Updated: Oct 27
As a parent, navigating the adolescent years can be overwhelming. Parents often have the sense that something is not right for their teen(s), but aren’t quite able to pinpoint the difficulty. While it is developmentally normal for teens to stop being as open with parents about what is happening in their lives and to turn to friends instead, this makes it hard to know whether to be concerned or not. Parents are often left wondering, “Is this hormones? Is there something seriously wrong? Is this normal?” and more. It can feel quite confusing, overwhelming, and even terrifying. So, if your teen isn’t talking to you about what’s happening, here are some common concerning behaviours that parents may start to see and which could mean there is something more serious to worry about. Do any of the resonate?
Tally up how many of these apply to your teen right now - if you find 5+ consider seeking professional support.
Skipping or refusing school or work.
Not following rules in place, for example, around cell phone usage, or chores.
Complaining of ongoing bodily issues such as stomach trouble, headaches, body pain, tingling, numbness, racing heart or skipping heart, hyperventalation.
Overly out of the house.
Wearing long sleeved shirts and pants all the time.
Unable to stay awake for regular hours and is talking about very disrupted sleep.
Changes in mood or attitude - having sudden outburst, fits, or tantrums that seem extreme and don’t make a lot of sense, or paranoia/ irritability/ anxiety/ fidgeting, or fighting, or difficulty staying focussed.
Being very secretive – for example, hiding their phone conversations, sneaking out, being very withdrawn, changing passwords on computers, avoiding eye contact, locking their bedroom door.
Staying out late or overnight or sneaking out regardless of permission.
Demonstrating some inappropriate or sexualized behaviour.
Lost interest in activities they once enjoyed.
Dropped an old friend group for a new one or is having a lot of peer-relation upheaval.
Acting depressed, aggressive, anxious, or angry in a markedly different way.
Exhibiting significant appearance changes such as weight loss/ gain, frequent nosebleeds, bloody or watery eyes, unexplained shakes or tremors, poor hygiene, pupils larger or smaller than usual, swollen/puffy face, mouth sores, cold/ sweaty/ shaky hands.
Frequently asking for money but unable/ unwilling to provide proof of how it is spent.
Resisting discipline or feedback.
Making excuses or lying.
Withdrawing from classroom a ctivities and/or their grades are slipping.
Having clothing, makeup, personal items, etc. which parent does not recall buying or seem too expensive to really have been gifts.
Spending an increased/ excessive amount of time on social media/ screens, especially if being secretive about what they are engaging in on these platforms.
If you are seeing a lot of these behaviours in your teen, regardless of how they are explaining the signs, it is crucial to be particularly sensitive to potential concerns such as drinking/use, suicide risk, exploitation, and mental/ emotional wellness. At the same time, it's critical for parents to approach these issues with empathy, understanding, and a proactive mindset. Of course, if someone is at immediate/ immanent risk immediate action needs to be taken which may include calling emergency services/ attending the hospital. Here you will find some essential tips to help you create a safety & coping plan that supports your teenager's well-being and addresses their specific needs while also taking care of yourself.
1. Open Communication
Establishing open lines of communication is crucial when dealing with sensitive topics. Create a safe and non-judgmental space for your teenager to express their feelings, fears, and concerns. “Good helpers are good listeners,” are good words to live by – the more your teen feels you listen, the more likely they are to feel they can talk to you and allow you to help. Encourage honest conversations and actively listen without interrupting or passing judgment. This will help you better understand the challenges your teenager is facing and allow you to provide appropriate support.
TIP: Use the acronym OARS to navigate communication.
If you can really actively listen for about 10 minutes, and make a practice of checking your understanding by summarizing what you have heard and asking, “Do I have that right?” you are likely to meet much more openness. So stay curious, take a breath or two to regulate yourself if you need to, or find times to talk to your teen when you are not eye to eye (long walks or car rides are great!). Once you have really heard your teen’s concerns, you will be in a better position to solve any problems.
TIP: Give Yourself Permission to Bravely Ask the Hard Questions
It's normal to worry if asking direct and clear questions about suicide, self harm, drinking/ use, or exploitation might put an idea in your teen's head. However, research has consistently shown this is NOT the case, and instead has shown that these kinds of questions, when asked in a caring manner, can be life-saving, or at least, life-changing. For example, if addressing concerns about suicide, it may sound like, "Are you thinking of suicide?... What kind of thoughts are you having?... Do you have a plan?... Have you tried anything?" Following good questions like these, make sure you show love, care, and concern as well as enlisting professional help to determine next steps (ie. call or message one of the suicide/ crisis lines mentioned below, make a doctor's appointment, go to ER, call 911, alert any therapists involved, etc.).
2. Educate Yourself
Take the time to educate yourself about teenage substance use, mental health concerns, exploitation, and suicide risk. Familiarize yourself with warning signs, risk factors, and available resources like the ones we have listed above. This knowledge will enable you to recognize concerning signs and take appropriate action promptly. This is important because early intervention is the key to helping teens who may otherwise find themselves on a scary path. According to Stats Canada (2012), 1 in 3 Canadians will experience a mental health (MH) or SU disorder in their life; and research shows an incredible overlap in MH, SU, risk taking, and more. Additionally, concerns like ADHD, Learning Disabilities, and Autism, for example, are increasingly understood to be under diagnosed, especially in women, and a lack of treatment/ support for these conditions can lead to increased risk of developing other concerns like anxiety, depression, SU, and more. By having an understanding of these issues, you will be able to better identify and address the warning signs and provide the necessary resources to help them. If there is a family history in any of these areas, please keep in mind that this can increase the correlation of risk for your teen. Here are some useful links with more information:
Centre for Addition & Mental Health (CAMH) for statistics to be aware of: https://www.camh.ca/en/driving-change/the-crisis-is-real/mental-health-statistics
3. Establish Boundaries
Setting clear boundaries is essential in ensuring your teenager's safety. Define expectations regarding substance use, curfew, and social activities. Establishing these boundaries helps maintain structure and provides a sense of security for your teenager. A good boundary respectfully lets your teen know exactly what is expected from them, and what the result will be if they do not meet the expectation (what will YOU be doing in response).
