When to Have That Difficult Conversation to ‘Check In’ With Your Teen

How should parents know when to be concerned about their teen’s mental health? Actually, you are the best judge of this, in terms of your child’s behaviors and needs. If you notice a change, gradual or sudden, in your child’s behavior, attitude and demeanor, that’s a sign that you should do a check-in.

This is not to say that open, frequent and honest conversations should not characterize your parent-child relationship. Consider that a parental responsibility, although it is a choice. For the most part, parents should maintain open lines of communication with their children, even into adulthood. During the growing years, it is imperative.

Adolescence is a critical period for mental, social, and emotional well-being and development. During adolescence, the brain undergoes significant developmental changes, establishing neural pathways and behavior patterns that will last into adulthood.

  • Approximately 20% of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder. 
  • Many mental health disorders first present during adolescence. 

Between 20% and 30% of adolescents have one major depressive episode before they reach adulthood.  For a quarter of individuals with mood disorders like depression, these first emerge during adolescence.  Between 50% and 75% of adolescents with anxiety disorders and impulse control disorders (such as conduct disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) develop these during adolescence. 

These are some of the signs that your child may be struggling with his or her mental health in some way:

*If you notice extreme mood swings or irritability
*you see signs of sadness and/or withdrawal from social situations, particularly those which persist
*you notice extreme changes in eating habits, sleep patterns, or socializing, and self-care
*if your child is getting into fights or suddenly not getting along with others
*if your child becomes reckless, impulsive and displays out of control behaviors
*if your child seems more fearful and avoids certain events or environments, like school
*if there is difficulty with hygiene, and basic self-care
*if your child begins using drugs or alcohol or there are changes in patterns of use.

There may be other signs that you should pay closer attention to your child and have a difficult but necessary conversation with him or her. There may be signs that indicate the need for immediate assistance. If that is the case, then either call 911, visit your family doctor or seek out a mental health professional to conduct a formal assessment of any perceived, observed or stated ‘symptoms’.

If you find yourself doubtful that an immediate need for professional intervention exists, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. Trust your gut. It always better to be proactive than reactive-safe than sorry. Be appropriately responsive.

Before you jump the gun, if in doubt however, talk to your child and find out what is going on. Perhaps an honest conversation with you is all that’s needed to resolve any troubles your child may be experiencing. This emphasizes the importance of creating an atmosphere of openness and honesty between parents and their children.

Ideally, parents will be the first source for problem solving. There may be topics that you find uncomfortable and unsettling, but it is far better that your child brings concerns to you than seek the counsel of a peer. Peers tend to be equally as unenlightened as your child. You are the best influence on your child, but not the only one.

Help your child sift through the voices whispering in his or her ears, and provide an atmosphere of unconditional love, non-judgmental safety and comfort, conducive to your child bringing concerns to you. Even if taken aback by the topic, do not show any embarrassment or disapproval of the topic in the presence of your child.

Be the parent that you wish you had. Demonstrate your wisdom and willingness to listen and help your child make some of life’s difficult decisions. At least in terms of how your child most likely sees it.

Though you may trivialize your child’s concerns, to that child, this IS their world-at this time in their development.. into adulthood. Your child is correct. Remember that. What may appear to you as a real mental health issue, may simply be growing pains. Fortunately, most of those ‘pains’ will be ones that you can relate to, if you fight your fears and be honest with yourself and your child.

Once again, you are your child’s best influence, but not the only influence. Be mindful also that your child may tell you that he or she has a stomachache before telling you it is a form of anxiety felt. One chief reason is that they do not possess the language to accurately describe their feelings and emotions.

My grandmother used to say, “You think you’re grown, but…” This applies to your growing adolescent. As much as they protest, your children still need you-your guidance, not directions. Help in ways which make them feel that decisions and choices are their own. Don;t give them their answers. You will rob them of the experiences necessary to make wise decisions now and into adulthood.

If you notice a sudden change in your child’s behavior or attitudes, prioritize the time to approach your child, and have a check in with him or her to get clues as to whether it is growing pains and associated challenges or an authentic mental or behavioral health concern.

Don’t probe or pry, just ask non-investigative questions. Make them open-ended and actively listen to your child’s responses. It is always possible that between you two, your child may meet challenges and resolve issues successfully together, with your support.

Last, if your child appears to need more specialized approaches to assess his or her changes, seek the advice of a professional. After all, you have your child’s best interest and wellness at heart. He or she will thank you for caring and being attentive and responsive to their cries for help.


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