How to Know When Your Teen Needs Professional Help

Raising teenagers is surely not an easy task. It’s no secret that adolescents today face a number of challenging life stressors and parents are feeling at a loss on what to do. Depression, eating disorders, Anxiety, self-esteem challenges, relationship struggles, social pressures…these are just a few of the battles our teens face daily. As a parent, how is one to know when the line is crossed between “normal” adolescent development and when is it time to seek professional help?

Signs Your Teen Needs Help

If you are the parent of a teenager, you likely understand that there are ups and downs, usually identified as “mood swings” that are very much typical for this stage of development. The reason for these mood swings is due to: hormone changes (puberty), intellectual development (concrete thinking and the belief they are the center of attention), and social/emotional development (forming identity, learning independence). Teens already have loads of pressure during this phase in life that when additional stressors are added on such as a major life transition (i.e. parental divorce, trauma) or mental health issues are present, it poses an additional challenge. As a general rule of thumb, if any of the below symptoms persist longer than a 2-week time period, or is interfering with your teens ability to function socially or academically, it may be time to seek help. Research shows that the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome as symptoms may worsen if ignored. Some behaviors may occur gradually while other times, a significant change in typical functioning may happen rapidly. The following are some warning signs that signal it may be time to seek additional support:

  • Signs of Depression: (Interfering with day to day activities)

  • Lack of energy

  • Isolation

  • Loss of appetite

  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed

  • Restlessness/Irritability

  • Fatigue

  • Feelings of worthlessness

  • Decreased motivation

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Feelings of suicide or desire to harm self

  • Signs of Anxiety: (Interfering with day to day activities)

  • Excessive worry

  • Sleep problems

  • Irrational fears

  • Muscle tension

  • Digestive issues

  • Decreased self-esteem

  • Panic

  • Perfectionism

  • Avoidance of social/performance based activities

  • Compulsive behaviors

  • Running away

  • Illegal activities: Drug-use, risky behaviors (repeated use, not experimentation)

  • Decrease in school performance

  • Sexual acting out

  • Comments about suicide or hurting others

  • Self-Harming behaviors

  • Increased defiance/Acting out

  • Changes in mood/anger/irritability

  • Abrupt changes in friendships

  • Eating/Sleep pattern changes/rapid weight loss

  • Problems with concentration

  • Frequent nightmares

  • Body image challenges: Strong fear of over-eating, gaining weight

  • Pre-occupation with unusual thoughts, beliefs or behaviors

How to Seek Support

Listed below are many avenues that a parent can use to seek the advice of a trained professional. Seeking help is usually the hardest step but is often necessary. Keep in mind that finding a provider that you feel comfortable and open with is key to success. It’s important to understand your provider’s specialties and you have the right to ask questions about what treatment will entail. As a parent, you play a vital role in this next step as you are most familiar with your teen’s patterns and can provide a detailed history of symptoms and concerns.

  • Mental Health Specialists: Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Social Workers, Licensed Mental Health Counselors

  • Your family doctor

  • Your teen’s school counselor

  • Mental Health Clinics/Community Mental Health Centers

  • Your health insurance company can provide a list of professionals in your area

Stephanie Zwart, LMSW is a licensed social worker at Empower Counseling Services in Grand Rapids, MI. She specializes in counseling Teens/Families and Young Women ages 11-24. She is an expert in supporting families with difficult behaviors, mood challenges, self-esteem issues and communication struggles. You may contact her directly by calling (616) 263-1700 and can learn more by visiting

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