Adolescents (12-18 years of age) are under the unique pressures of the teen years.

Unusual behavior may be related to the physical and psychological changes taking place. It is important to remember that this is a time when young people are often troubled by sexual identity and concerned with physical appearance, social status, parents’ expectations and acceptance from peers. Young adults are establishing a sense of self-identity and shifting from parental dependence to independence.

A parent or concerned friend may have difficulty deciding what is “normal behavior” and what may be signs of emotional or mental problems. The checklist below should help you decide if a youth requires help. If more than one sign is present or persists over a long period of time, that may indicate a more serious problem:

  • Withdrawal from family, friends and normal activity.
  • Unexplained decline in school work and excessive absences.
  • Neglect of appearance.
  • Marked change in weight.
  • Running away.
  • Violent or rebellious behavior.
  • Physical symptoms with no apparent illness.
  • Drug or alcohol abuse.

In the Following Cases Immediate Help is Necessary

  • Hearing or seeing things that are not there.
  • Preoccupation with themes of death.
  • Giving away prized possessions.
  • Threats of suicide.

Parents and friends can help a young person who may be experiencing these problems. Be a good listener. Let the youngster know why you are concerned. Encourage her/him to get help. If a decision is made to seek professional help, it is very important that the adolescent be aware of choices and be involved in making a plan. In more serious cases or crisis, it is important to get immediate assistance or crisis intervention.

Teachers, school counselors, physicians or peer support groups may be helpful. Mental health professionals are also available to assist with the evaluation of an adolescent’s problems.

Choosing a Mental Health Professional for an Adolescent The mental health professional you choose for your adolescent should understand the unique problems of adolescence and be aware of cultural needs and backgrounds. You should feel comfortable with the therapist so that you can establish open communication, but your adolescent may not feel that way. In fact, your adolescent may be hostile to the mental health professional, because it is likely she/he will not be at all trusting of adults or open to their suggestions. It would be appropriate for an adolescent to have some input as to which therapist he/she works with (although that’s not always possible). To select a mental health professional you may want to interview two or three individuals, using Choosing a mental health professional as a guide.

How Therapy with an Adolescent Works

When adolescents are involved in therapy, they can and should speak for themselves. Parents may or may not be included in the therapy sessions, or may be encouraged to participate in family therapy or group sessions.

The adolescent and the mental health professional should discuss what each expects to accomplish. Treatment for substance abuse may be necessary before mental health problems can be addressed. The entire family may be asked to participate in a number of sessions to help understand how the family communicates, works together and how they can assist with the adolescent’s problems.

It is important that there may be certain aspects of the therapy that should remain confidential between the therapist and the adolescent. Before treatment begins, the parents, the child and the mental health professional should come to an agreement as to what information will be disclosed to the client’s parents.

Evaluating Therapy for Adolescents

Once your adolescent has been in therapy for a while, you may want to consider the following questions to see if you believe therapy is effective. If you answer “yes” to most of them, then you can be confident that therapy is working. If you answer “no” to most of them, you may want to get a second opinion from another mental health professional and consider making a change in treatment.

Is our adolescent more positive about therapy?

  • Has the mental health professional diagnosed the problem and are the two of them working toward treatment goals?
  • Does our adolescent show signs of improvement?
  • Is our adolescent becoming free from any addictions to drugs and/or alcohol?
  • Has our relationship with our adolescent improved?
  • Is there communication between the mental health professional and us, the parents?

How to Know When Your Adolescent Should Stop Therapy

Your adolescent and the mental health professional will probably decide they are ready to stop therapy when the adolescent:

  • Is generally happier, more expressive and cooperative and less withdrawn.
  • Is functioning better at home and in school.
  • Is free from addictions to drugs and/or alcohol.
  • Sometimes ending therapy will be an anxious time for adolescents and parents.

Problems may reappear temporarily. The mental health professional should be available to provide counsel and support for a period of time after your adolescent is finished with therapy. It may be a good idea to give yourselves some time to adjust before considering going back into therapy, however.

You and your adolescent may benefit from participation in support groups.