Teenage mental health issues

Teenage boy smokingGrowing up is tough: our children yearn to do it, but in adolescence they veer between clinging on to the childhood that's all they've known, and heading out into the far choppier waters of adulthood.

Few have a totally trouble-free journey. For the vast majority of kids, there are times of struggles, of uncertainty, of panic.

For them, and for you, these times can sometimes turn scary - suddenly, you feel as though your son or daughter is in danger of going off the rails completely and may even have a mental health issue.

They argue with you - vehemently, relentlessly, endlessly. Sometimes, they even hit out at you. They criticise and undermine you. They also retreat away from you and the rest of the family, and towards other relationships - with friends, or with boyfriends and girlfriends. They spend more time out of the house, and even when they're in the house, they're almost always shut away in their rooms, talking to their friends on their mobile phones, or via the internet.

"She shuts herself up in her room with her mobile all evening - she says she studies but I doubt it. She doesn't tell me when her exams are. I feel like a useless mother and am not sure where I went wrong. How can I bring her back in line?"

They start to drink, to smoke, and to experiment with drugs. Some kids steal to pay for their drink and drugs. They worry endlessly about their looks - some display signs of having an eating disorder. Others self-harm.

This mum says: "One counsellor told me that cutting among teenagers is 'almost trendy'! My son said he dosen't know why people are so worried about him, but then another time, he said he regrets it the next day. He says he started when he was feeling angry and frustrated with himself, by scratching scissors along his arm, but this has 'escalated' to cutting with a craft knife."

Why do teenagers behave like this?

Teenagers act like this because they're testing out their independence - and also because they're finding out that adult life is frightening, and when they need to blame someone, that someone is almost inevitably going to be you (you brought them into the world, after all).

Although almost every teenager goes through a rocky time, some genuinely can't cope. Learning to recognise the difference between a teenager who's 'normal' and one who 'needs help' is the tricky bit. See our page on teenage depression for more advice.

How can you tell if your teenager has a mental health issue?

As always in parenting, you have to trust your instincts. If your hunch is that your kid - difficult, mono-syllabic though she is - is basically okay, you're probably right.

If you suspect something is really wrong - that your child has an eating disorder, is becoming depressed, or is being weighed down by anxiety - you're unlikely to be entirely wrong.

What are the signs of a mental health issue?

Look out for the following signs - they may indicate that your child's problems need expert help, or at least close surveillance from you:

  • Truanting from school, or being 'too ill' or 'too tired' to go to school on a regular basis
  • Stopping sports or out-of-school activities
  • Being tired all the time, or not sleeping at night
  • Losing a lot of weight - or putting a lot of weight on
  • Being overly paranoid
  • Suddenly doing a lot less well at school

Where can I go for help?

Talking to other parents, as you do on Mumsnet, can help a lot (half the time, it's just finding out whether your child's behaviour is unusual). 

If you think your child needs professional help, your first ports of call are school (find out whether your child can see a counsellor there) or your GP.


Last updated: about 5 years ago