Puberty or a Mental Health Issue?

Part 2

During puberty – a period of big changes – those around rapidly-developing adolescents may notice some new and different reactions to life. Responses to stress may be more emotional or aggressive; there may be more emotional volatility, and even signs of depression or anxiety. Some of these changes may be profound. But, is it “just puberty” or is it an emerging mental health issue? As a parent, teacher, or care-giver… how do you know? And, what do you do?

While it is often not easy to distinguish between the normal emotional volatility and moodiness of puberty; and mental health issues which require professional assistance; there are some things to consider which may help in the differentiation. These questions provide a great starting point and can help determine whether the involvement of a professional may be required.

Does the child have at least one activity that engages them?

An area of interest – in the arts, music, sports, outdoor activity, gardening, or an academic subject – that involves thinking, learning, and developing competence, may help sustain the child through the ups and downs of puberty.

Does the child have at least one trusted adult that they can speak to?

This person can be a coach, teacher, another relative, a family friend, or someone else, and can provide the child with wisdom, support, and a willing ear.

Does the adolescent have at least one good friend?

Though most teens prefer being popular, having at least one good friend can help them be resilient throughout this challenging phase of their lives. If the child has no friends, this can often indicate isolation, and is a sign that enlisting professional help may be a good idea.

Is the child ever happy?

It’s very normal for teens to express anger, irritability, and annoyance – especially toward parents and siblings – but it’s a question of excess. If the adolescent never seems happy, this may be a significant cause for concern and perhaps the need for assistance.

Is the adolescent engaging in self-harming behaviors?

While self-harm is often considered to be cutting, it can encompass far more than that. Self-harm includes the use of alcohol, drugs, or other toxic substances; sexual promiscuity; and self-sabotaging behaviors like deliberately “forgetting” assignments, or skipping school. Adolescents may engage in some of these behaviors, some of the time, without it being a serious cause for concern. If, however, they engage in these kinds of behaviors frequently, or to the point that their well-being is threatened, it is time to seek help.

So, What Can I Do?

As a parent, teacher, or caregiver, dealing with adolescents, navigating the changeable waters of puberty can be almost as tough for you as it is for them. You can play a pivotal role in helping the child deal with the mental and emotional challenges they face during this period by:

  • Actively listening, without judgment or punishment
  • Encouraging open, honest, and trusting conversations at home
  • Being present and involved in their daily lives
  • Creating a stable, safe, and predictable environment at home
  • Validating and advocating for their feelings

And, if needed, it may be important to establish a plan for intervention(s) and to seek professional help when it’s needed. While this amazing period of growth and development may be challenging for both you and your teen, remember: You are not alone.

Center for Emotional Health provides mental health services to patients ages 4 and up. 

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