should be seen by a physician. However, if they are finding reasons why they can't go to school more often than not, it is likely that something else is going on. The reasons why teens avoid school can vary greatly from avoiding a test because they haven't studied, feeling too stressed and overwhelmed because of academic pressure, maybe they are being bullied, difficulty in romantic relationships and/or friendships, etc.
There are clear changes in eating and sleeping habits.
Some teens may suddenly exhibit insomnia and have difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep. It's also true that some teens may sleep far more than usual. If there are sudden changes in their activity level then this may also be a sign that something else is going on. Some examples include; they are slow to move, they are feeling lethargic and are expressing being tired frequently even though they are sleeping a whole lot.
Their plans for the future have changed dramatically in a short amount of time.
This tends to happen with older teens who are getting close to graduation. If your teen has been talking a lot about their plans after high school and they have expressed excitement, hope and motivation but then all of a sudden have no desire to do anything after high school and "just want to take a break," this can be concerning. Decreased motivation, a loss of hope over the future and a low sense of agency are all red flags to be aware of.
They are expressing irritability, anger or hostility more frequently.
Teens tend to feel very discouraged and they can develop an unusually negative attitude when there is a decline in their emotional health. This is usually because they are feeling guilty, worthless or hopeless. It often happens that they become very moody, agitated and irritable over the littlest things. Maybe you ask them a simple question like, "how was your day?" and they respond by either shutting down or yelling at you for simply asking the question in the first place.
If you suspect any of these signs and/or others you are aware of, bring up your concerns in a loving, non-judgmental way. It is possible that you're unsure if depression is the issue and even so, the signs you are seeing are troublesome and should be addressed.
Start by opening up a dialogue with your teen and let them know what specific symptoms you are noticing in them and why they worry you. Be sure to ask your teen to share what he or she is going through if they feel safe enough to do so. Be ready to listen. It can be tough to sit and listen knowing there isn't anything you can do to fix it right away. These things take time. Do your best and hold back from asking a lot of questions if they are not ready to divulge information. Do make it clear that you are ready and willing to provide whatever support they need.
Lastly, please know that there are a variety of mental health professionals in your local communities that are available to help. Some great resources for finding support are Psychology Today, the Integral Care 24/7 Crisis Hotline, 2-1-1 Texas and you can even contact us here at Colors of Austin Counseling for more resources and support.
You are not alone. We are here to help.