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Seven signs your child is calling for help

By Terri Brinston

Parenting is hard! I remember the overwhelming fear I had when they handed me this small, fragile and delicate little baby, wrapped tightly in a thin blanket. I immediately fell in love but thought, “How do I do this?” Everything comes with an instruction manual of some sort, step-by-step directions for how to make it work, prevent injury, and so on — everything, that is, but parenting. 

As I reflect on raising my children, I think my best description of my parenting approach was trial and error. It was rewarding when I got it right, but extremely frustrating when I got it wrong. 

I consider it an extreme honor to have played a part in raising two wonderful children, but while doing so, I often wondered if I was doing enough and paying attention to the right things. I always thought, “I have one opportunity to get this right, and my choices could have a major impact on their lives.” — no pressure (yikes!). But I quickly realized that no one is perfect, and I don’t always get the last say. All any parent can do is his or her best and pray everything turns out OK.  

Doing your best includes educating yourself on how to support your child. As parents, we have an important duty to monitor our children and their activities. This allows us to decipher what paths they are heading down. When you just focus on punishment and not the root of the issue, you could be missing a call for help. It is important to recognize when your child needs help. When you know there is a problem, you are more apt to assist and get your child back on track.  

Here are some of the common signs that your child may be in trouble:

1. Declining grades

If you notice your teen has lower grades one semester compared to previous semesters, you should take notice. It may mean that he or she is going through a challenging time, or it might not be anything to worry about. On the other hand, having lower grades for consecutive semesters might indicate something more significant. For instance, teen depression, anxiety, ADHD and ADD are characterized by of lack of concentration. This can influence a teen’s ability to do well in school and establish a healthy relationship with his or her peers.

2. Abnormal desire to be alone

A lack of social interaction in childhood may result from a variety of causes, including social fear and anxiety or a preference for solitude. From early childhood through adolescence, socially withdrawn children are at risk for a wide range of negative adjustment outcomes, including socio-emotional difficulties (e.g., anxiety, low self-esteem, depressive symptoms and internalizing problems), peer difficulties (e.g., rejection, victimization, poor friendship quality), and school difficulties (e.g., poor teacher-child relationships, academic difficulties, school avoidance).

3. Extreme mood changes

Everyone experiences occasional moodiness. Teenagers with exploding hormones are especially prone to emotional highs and lows. Frequent and unexplained fearfulness and sadness, alternating with an overly expansive and happy mood without apparent reason, are a potential concern and need watching, particularly if the mood cycling is frequent within a day. 

Various causes can be relevant, ranging from the onset of mental illnesses (like bipolar disorder or depression) to a response to adverse experiences (like sexual or physical trauma) to, perhaps in some cases, “normal” identity crises.  How can you tell what’s what? Trust your intuition. If the behavior feels abnormal, it probably is. The most common mistake in our culture today is for parents to dismiss behavior as a phase. It usually isn’t, as many learn when it is too late. 

4. Increased disciplinary actions in school

If your teen is getting many detentions or even some in-school suspensions, take note. School is a stressful time. The American Psychological Association states that school is the biggest source of stress for teenagers. The pressure on young adults to perform well in a variety of academic, sporting and extracurricular activities is grueling. Test anxiety, exhaustion, bullying and conflict with teachers all play a major role in a teen’s academic success and behavior. It is a simple fact that if teenagers are tired, hungry, unhappy, anxious or ill, their behavior and academic performance likely will suffer.

5. At-risk behavior

Despite your best parenting efforts, unfortunately, sometimes teens engage in risky behaviors. Most teens know plenty about the dangers of risk-taking behaviors like drinking, smoking and taking drugs, but they tend to ignore what they have learned. Research on adolescent brains suggests that teenagers seek out risk-taking behaviors because their brain systems involved in decision-making mature at different times. The section of the brain most involved in emotion and social interaction becomes very active during puberty, while the section most critical for regulating behavior is still maturing into early adulthood. This explains why teens are so susceptible to peer pressure and why education and prevention efforts designed to keep teens from engaging in risky behaviors don’t work very well.  

Certain behaviors can be dangerous, if not deadly. Drug and alcohol usage, vandalism, shoplifting, truancy, promiscuity and other behaviors are cause for concern if they occur more than once. It is imperative that you seek help and guidance to support your fears and guide your intervention.

6. Changes In Sleep and Eating Habits

Being a child can feel turbulent and unstable. To deal with stress, eating disorders can emerge. With these dysfunctional coping strategies, food can easily be replaced by drugs, alcohol or cutting as a way to control feelings of fear, anxiety and insecurity, and immediate attention is needed. 

7. Personality changes

Puberty is bound to bring on some personality changes. Shifts in behavior, attitudes, likes and dislikes may happen throughout childhood, but the biggest changes occur when kids enter pre-adolescence and adolescence. Be aware of the rapidity of that change. When a generally upbeat kid becomes more pessimistic, or an outgoing kid becomes quieter, something is driving the negative shift. These are the sudden changes that may stem from trauma and substance abuse.   

If substance abuse is involved, behavioral changes can occur very quickly— perhaps within a week or two. Bullying also may prompt personality changes. When your child is a victim of ridicule and rejection, it can be very traumatic. You also can see a teen’s behavior change when they have been sexually abused by a stranger or someone familiar. This personality change is often drastic. Children who have been molested often become more isolated and withdrawn. Their grades go down, and they become more fearful of people and places. Although personality changes are common in teens, don’t ignore their implications. 

The teenage years can be the most difficult for a parent, especially without an instruction manual. During this time, many changes occur that make it hard to know how and when to intervene. It may even be difficult to identify when there is a problem and when your teen is just being a teen. Listen to your instincts, and get involved. Ask questions, and act if you feel your teen is struggling. Early intervention is the key to success; prolonging the problem may lead to more difficulties.

Terri Brinston, RN, MA, CLNC, is chief executive officer of Nurturing Wellness Group Foundation. Reach her at

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