So You're Raising an Adolescent
by Daniel Summers, M.D., F.A.A.P
Board-certified in Adolescent Medicine
Help! My child is becoming a teenager!
First of all, don't panic. As countless parents can tell you, teenagers sometimes get a bad rap. Despite what you may have heard, many kids and their parents make it through adolescence without all the drama that you may be expecting. As your children make the transition into adulthood, you may find their maturing perspectives and developing sense of themselves exciting and enjoyable. Adolescence doesn't necessarily mean arguments and turmoil! However, it's also important to remember that there are a lot of perfectly normal changes that may still be challenging. During the teenage years, kids become more and more concerned with their friends and less interested in things at home. As normal as this shift may be, it can still be difficult to see your son or daughter choose to spend almost all of their time away from you. Creating space for this change while still preserving family time may help prevent conflict, and give your child some of the independence he or she is seeking.
As you probably recall from your own years as a teenager, this is a period when your child will want increasing amounts of freedom. Finding the balance between parents' concerns about health and safety, schoolwork and chores, etc and kids' desire to do what they want can be difficult. If there are areas where greater freedom seems appropriate, and if there are guidelines where negotiation is reasonable, increasing some of your son or daughter's ability to make their own decisions may also help prevent conflict. If your child has demonstrated a pattern of good decision-making over time, more autonomy is a sensible response.
Of course, the reverse is also true. The teenage brain is still developing, and the areas that help with good decision-making are still in the process of maturing. Add in the normal surges and fluctuations in hormone levels, and some adolescents make choices that can have serious consequences. While to some extent your child should be allowed to learn from his or her own mistakes, obviously we want to keep our kids from making decisions that can seriously affect their health, well-being or future success. It's important that you remain engaged with your teenager, and stay informed about friends, activities and academic performance. Your kids may find your desire to be involved in their lives annoying or embarrassing, but in the end will appreciate knowing that you're still looking out for them.
What should I be concerned about?
As mentioned above, don't be surprised if your child doesn't want to be as open with you as he or she may have been until now. However, certain things may be warning flags that something more serious that normal development is going on.
Any abrupt change in personality warrants concern. If your previously happy and social child suddenly withdraws from you, it's a reason to look closer. The same holds true for a rapid decline in school performance, isolation from friends (or a large change in who your child spends time with), lack of interest in previously-enjoyed activities, or any surprising and worrisome alteration from the norm that comes out of the blue. Some mental health disorders such as depression can develop during adolescence, and it's important for these kids that they be appropriately diagnosed and treated. Substance abuse can also be the source of some of the changes described above. Help is available for kids who are having mental health problems, and it's very important that radical shifts in behavior or personality are not simply written off as "difficult" adolescent behavior.
What should I do if I'm really concerned?
If you are worried that your child is an immediate threat to him/herself or someone else, then having them evaluated immediately in an Emergency Department is the best choice. If you need emergency assistance, call 911.
Thankfully, situations where this is necessary are quite rare. Even for adolescents who are struggling with serious mental health issues, starting with an office visit with their regular provider is a good option. If we meet with you and your child and feel that urgent evaluation is necessary, we'll help you find the best resources available. We may refer you to a mental health professional such as a psychologist, therapist or psychiatrist, depending on what the specific problems may be. Whatever your concerns, please remember that we are here to help you however we can.