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Is my teen experiencing typical teen angst or something more?

If you're a parent of a teen, you may find yourself easily frustrated at times thinking your child is being overly dramatic, lazy, unthinking or fixated on friends.  

But there are good reasons for these behaviors, and they actually are tied to healthy development. Here are some explanations:  

  • Sleeping "all the time." Teens need more sleep than adults. Their bodies crave 10 hours a night—as much as a toddler. But often, with school, jobs or extracurricular demands, that's just not possible. So when teens sleep until noon on Saturday, they're not willfully being lazy—their bodies are actually catching up on sleep.  
  • Being preoccupied with their social life and social media. A first priority for teens universally is friends. Much of the angst, worry or concern they experience has to do with finding a peer group, fitting in and feeling like they are well liked. A lot of time is spent on this.

    You may relate if you think back to your own teen years. Even if you didn't have social media, you may have spent hours a day talking on the phone to stay connected to friends. Teens are doing the same thing today—only now the media is texting and social media.

    Of course, this doesn't mean kids should get unlimited or unmonitored use of social media. But it may ease our frustrations to know that their socializing is actually practice for finding their way in the world when they leave home.
  • Acting impulsively. Teens often appear happy-go-lucky and unthinking when it comes to possible consequences or the weight of negative implications. This has to do with the development of the brain's frontal lobe and a lack of real-world experience. The brain's pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with impulse control and decision making, isn't fully developed until the mid-twenties or even later. So teens don't have the same wiring and experience as adults do to think things through.  
  • Having big moods. It's not an act—teens actually feel emotions more intensely than we do. And because their pre-frontal cortex is still developing and they lack life experience, they have a harder time managing their feelings. On a positive note, that can drive creativity. They may feel music or art more deeply, and that may translate to creating art themselves.

If your kids are acting in these ways, try to approach them with patience, compassion and sympathetic ears.

In contrast, there are some unhealthy behaviors in teens that can signify a larger issue or mental health condition. These include: 

  • Social isolation—an early warning sign that something is wrong
  • Loss of appetite or not eating well
  • Falling grades
  • Not keeping up at school or a job
  • Panic attacks
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Persistent agitation or anger
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Talk of hurting others

If your child is conducting self-harm, expressing suicidal thoughts, is abusing alcohol or drugs, seems to have lost touch with reality, or is so irritable you're worried they'll hurt someone, seek immediate medical attention by going to the Emergency Department. For other concerns, call or schedule an appointment with your child's primary care provider.  

But if you're dealing with a sleepy, moody, socially preoccupied adolescent who makes some bad decisions—you most likely have a healthy teen who is right-on-track.

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