As we watch our children grow up and approach adolescence and young adulthood, we might begin to notice warning signs that they’re in distress. They might be struggling with a mental illness like depression, anxiety or panic attacks. They might be in the midst of the beginnings of a problem with substance abuse or already battling a full-blown addiction. Sometimes when our children are suffering, we feel totally lost as to how to help them. Sometimes we’re the last to know when there’s a problem, because they’re afraid to confide in us, or because they want to avoid making us worry. Very often they fear we’ll be angry with or disappointed in them.
When we’re in this difficult place, of discovering our child is in trouble, we might ask ourselves if our child might need an intervention. We might decide to plan a gathering of family and friends to approach our child with our concerns. We might enlist professional support from addiction and mental health experts experienced in planning interventions. While we’re in the midst of making this decision, here are some of the many signs that our child might be suffering, beyond the normal angst and stress that are common amongst these age groups. Along with signs that they may be facing certain issues, there are also questions you can consider asking your children to help you to have more honest, open dialogue with them.
1. Acting Out
We know our children well, and we’re familiar with their regular behavioral patterns. When something is amiss, we often can tell by how they’re acting. When we see changes in their behaviors, these can be warning signs that they are at risk for developing a mental illness or problem with addiction, or that they are already struggling and need professional help.
- Our children might start misbehaving at home or at school.
- They might start ignoring us or cease communication altogether.
- They might stop listening to our instructions.
- They might push boundaries, for example by frequently disobeying us, or by defaulting on our agreements by doing things like missing curfew.
- They might be noticeably disrespectful towards us, other family members, teachers or staff members at school.
- We might notice they’re developing issues with authority figures, talking back or being rude, rejecting our guidance or instruction.
- They might start disregarding consequences, for example ignoring a no phone rule we’ve already put in place because of a past incident.
Let’s work on having open, frank conversations with our kids, as tough as that may be sometimes. We can use these questions as a guide:
- Is something new going on in your life that I should know about as your parent who loves you?
- Is there something that is stressing you out?
- Have there been any changes that are hard to handle?
- Can we start checking in more regularly?
- Is there something I’ve done, or something within our relationship causing you stress or unhappiness?
- Has something happened that was painful or depressing for you?
2. Changes in their Social Activities
When our children start doing things differently in terms of their social activities, this can be a sign that they’re deeply unhappy, even when they don’t tell us anything is wrong. These activities can include any extracurricular activities where they’re engaging with other young people: sports teams, classes outside of school, plays, music groups, social groups, volunteer groups, etc. When activities that used to bring them joy, that were meaningful for them start to feel like a chore or burden, they might be experiencing the onset of depression or anxiety, or they might be getting overwhelmed by accumulated stress around their social lives.
- Our kids might complain that the hobbies they used to enjoy are now uncool or unpopular.
- They might tell us they can’t keep up with the demands of school and their extracurricular activities, when before they seemed to be managing just fine.
- They might seem overwhelmed or anxious at the slightest change in their routines.
- They might lose interest in the things they used to be excited about.
- They might cease all social activities altogether.
Here are some questions we can consider asking our children in these types of situations:
- What do you enjoy doing outside of school?
- You used to love doing xyz. Does it no longer interest you? Why do you think that is?
- Are there new activities you’ve thought of trying?
- How are things going with your extracurricular activities?
- Do you feel like you’re being overloaded with too many obligations, and it’s become too hard to handle?
- What can we cut back on to give you some extra time?
- Do you need a break from certain things?
3. Issues at School
Our children spend the majority of their time at school, and many school schedules and routines are becoming more and more rigorous and demanding. These tough demands can cause our children a great deal of stress and anxiety, but there are also some additional underlying issues that might be contributing to their unwellness. Here are some signs that something deeper might be going on.
- Our children might be missing school. Sometimes we don’t know there’s an issue until we get word of their poor attendance records. Often this is our first time hearing of it, since our kids might pretend they’re going to school when they leave the house and then ditch school altogether, or go to school and skip some of their classes.
