Is my teen normal?
A common concern
At Teen Lifeline, we receive and answer questions daily from concerned parents of troubled teenagers. The most frequent question we receive is some form of, “Is my teen normal?”
Below, we discuss what behaviors are normal for a teen and what behaviors should prompt someone to ask a teen about thoughts of suicide and seek help.
What is normal?
This question was a lot easier to answer in February 2020, before a pandemic changed the world as we know it.
Our teens are dealing with—and in many cases, struggling with—a lot of uncertainty. In addition to the pandemic, debates over face masks and how to address racism have resulted in the politicization of schools.
Today, normal for most teens can look more anxious, stressful, and depressed than it did before 2020.
The signs that should cause concern and suggest a conversation with your teen are even more important today than they were 22 months ago:
Is your teen talking or writing about death, wanting to die, or feelings of falling apart?
Have you noticed major changes in your teen’s sleeping or eating habits?
Has your teen felt depressed, sad, or hopeless continuously for more than two weeks?
Is your teen experiencing extreme mood swings?
Have you noticed your teen isolating themselves or withdrawing from friends, family, or other social activities?
Essentially, you’re looking for drastic changes in usual behavior. For teens, depression can present itself as a somber mood, irritability, withdrawal, isolation, or an overall feeling of helplessness. The risk of suicide is greater if these behaviors are new or have increased because of a painful event, a loss, or a change in the teen’s life.
I often tell parents the most important warning sign they will have is a gut feeling that something is wrong. Please don’t ignore that feeling.
If you notice any of these signs, talk with your teen and ask how they are feeling. And then, really listen. Be sure to take your teen’s concerns seriously. While something like missing prom, a football game or an after-school activity, or even just an argument with a friend, may seem insignificant to you, it can feel immensely overwhelming to a teenager, especially now.
Don’t be afraid to ask your teen if they have had thoughts about suicide. Asking the question won’t plant ideas in your child’s head and it may give your child the opportunity to share something they have been too afraid to say to another person.
Right now, most teens are understandably nervous about what their future holds. As we learn more about the rise in cases of COVID-19, teens might feel anxious about whether they will be able to have a “normal” high school experience. High school seniors, especially, are concerned about what their last year of high school will look like.
As we all navigate the changes emerging from the pandemic, check in with your teen regularly about how they’re feeling and how they’re coping with what’s different in their life. Strong connections with caring adults are an important protective factor for youth. We hope these conversations about mental health will become part of the new normal we are all creating, because talking about what’s bothering you is the first step in preventing a situation from escalating into something more serious.
If your teen needs help, encourage them to call Teen Lifeline 24/7/365 at (602) 248-TEEN (8336) or (800) 248-TEEN. Texting is also available between noon and 9 p.m. on weekdays and from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends at (602) 248-8336.
The author of this article, Nikki Kontz, LMSW, is the Clinical Director at Teen Lifeline, a Phoenix-based nonprofit dedicated to preventing teen suicide in Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-248-8337.
This article was originally published in the September 2021 print edition of The Arizona Republic as part of a monthly column where Teen Lifeline discusses important youth mental health topics. To read Teen Lifeline’s most recent column pieces, please refer to the print edition of The Arizona Republic.