Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2000;62(10):2347-2348

What should I know about my teenager's emotional health?

Your child's teenage years can be a difficult time. Teens may feel overwhelmed by the emotional and physical changes they are going through. At the same time, they may be facing a number of pressures from friends to fit in and from parents and other adults to do well in school, or activities like sports or part-time jobs.

The teenage years are a time of transition from childhood into adulthood. Teens often struggle with being dependent on their parents while having a strong desire to be independent. They may experiment with new values, ideas, hairstyles and clothing as they try to define who they are. Although this may be uncomfortable for parents, it is a normal part of being a teenager.

What can I do to help my teen?

Communicating your love for your child is the most important thing you can do. Children decide how they feel about themselves in large part by how their parents react to them. For this reason, it's important for parents to stay positive and help their children feel good about themselves. It is also important to communicate your values and to set expectations and limits, such as insisting on honesty, self-control and respect for others, while still allowing teenagers to have their own space.

Parents of teens often find themselves noticing only the problems, and they may get in the habit of giving a lot of negative feedback and criticism. Although teens need feedback, they respond better to positive feedback. Praising appropriate behavior can help your teen feel a sense of accomplishment and reinforce your family's values.

What warning signs should I look for?

Teens, especially those with low self-esteem or family problems, are at risk for a number of self-destructive behaviors, such as using drugs or alcohol, or having unprotected sex. Depression and eating disorders are also important issues for teens. The following may be warning signs that your child is having a problem:

  • Agitated or restless behavior

  • Weight loss or gain

  • A drop in grades

  • Trouble concentrating

  • Ongoing feelings of sadness

  • Not caring about people and things

  • Lack of motivation

  • Fatigue, loss of energy and lack of interest in activities

  • Low self-esteem

  • Trouble falling asleep

What should I do if there is a problem?

If you suspect there is a problem, ask your teen about what is bothering him or her, and then listen. Don't ignore a problem in the hope that it will go away. It is easier to cope with problems when they are small, so don't wait until your teen gets out of control.

Talking about conflict also gives you and your teen the opportunity to learn how to work through problems together. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Many resources, including your family doctor, are available.

How can I learn more?

For more information, you can contact the following organizations:

  • National Institute of Mental Health Information Resources and Inquiries Branch

    1-800-421-4211

    http://www.nimh.nih.gov

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