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Warning Signs of a Troubled Teen

How To Look For Warning Signs That Your Teen May Be Getting Into Trouble

Some parents don't even see it coming. They go about their daily business, thinking their teen is doing fine, and then – wham! – their teen throws them a curve ball. Maybe it's skipping school, smoking, partying, stealing or any one of the many things teens can do to get into trouble. While it's seemingly out of the blue, were there signs that something was going awry? Could parents have averted the trouble before it started?

Jean Lockwood of Ilion, N.Y., dealt with a seriously rebellious teen for several years. "Don't assume your child would never stray," she says. "Pay attention to the subtle signs. I can see a lot now in hindsight, but didn't take it seriously when I should have. Make sure you do your best to keep lines of communication open – that is what brought us through."

Troubled Today, Troubled Tomorrow

The trouble that teens can get into in today's culture is almost limitless, and the consequences can impact the rest of their lives. Dr. Patrick C. Friman, clinical psychologist and director of behavioral pediatrics and family services at Girls and Boys Town, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the treatment and care of abused, abandoned and neglected girls and boys, says that, unfortunately, one of the most common consequences of negative teen behavior is quitting school. "Beyond arrest and/or drug problems, the most serious problem is dropping out of school or being expelled permanently," he says. "The adult without a high school degree lives in a shadowy world that is unsafe and unkind to those with virtue. Incomes are meager and supplemented with petty theft and drugs sales. The American dream remains completely out of reach."

Teens who are heading into trouble often don't see school as a stepping stone into a secure future. With their tendency to live totally in the present, many teens have difficulties correlating their current behavior as affecting the rest of their lives.

Red Flags

Drug use is one of the most important signs that your child is heading into serious trouble, according to Dr. Friman. "I ask about the presence of lighters, suspicious phone calls, major change in behavior and emotional disposition, changes in appetite and affect, sleep habits and major shifts in interests," he says. "I also ask about changes in interactional style. Although its true that most adolescents want to keep portions of their life private, the drug-using adolescent has more to protect and can appear much less honest or forthcoming than they previously had been."

Cathy Moran, a licensed clinical social worker and director of children's community services for the Mental Health Association of NYC, agrees that there are many warning signs parents can be on the lookout for. "Red flag signs include decrease or loss of interest in school as evidenced by decrease in academic performance (sometimes this may be subtle), poor hygiene or lack of interest in personal appearance or a negative change in peer relationships," she says.

Other signs include these:

  • Loss of interest in peers resulting in isolative behavior
  • Changes in weight
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Markedly dramatic mood swings out of the normal adolescent hormonal arena

It's also important to remember that it's totally normal for teens to make abrupt changes in their lives as they go about the business of discovering who they really are. Suddenly dying their hair vermilion isn't a warning sign, unless it is combined with other signs such as ignoring their friends or a change in their academic performance.

Acting on Red Flags

Communication is key in guiding your teen back to a safe and productive course. Unfortunately, conversing with teens, especially those who are in a full-on rebellion, can be like walking through a field of landmines.

"Adolescence is precarious, delicate and truly exasperating in every way," Moran says. "So as a parent, don't wait until you're angry, because it can only result in a blow up. Talk to your teen sooner rather than later as you see things change. By doing this, you are communicating concern and are observing of your child. Teens are often so involved with themselves that they actually may not see the changes you do. Selecting a quiet moment is key in approaching a teen; preferably both parents should be involved to present a united front of concern."

When you talk to your teen, remember to exhibit empathy. Being a teen in today's culture isn't easy. Listen without interrupting, and acknowledge what your teen has to say even if you disagree. "Take note of your tone as a parent," Moran says. "If the conversation is escalating and results in screaming, this will only close down the lines of communication. And remember that everything doesn't have to be solved in one evening." One way to do this is to take your teen to his or her favorite restaurant. This is a good way to keep it light and yet really communicate.

Tackling your teen's negative and potentially risky behavior isn't easy, but it's well worth it to communicate with them early and often – as soon as you see the signs that something is amiss. It's less painful for both you and your teen to nip the problem in the bud than it is to deal with the aftermath of consistent poor choices.

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