- Their grades or performance reports might begin to slip.
- Classes they used to love might now be tedious, boring or overwhelming for them.
- Our children might be having a conflict with a teacher or another child at school that they haven’t told us about.
- They might feel their teacher is singling them out, treating them unfairly, or not respecting their input.
- They might be having a hard time understanding the material.
- They might be struggling with a learning difficulty or may have a different style of learning altogether from the ones being employed by their school.
- Sometimes their behavioral or emotional issues come down to an undiagnosed learning disability or condition such as autism.
- They might not want to admit that certain subjects are hard for them to grasp, and they might be skipping those particular classes because they feel stupid, because their teacher is impatient with them, or because they’re being teased.
Let’s ask our children directly why they’re having trouble at school. We can try asking them these questions:
- How is school going?
- Is there anything new that’s difficult, stressful, or hard to handle?
- Do you like your teachers?
- Are there any teachers you don’t feel comfortable with?
- Are there any teachers you feel are treating you unkindly?
- Are there classes that you find harder than others?
- Are there subjects you find really difficult to understand?
- Does it feel harder than usual to follow along in class, to finish an assignment, or to comprehend something?
4. Signs of Mental Illness Such as Depression or Anxiety
Our children might have gotten adept at hiding their mental and emotional pain from us, not wanting us to worry, or wanting to maintain their privacy. They might find that their issues are too sensitive to discuss, or too personal to speak on with their parents. When they haven’t told us there’s a problem but we can sense something might be wrong, here are some of the signs that can help to clarify things for us.
- Our children might have a very hard time making decisions, even small decisions that don’t seem super important.
- They might lose interest in activities and friendships that used to be positive things in their lives.
- They might panic about the future, for example worrying excessively about college applications before it’s even time to start applying to schools.
- They might obsess about things and/or develop behavioral compulsions.
- They might appear nervous, fidgety, anxious, uneasy or restless.
- They might have a hard time concentrating and get easily distracted.
- They might become withdrawn from their family members and/or friends.
- They might start isolating themselves.
- They might cry a lot.
- They might keep important things to themselves, such as trouble at school or with a friend.
- They might avoid talking about specific topics altogether. They might change the subject whenever you try to broach it with them.
- They might be unkind, volatile or more reactive than usual with family members or friends.
- They might start exhibiting signs of insecurity, such as putting themselves down, speaking about themselves in self-deprecating ways, or comparing themselves unfavorably to other people.
Try asking some of these questions to see if you can get more information on the state of their mental and emotional health:
- How have you been feeling lately?
- Is there anything you’d like to talk about, with me or with someone else?
- Are you under more stress than usual?
- Has something upsetting or traumatic happened?
- Are you happy?
- Do you feel depressed, unhappy, anxious or in emotional pain?
- Are you having recurring thoughts that are troubling you?
- Are you feeling insecure?
5. Physical Signs of Distress
Sometimes the signs our children exhibit are physical in nature, and we can spot them by becoming more observant of their physical habits, patterns and appearance.
- We might notice they seem to have a change in their appetite or weight. They might eat much less or much more than they normally do. They might have drastic weight loss or weight gain. These are signs they might be developing an eating disorder.
- They might complain about insomnia and find themselves unable to sleep or to relax.
- There might be changes in their appearance, for example dark circles under their eyes or their skin looks gray or pale.
- There might be dramatic changes to their look that they don’t seem happy with, for example they might be changing the way they dress or wear their hair in order to fit in at school, or they might cut their hair suddenly in response to stress or insecurity.
- They might start exhibiting poor hygiene, for example they might stop showering or looking after themselves.
- Their rooms might be messier or their clothes dirtier than usual.
- They might show physical signs of drug use – they smell like smoke or alcohol, or you notice suspicious marks or discoloration on their skin.
