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Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Healthcare for Adolescents

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

As mentioned, adolescence is a period of rapid growth. But this growth is not limited to their bodies. Adolescents also experience rapid cognitive development, emotional development, and social development. Therefore, annual physical exams should also be screening adolescents for behavioral health concerns such as depression; anxiety; or possible problems with tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that teens receive an annual depression screening at their routine physical checkup. If a doctor suspects that a youth may be struggling with an emotional problem or has a problem with substance use, the doctor can refer the family to a behavioral healthcare specialist for treatment.

sad teen girlParents have an important role in identifying the early warning signs of a behavioral or emotional problem because they regularly observe their teens' behavioral and emotional patterns. If parents have observed any changes in mood or behavior that lasts more than a week or two and that is starting to affect the youth's ability to perform daily activities such as school or work, or if parents notice a change in their youth's enjoyment of social or recreational activities, these changes could signal a developing problem. Here are some examples of behavioral and emotional symptoms that should be reported to the healthcare provider:

  • A mood that is frequently sad, tearful, sullen, irritable, or angry
  • A lack of attention to physical hygiene (bathing, brushing teeth, etc.)
  • A loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyable
  • Withdrawal from family and friends, becoming socially isolated
  • A loss of motivation; for instance difficulty completing schoolwork and chores, or difficulty with their employer
  • A significant decline in academic performance
  • Frequently getting into trouble at school or frequent arguments with parents and sibling
  • Changes in sleep habits: sleeping a great deal more than usual and still being tired; or sleeping a great deal less than usual and seeming energized despite the lack of sleep
  • Changes in eating habits: a sudden loss of appetite or sudden increase in appetite,
  • Frequent physical aches and pains that cannot be easily explained: headaches, migraines, stomachaches, back pain, etc.
  • The smell of alcohol, or a chemical smell that parents do not recognize

Any of the above symptoms could indicate that a youth is struggling with some type of behavioral health problem such as depression, anxiety, drug use, or an eating disorder. Adolescence is a time of many significant changes, and teens have to deal with many situations each day that can cause a noticeable change in emotional responses. It is understandable that parents may feel confused when trying to distinguish between normal teenage behavior and unusual behavior that may indicate a more significant problem. Nonetheless, parents should be concerned about a teen who experiences sadness or irritability more days than not.

The symptoms mentioned above should not be dismissed as "just a phase," or, "just part of being a teenager." If parents notice any of these symptoms, or have any doubts about whether their teen's behaviors or moods are signs of a larger problem, they should discuss these concerns with a qualified healthcare professional. When parents muster the courage to talk to their teen's healthcare providers about their concerns for their child's emotional welfare, this communicates to the teen that emotional health is just as important as physical health. Once healthcare providers become aware of these concerns, they can refer the teen and his family to the appropriate treatment services in their community.