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More Than Moody: What Do Mental Health Challenges Look Like for Teens?

April 20, 2023

As a parent, it’s natural to worry about your child's well-being, especially when they’re going through adolescence. Teenage years are often associated with hormonal changes, mood swings, and an overall sense of confusion as children begin to navigate the challenging phase of puberty. However, sometimes the signs of mental health challenges can be easily overlooked, and it can be difficult to determine whether your child's behaviour can be classified as regular fluctuating emotions or a deeper issue that requires professional help.  


In this articlewe’ll discuss the psychological impact of puberty and some indicators of what “typical” teenage behaviour might look like. Well also highlight potential red flags that may indicate your teen is struggling with mental health challenges and may benefit from additional support. Finally, we’ll share a few tips on encouraging teens to seek help.  


Like many mental health topics, it’s important to remember that this article is meant to provide a starting point for identifying mental health challenges in teens but should be used as an official diagnostics tool. If you’re seeing behaviour in your teen that concerns you, we recommend seeking the support of a licensed professional.  


Is Moodiness Normal? 


Adolescence is a time of significant physical and emotional changes, and it is not uncommon for teens to experience mood swings, irritability, and anxiety. However, it is essential to distinguish between typical teenage behaviour and signs of mental health challenges  


Many teenagers experience feelings of self-consciousness, insecurity, or struggle with their self-identity from time to time. When these feelings are persistent or are especially intense in nature, we want to be mindful that deeper issues may be at play. If your teen's behaviour impacts their daily life, relationships, and school performance, it may also be a sign that they need help. 


According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it is essential to remember that mental health issues are prevalent among teenagers, with approximately 17% of young people experiencing a mental health problem in any given year. It is crucial to recognize that seeking help for mental health issues is not a sign of weakness, and early intervention is critical for preventing more severe problems. 


Psychological Impact of Puberty 


Puberty is a period of rapid change for teenagers, which can significantly impact their mental health. We’ve already discussed how the hormonal fluctuations during puberty can cause mood swings, irritability, and anxiety. Additionally, teenagers may experience challenges stemming from peer pressure, social media, and body image issues, that can further lead to low self-esteem and depression.  


It’s important to recognize that many of these changes are part of navigating puberty and, with the proper support, most teens can navigate through this period without significant mental health challenges. However, some teens may be more vulnerable to mental health challenges due to genetics, environmental factors, or pre-existing mental health conditions. 


What Kind of Behaviour Can We Expect?  


As a parent, it can be challenging to determine what is "typical" teenage behaviour and what is a sign of mental health challenges. Many adolescents experience mood swings, show signs of irritability, and increased rebellion. In these years, teens also begin to spend much more time seeking validation from peers instead of parental figures. Teenagers may begin to spend more of their free time with friends, experimenting with new things, and pushing boundaries.  


What Are Potential Red Flags? 


It is essential to be aware of potential red flags indicating that your teen may struggle with mental health challenges. Here are some signs to look out for: 


  • Changes in behaviour: If your child's behaviour has changed significantly, such as becoming withdrawn, agitated, or exhibiting signs of impulsivity, it may be a sign of mental health challenges. 

  • Mood swings: It is typical for teens to experience mood swings, but if they are persistent or extreme, it may be a sign of a more significant issue. 

  • Poor academic performance: Mental health challenges can impact a child's ability to concentrate and perform well in school. 

  • Substance abuse: Teens who are struggling with mental health challenges may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with their emotions.  

  • Social isolation: If your teen has become increasingly isolated and withdrawn from friends and family, it could be a sign of depression or anxiety. 

  • Self-harm: If your child is engaging in self-harm behaviours, such as cutting or burning themselves, it is a red flag that they are struggling with significant mental health challenges. 

If you notice any of these signs in your teen, it is essential to seek professional help as soon as possible. Early intervention can make a significant difference in the outcome of mental health challenges. 


How to Help Your Teen 

As a parent, you play a vital role in helping your teen navigate mental health challenges. Here are some steps you can take to support your child:  

  • Encourage open communication: Make it clear to your teen that they can talk to you about anything without judgment or criticism. Listen actively and without interruption. Recognize that in some cases, giving your child another option when it comes to someone else that they can talk to is incredibly valuable. Find times to talk to your teen that are less formal – such as when you are going for a drive together or going for a walk. 

  • Educate yourself: Learn about the different mental health challenges that your teen may be facing. This will help you better understand their struggles and provide appropriate support. One resource we’d recommend: Anxiety Canada  

  • Seek professional help: If you notice any signs of mental health challenges, seek professional help immediatelyA professional may recommend a variety of supports that include therapy, medication, or other interventions. 

  • Encourage healthy habits: Promote healthy habits such as exercise, good nutrition, and enough sleep. These habits can help improve mental health and overall well-being. You might also consider engaging in these habits with your teen as that can help promote overall healthy family habits. It may also offer opportunities to spend time together in a healthy way – via family activities or family cooking! 

  • Practice self-care: Caring for a child with mental health challenges can be stressful and overwhelming. It is essential that you don’t neglect your own mental health and well-being when working to support your child.   

In conclusion, it's important for parents to understand that mental health issues are prevalent among teenagers and can have a significant impact on their overall well-being and future success.  


However, with proper support, teens can largely overcome these challenges and thrive as a young adult. As a parent, it’s helpful to remind yourself to focus on what you can control — recognizing signs of mental health challenges, prioritizing open communication, and seeking professional help where needed.  


Should you need help addressing mental health challenges, consider using the OPA’s e-referral tool to connect Ontarians with psychologists that best match their specific needs and preferences.