6. Signs of Bullying
Sometimes our children are afraid of being bullied, and even if they’re not already being harmed, they’re afraid of going to school, or even leaving the house, lest it begin. They might have witnessed other kids being bullied or mistreated. They might already know which kids are the ones doing the bullying, as cases of bullying among children are sometimes overt and out in the open. A friend may have confided in them that they’re being bullied, but they may have asked your child to keep it a secret for them, especially when they fear retaliation if the bullying child has threatened them with worse consequences if they tell anyone.
- Are you being bullied while at school or elsewhere?
- Is bullying something that gets discussed at school?
- Do you feel your school has a culture of respect, and do the teachers and students uphold that culture?
- Are there other kids who have been bullied that you know of?
- Has anyone else told you they’re being bullied?
- Do you know any of the kids doing the bullying?
Sometimes it is our children doing the bullying, or they’re involved by association with groups of kids who are bullying. Our instinct is to punish these children, but they are hurting as well. When kids bully, it is often because they themselves are being bullied. Sometimes they’re being abused or neglected at home. They are acting out all of their emotional pain, and taking it out on whichever defenseless kid they can find. They are careful to find situations where they can be sure they’ll get away with the bullying behavior. As is often the case, their bullying is a cry for help because of something deeper going on, or a means of seeking the attention they’re being deprived of at home. Children instinctively want to be loved and nurtured, and when their emotional needs are not being met, they will act out to see who will listen, who will pay attention to them.
7. Issues with Friends or Partners
We often want to think of our children as still being young and innocent. We want to hold an image in our minds of when they were younger, when all the troubles of the world had not yet begun to affect them. It’s hard for us to imagine their having issues with friends. It can be even harder for us to deal with the fact that they’re dating. These are important things to talk about with our children, especially because partner abuse and domestic violence can start early on, even in adolescent romantic relationships. Children are experimenting with drugs at even earlier ages than for many of us when we were growing up. Sometimes their parents are the last people they would want to talk to regarding these difficult issues, so encourage them to talk to someone you both trust – a counselor or therapist, a teacher they like, a coach on their sports teams, a religious figure at your church, a mentor they’ve connected with.
If your child does feel comfortable opening up to you, wonderful. Congrats on that! Take advantage of the trust and openness in your relationship and ask them some of these questions:
- Do you have healthy relationships with your friends and/or partner?
- Have you been made to feel disrespected by any of them?
- Are you feeling pressured to try drugs or alcohol?
- Are you being pressured into sexual activity that you’re not comfortable with?
- Have you or any of your friends talked about feeling pressured into things you’re not ready for or know are dangerous?
- Do you feel heard, appreciated and respected in your relationships?
- Have any of your relationships ended recently, and why is that?
- Are you experiencing conflict in any of your relationships?
8. When to Consider an Intervention
Although it can be overwhelming and stressful to admit that our child might need an intervention, the alternative is much worse – doing nothing as they continue to suffer. Here are some of the times when an intervention might be necessary:
- When our children refuse to speak to us.
- When they refuse to talk to a therapist, counselor or other trusted adult.
- When they’ve totally withdrawn from their normal routines.
- When they appear not to be able to handle their regular lives.
- When they appear distressed, showing any combination of the signs we’ve discussed or any other signs that are alarming to you.
- When our concern for them continues but we can’t find alternative solutions as a family.
Speak with your child’s school counselor, teachers and friends. Consider seeking the help of a recovery facility or intervention specialist. Don’t sweep things under the rug and just hope everything will work itself out. Step in on behalf of your child, and show them that you care and that you’re paying attention to their well-being. Sometimes the signs they show us are literally their form of non-verbal communication, and they are trying to show us they need help. Don’t be afraid to reach out for professional support. As their parents, we can’t possibly know everything to do to help our children, and we can’t possibly have all the answers. The best thing we can do for our struggling family is to get help. Having that support for both of you can bring you closer together and help your child move through this difficult time.
WinGate Wilderness Therapy offers therapeutic services for troubled teens and struggling young adults suffering from emotional and behavioral issues.
Contact us today!
P.O. Box 347
Kanab, UT 84741