TIP: Boundaries Show You Care
Boundaries rarely feel comfortable to anyone involved. But, letting someone know the limits in a relationship show them you care about them, the relationship, and even models that self-care. Having no boundaries leaves teens at risk, as they are developmentally at a level where without boundaries they are open to hurt and manipulation in many areas of their life. At the same time, leaving some room for negotiation is a wise choice – it will help with buy in if your teen feels like they are collaborating with you on timelines, expectations, rewards, consequences, and so on. Start high and allow some room for discussion wherever you can.
4. Seek Professional Help
If you suspect that your teenager is struggling with drinking/ use, suicide risk, or mental health concerns, don't hesitate to seek professional help – for yourself and your teen. A good first step is to consult with your family doctor; there are many free or low cost community programs which could be available to you and/or your teen. You may also wish to seek out a therapist/ counsellor, or other professional who specializes in adolescent mental health. They can guide you in developing a comprehensive safety plan tailored to your teenager's specific needs.
TIP: Save these professional resources to keep handy:
Suicide crisis: 1 800 SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) (24 hours)
Mental health issue: 310-6789 (24 hours, no area code needed)
Online chat for youth under 25 (noon to 1am in BC)
Access to the MindFlip self-paced online program – skills in mental fitness, emotional regulation, awareness of thoughts and emotions, self-awareness and self-compassion, and mindfulness tools.
Youthspace.ca – free online crisis & emotional support chat for youth in Canada under 30 (6pm – midnight PST)
Download “A Toolkit for Families” here: https://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/sites/default/files/family-toolkit-2018.pdf
TIP: Check Qualifications
If you decide to look for a private therapist/ counsellor, check qualifications! Anyone in BC can call themselves a therapist or a counsellor. It is important to think about what level of expertise you need to address what is happening in your family and ensure that whomever you work with has relevant education and training. A good way to screen is to look for someone who is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC or CCC) or Registered Clinical Social Worker (RCSW) as these designations require having a Master’s degree with some training in working with children, young people, families, drinking/ use, risk, and come with strong ethical codes of conduct. A Registered Psychologist is another safer choice, especially if you are seeking assessment. If you are hoping for functional gains, working with an Occupational Therapist might be a good option. If you anticipate a need for medication, you need to talk to a medical provider.
5. Building a Support Network
Encourage your teenager to build a supportive network of friends and mentors who can provide positive influences. Engage them in activities and hobbies that promote healthy coping mechanisms and boost their self-esteem. Encouraging healthy relationships can play a significant role in their overall well-being.
TIP: Factor Yourself In
Remember – you are your teen’s biggest support, so make sure you factor yourself into the equation. That can mean focusing on family meals (many teens will come for dessert, even if they resist coming for dinner!), family activities, long car rides, shopping together, a shoulder rub, making them lunch, even thought you know they can do it themselves and putting a note in, or whatever works. 30 minutes a day of teen-directed activity daily is an ideal goal to target, but when it comes to teens that’s not always realistic. But also, remember that you need support too. You may wish to take advantage of a parenting support group like this one: https://familysmart.ca/help-for-the-hard-times-workshop/ or explore some of the options for parents/ caregivers here: https://keltymentalhealth.ca/parents-caregivers or seek your own therapy which can focus on mindful parenting along with self-support.
6. Secure or Remove Items that Increase Risk
Ease of access is one of the easiest and most impactful pieces you can address. If you have medications or alcohol_at home, ensure they are securely stored, out of reach, and inaccessible to your teenager. Lock away prescription medications and keep track of any controlled_substances. If you are aware of a suicide plan involving items in the home, remove or secure them. Minimizing access to potentially harmful items can help reduce the risk substantially.
7. Create a Plan
Work with your teenager to develop a coping and safety plan that outlines steps to help of they are feeling unwell, destabilized, and in case of an emergency or escalating situation. Include emergency contact numbers, the nearest hospital, and helpline numbers for suicide prevention. This plan should be readily accessible to both you and your teenager.
TIP: Download this free template – complete one for yourself and your teen (you may have trouble downloading from the Safari browser - try Chrome instead).
8. Encourage Healthy Coping
Help your teenager explore healthy coping mechanisms that can replace negative behaviors. Encourage physical activity, creative outlets, and relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises or mindfulness. These activities can provide a healthy outlet for stress and promote emotional well-being.
Navigating the complexities of teenage drinking/ use, suicide risk, and mental health concerns can be daunting for parents. By implementing the tips mentioned above, you can create a safety & coping plan that supports your teenager's well-being, fosters open communication, and ensures a safe environment. Remember, seeking professional help when needed is essential, and you are not alone in this journey.
If you think you or your teen could use some therapeutic support, please click here to Meet Our Team and consider booking a free consult.