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When does normal teenage angst and moodiness become dangerous depression or anxiety? When does youthful experimentation with alcohol or drugs cross the line to something more serious and when does a teen’s expected preoccupation with personal appearance devolve into the scary beginnings of an eating disorder?

Adolescence can be tough and a little turbulence along the way is more normal than not. For parents, the trick is recognizing the difference between normal developmental bumps in the road and more serious behaviors and emotional states; and knowing when to handle things within the home and when to call in professional assistance.

Of course that’s a lot easier said than done.

With that in mind, here are some guidelines from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) on when to seek professional help for your teen son or daughter..

Signs That Your Adolescent Son or Daughter Needs Professional Help

It’s never easy to know when to seek a professional mental health evaluation, but on balance, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution. According to the AACAP, any of the following warning signs from adolescents and pre-adolescents may indicate the need for a professional mental health evaluation, particularly if worrisome behaviors have persisted for some time and/or if others have also expressed concern about your child’s emotional health.

Warning signs include:

  • A sudden drop in school performance
  • A sudden change in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Your son or daughter seems unable to deal with the normal challenges of life
  • Problems with concentration that are affecting your child’s performance at school or which are causing difficulties at home
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Repeated use (abuse) of alcohol or drugs
  • Signs of depression, such as a lasting negative mood and attitude, sleeping problems, low appetite and a preoccupation with death
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Acting out sexually
  • Feelings of anxiety that interfere with your child’s ability to participate at school or in normal social activities
  • Making threats of self harm or threats of hurting other people
  • Making repeated threats about running away from home
  • A strong fear of getting fat, especially when that fear is not grounded in a reality of weight gain and especially when that fear is accompanied by persistent dieting or purging.
  • Self injury (cutting, for example)
  • Reoccurring acts which violate the rights of others, whether violent or non violent in nature - such as vandalism, theft, skipping school and opposition to legitimate authority
  • Reoccurring outbursts of anger or extreme aggression
  • Very unusual thoughts, beliefs or behaviors

Seeking a professional mental health evaluation, whether ultimately needed or not, is always preferable to taking the risk of ignoring something serious.

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Page last updated Apr 15, 2024

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