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It’s true what they say: Big kids equal big problems. Morphing bodies and volatile emotions (thanks, puberty) combined with intense academic and social pressure raise the stakes for teens in ways we couldn’t imagine when we stressed over potty training and the terrible twos. Are those attitudes and mood swings typical or something to worry about? Here’s what to look for and how to tell the difference.

BROODY OR DEPRESSED?

When they’re not giddy with joy, teens are a pretty grumpy bunch, especially when faced with, well, anything. But it’s normal for teens to overreact to ups and downs, especially considering that the brain is the last organ to fully develop, says University of Pennsylvania professor Frances Jensen, MD, author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults. “It can take until the mid- to late-20s for the brain to fully mature, which helps explain why teens are moody [and] explosive.

Critical thinking, judgment and emotional regulation aren’t developed adequately to keep slights, rejections and disappointments in perspective,” says psychologist Steven Sussman, PhD, who heads Mountainside’s Child and Teen Success Center. Hormones can also cause moodiness, though they usually occur periodically and dissipate quickly, he says. However, if blue moods persist along with signs of depression, have your child evaluated for clinical depression and suicide potential, especially if there’s a family history. Signs include loss of interest in once pleasurable things (without new interests taking their place), changes in appetite and sleep, a decline in grades, unexplained headaches, stomach pains or other physical symptoms, irritability, anger and defiance (depressed teens don’t always present as sad) and withdrawal from family and friends.

STRESS OR ANXIETY?

From acing AP classes to killing it in sports and extracurriculars, the stakes are high. Is it too much? “Academic pressure and student competitiveness are contributing to the prevalence of teen depression and anxiety. Many teens now feel like they have to be ‘renaissance scholars’ to get into the school of their choice. The pressure is enormous,” says Sussman.  Although most teens manage or excel, some respond to the pressure by shutting down, while others succumb to oppressive anxiety that prompts them to obsess and ruminate over every stressor. If your teen’s feeling besieged by expectations (real, imagined or self-imposed), make an appointment with a mental health professional, and remind them of what matters most. “Conveying to your teen that they’re unconditionally loved and respected, no matter how they perform, is crucial,” he suggests.

FRIEND DRAMA OR SOCIAL STRUGGLES?

For teens, being on the outs with friends feels like a catastrophe, and social media can make it worse. “With the advent of social media, minor arguments can become traumatic,” says Sussman, noting that squabbles can escalate to full-fledged ostracism as more people join in (if this happens, step in and shut it down). If your child frequently clashes with, is shunned by or doesn’t have close friends, it’s a sign of more serious social struggles that can have long-term ramifications.

If you suspect friend drama is progressing to bullying, encourage your teen to speak up—even if that means confiding in someone other than you. “Most kids don’t tell their parents for fear the parent will get over involved and worsen the problem,” says Sussman. Bullying has evolved from in person to online, offering victims no relief, even at home. If things get physical or your child feels “unrelenting psychological pressure,” Sussman advises parents step in and contact the school, the authorities and a therapist. The best thing is to impart unconditional love and grit in equal measure. “Teaching your child to be resilient is a good start to dealing with the problem,” he says.

In addition to resiliency, close friendships can also make a big difference. According to a 2017 University of Virginia study, quality of friendships during adolescence (not necessarily popularity) can impact mental and emotional health well into adulthood. In fact, teens that prioritized close friendships had lower social anxiety, an increased sense of self-worth and fewer symptoms of depression by the time they reached age 25 than their peers.

EXPERIMENTATION OR ADDICTION?

Teens push boundaries—it’s what they do. And while risky behaviors can range from stupid to criminal, dabbling in drugs and alcohol arguably tops the list. “Experimentation with marijuana and beer at weekend teen parties is pervasive,” says Sussman. If those substances are used on weekdays or while alone, it could be a sign of a psychological dependence requiring professional intervention—as does any usage of opioids, cocaine, heroin, psychedelics or other harder drugs (not to mention ADHD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, popular for enhancing academic focus). Drug use can be especially perilous for teens, since that not-quite-formed frontal lobe also makes them more susceptible to addiction and long-term brain modifications, plus makes it hard for them to consider consequences. 

CONNECTED OR HOOKED?

While it’s not unusual for teens to enjoy a lot of screen time, it’s not always good for them, either. According to a 2018 study out of San Diego State University, kids and teens show less curiosity, emotional stability, self-control and ability to finish tasks even after just one hour of screen time a day. And then there’s the 2018 study presented by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, which linked greater amounts of daily screen time to insomnia and depressive symptoms in adolescents.

Insomnia isn’t the only reason many teens are sleep deprived. On top of their endless to-do lists, circadian rhythms make it hard for teens to conk out before 11 pm, and consequently to rally for school in the morning. If he tends to be glued to his phone, make sure you keep devices out of his bedroom.

“Teens, particularly boys, can easily become ‘addicted’ to screen time,” says Sussman. “If the excessive time interferes or impairs normal life functions like academics, socialization, eating and sleeping, etc., it’s an ‘addiction’ and needs intervention.”

TIPS FOR MOVING FORWARD

  • No matter what your teen is facing, these expert tips can help.
  • Promote passions and interests over admission status.
  • Prioritize family time to help gauge changes in mood, behavior and stress levels.
  • Limit screen time for everyone in the family—and no phones in bed!
  • Work on strategies to handle tricky situations from peer pressure to facing bullies.
  • Encourage teens to focus on quality friendships, not popularity.
  • Lock up alcohol and other substances.
  • Keep talking, even when they tune you out.

—Jennifer Kantor lives in Maplewood with her two kids.

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