In my career I have always loved working with teenagers, they always keep things exciting. Teenagers are growing and learning through many developmental experiences. One of these experiences is puberty. This was illustrated to me by my own son. He came into our room one night and woke me and my wife up because he couldn’t sleep. He was obviously distressed. We had him sit on our bed and we started questioning him why he couldn’t sleep. He went through a number of life stressors that he was going through at this time. He mentioned his science project that was coming up and a math test that he had to take in the morning. He was also nervous about an upcoming football tournament that he would be playing in at the end of the week. I could tell that he was assessing himself and what environmental factors that were causing him distress. As he processed his thoughts I was mentally preparing what I was going to say to help. Skills that I usually teach my clients came to mind, deep breathing and thought stopping techniques were a couple. (Keep in mind that it was 1:00 or 2:00 am and it would be a challenge for anyone to be sharp at that time.) His next statement was an all-time great. After he talked about the football and the school he stated with distain; and “then puberty kicked in and I lost it.” I hesitated to look at my wife knowing that this comment could bring us to laughter. After gaining some self-control to take seriously what he said, I was proud that he had remembered some of the talks that we had about puberty and the “stormy” and “stressful emotions that come during this time in a young teen’s life. We continued to discuss the emotions and stressors that my son was feeling and he was able to put things into perspective because he was aware of a key developmental time in his life and also recognized the impact that it was having on him.
I have reflected on this story many times when working with teenagers. We often forget the incredible impact the process of adolescent maturity has. Clinicians need to be constantly assessing this biological factor and its role in the whole clinical picture of the teen. It is completely normal for children experiencing puberty to have mood swings and feelings of depression and anxiety. In my son’s case these feelings were a part of the learning experience of dealing with life stressors. I further realized that the education that I was able to give my son in regards of what to expect during these maturing times of his life, helped him understand himself better, and comforted him that his feelings were to be expected. The knowledge itself helped him stabilize his emotions. Parents and clinicians alike can better prepare pre-pubescent and younger teens by educating and talking with the children about what to expect and then process the biological change that they currently are experiencing.
So when should parents be concerned and how would they know when the experience is more than just puberty and seek professional help?
- Drastic Changes in Moods: Your child’s moods swing drastically from one extreme to another. Depressed moods, solation, sleeping and eating habits change. An increase in anger and aggression.
- Thoughts of Suicide: Attempts and threats of killing themselves. Suicidal language or notes, “I wish I were dead” etc. Para-suicidal behaviors such as cutting, and burning themselves.
- Declining School Performance: Truancy and declining grades become a constant problem. Oppositional behaviors towards teachers and school administration. Fights and other forms of aggression at school.
- Indication of drug use: Secretive behavior, drug paraphernalia, aggressiveness.
- Social Concerns: Your child may isolate them self from friends and family, or a drastic change in the group of friends your child “hangs out” with. Constantly blames others for their difficulties. Poor Hygiene.
- Failing Family Relationships: Increased family conflict. Oppositional behavior to family rules. Aggressive behaviors toward parents and siblings. Running away from home.
A professional can assist a parent distinguish the difference between normal teenage behavior and development and mental illness.