Time in with Dr. Tim
All parents have moments when they wish they could consult with an expert. If you have a question about your tween or teen’s behavior, send it to Dr.Tim@youthvillages.org. If Dr. Tim and his staff of experts feature your question in a column, he’ll change names and other specifically identifying information. For more: www.youthvillages.org; www.janiesfund.org.
Question: I’ve heard so much on the news lately about teenagers hurting themselves or other people because of mental health problems. How do you know when a teenager’s problems are serious or when they’re just blowing off steam or going through the normal angst of growing up?
Dr. Tim: All parents of teenagers worry about this. Is a teen moody or really depressed? Are friend breakups serious or just a part of growing up and finding new interests? Is an angry outburst hormones or something more dangerous?
When do you take a teen’s behavior seriously? All the time.
You’ve got to take everything your teen does or says seriously – just like you did when they were younger. Neuroscience tells us that adolescent brains are still developing, with the part of the brain that allows for good decision making and clear evaluation of personal risk developing last. As your children grow up, you parent in a different way, but your guidance and oversight of their safety is as important as ever.
What should you look for? Look for significant changes in the way your child behaves. Is your normally outgoing son beginning to spend almost all of his time alone? Is there a room in the house that’s off limits to you? Have your daughter’s friends changed? Does she have any friends?
Because every child is different, your child may show different signs. Is he sleeping too much or not enough? Is she taking risks or making plans to do unusual things? Has he lost interest in things he used to enjoy? Is he eating as usual?
Sometimes teens who are experiencing mental problems may lash out in uncontrollable rage. They may begin to cut themselves or hurt others. They may have no plans for the future or plans that are grandiose and unrealistic. Following them on Facebook, Instagram or YouTube can give you insights. Keep talking with your teen, doing careful, intentional listening.
When should you call for professional help? It’s always better to be safe than so very sorry.
Youth Villages operates crisis response services for children under age 18 in many areas of Tennessee. In that state, a call is answered by a triage counselor who may be able to assuage your fears and point you to the right help in your community. We believe that intensive in-home services and community-based care are the best options for most teens. Often an in-home or crisis specialist can spot safety issues in your home that you may not see.
In other states, crisis hotlines are available or you can ask your child’s pediatrician for recommendations. If you ever feel your child is a danger to himself or others, call 911 and ask for an immediate connection to appropriate help in your community. Being attentive to our teens as carefully as we watched them when they were toddlers will always pay off.