How to Identify Common Adolescent Mental Health Issues

Teen hides face in crossed arms on table, binders and books open nearbyGiven that the transition from adolescence into young adulthood is often marked by normal emotional ups and downs, it can be difficult for parents to identify symptoms of mental health issues. Especially after puberty, adolescents experience a variety of changes, both behaviorally and psychologically. They also experience mood swings that can seem severe, depending on the day and the circumstances.

So what should parents be aware of? What should they watch for? Some broad signs that indicate an adolescent’s mood or behavior could be problematic include:

  • Social isolation
  • Anger, irritability, or depression that is consistent
  • Moodiness that lasts longer than a few days
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Significant changes in appetite
  • Fixation on a thought or an impulse

Some of the most common mental health diagnoses among adolescents are depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), and eating disorders. Let’s take a closer look at these issues and explore their symptoms.


Common symptoms of depression in adolescents are irritability (generally more so than sadness), anger, hostility, and melancholy. Adolescents often have somatic symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches when depressed. Other symptoms to look for are low self-esteem, chronic fatigue, apathy, lack of concentration, emotional dysregulation, and thoughts of suicide. It should be noted that adolescents and young adults can also display symptoms of bipolar, a mood condition similar to depression but with the addition of mania. Mania can manifest as an extreme elated mental state, such as feelings of euphoria, lack of inhibitions, racing thoughts, little to no need for sleep, excessive talking, and risky behavior.


Anxiety can manifest as panic (or panic attacks), posttraumatic stress (PTSD), obsessive compulsion (OCD), social anxiety, or phobias. Parents should take note that PTSD often presents as severe fear of people, places, or things, and can also be diagnosed as phobias, while obsessive compulsion typically manifests as consistent thoughts of an image or impulse. Young adults with anxiety can appear fearful, withdrawn, and emotionally dysregulated.

If you suspect your child or adolescent may have one of the conditions above, it is imperative to seek professional help as soon as possible.

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity (ADHD)

To identify possible ADHD, parents should also watch for the child or adolescent not being cognizant of their actions, disorganization, a lack of focus, disruptive behavior, and becoming easily bored. The most significant symptom of attention-deficit hyperactivity, in my opinion, is a lack of impulse control. This can manifest as engaging in behavior that seems obviously (to everyone else, anyway) inappropriate. When an adolescent is asked, “Why did you do that?” the answer is often, “I don’t know” or “I wanted to.” In my work with adolescents diagnosed with ADHD, the ability to think through the consequences of a given behavior is often not present. I have worked with adolescents who had ideas that were quite brilliant; people diagnosed with ADHD are often extremely bright and creative. However, when they attempt to execute those ideas, the consequences of not asking permission or crossing boundaries are typically not considered.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders may include bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and body dysmorphia. Typically, adolescents with eating disorders aren’t just dieting and exercising to maintain weight. Bulimia is defined as binging and purging to avoid calories being consumed and potential weight gain. Anorexia manifests as eating significantly small amounts of food or no food at all, which can be extremely dangerous or even fatal. Symptoms to watch for are dissatisfaction with the way the adolescent looks, sudden and/or extreme weight loss, going to the bathroom right after eating, fear of weight gain, and a frail or thin appearance.

What to Do If You Suspect Your Child Has a Mental Health Issue

If you suspect your child or adolescent may have one of the conditions above, it is imperative to seek professional help as soon as possible. Depending on the diagnosis and the severity of the issue, treatment may include cognitive behavioral therapy, family systems therapy, and/or medication.

Prompt treatment can prevent a plethora of future problems for adolescents transitioning into adulthood. Adolescents often feel ashamed or embarrassed about their feelings or concerns and thus don’t reveal them. As a parent, that’s where you come in. The fallout for adolescents not receiving appropriate treatment may include low self-esteem, substance abuse, and thoughts of suicide, and can impact various areas of their lives, such as academic performance, work performance, friendships, romantic relationships, and family relationships.

Identifying mental health issues in adolescents can be complicated because it can be hard to delineate potential problems from normal mood and behavioral fluctuations. The key is the severity and duration of the behavior and to what degree it is getting in the way of the adolescent’s ability to function. Behavior that indicates a possible mental health issue is present will typically increase in severity, duration, and disruption in the life of the adolescent over time.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Corey

    July 11th, 2016 at 9:40 AM

    If I ever thought that my child had any of these problems then I would definitely not try to diagnose on my own, I would want the help of a professional.

  • victoria

    July 11th, 2016 at 2:28 PM

    The trickiest part of when you are working with this age group is that many times you don’t know if there really is something deeper going on or if it is just typical adolescent angst. It might not be so apparent that there is something that is very difficult going on if you just chalk it all up to this is how kids this age are. It might be something a whole lot more serious than that and as a parent this can end up being a pretty confusing time for all of us.

  • Jim

    July 11th, 2016 at 4:57 PM

    I am very concerned about my daughter but even when I try to have a conversation with her it is as if she intentionally shuts down even further. It makes me feel like she is pushing me away on purpose.

  • gladys o

    July 12th, 2016 at 9:49 AM

    You have to be very careful with children at this age. They are going through so many new things that most of them have no idea how to manage. It is very easy if they do not have someone paying close attention to them for someone to lose control and to begin to have feelings of being lost and hopeless. Our kids should be precious to us, and that is why we have to keep a very eagle eye on the things going on with them in their lives.

  • Maddie

    July 12th, 2016 at 1:52 PM

    As the mom of a child with very high levels of anxiety, no matter what is coming up in school, this is a very real issue that many of us face every day. The anxiety does not go away just because school is out, she just finds something different to fixate on.
    I can’t ignore it because I know that it is really harming her day to day interactions with other people but I do not want her to feel ostracized either.
    It is a very fine line that has to be tread.

  • Beck

    July 13th, 2016 at 7:58 AM

    My suggestion is to not ignore it, even if you think that it could be something benign.
    You just don’t know in many of these cases how the trouble can quickly escalate

  • perry

    July 14th, 2016 at 2:10 PM

    I feel at times like my children all have mood disorders because one minute they are all happy and loving to me and then the next they have swung in the opposite direction. I am sure that I was the same way when I was a kid but man, it is confusing as all get out and I don’t know where to go with it half the time! I think that they do it just to freak me out, and then I’m like do I leave them alone or try to engage them in conversation about it?

  • Bella

    July 17th, 2016 at 8:10 AM

    A lot of kids are not going to say anything and they will wait for the parents to bring it up if they think that the kid has a problem. And the bad thing is that a lot of kids and their parents never really talk about everything that is going on so there becomes this stalemate in conversation.
    I don’t want to ignore my kids but there are also boundaries that have to be respected too. I think that it is always good to maintain an open line of communication just so that they know they can talk to you when they need you.

  • Robert

    August 2nd, 2016 at 11:09 AM

    Thank you for the article. My young teenager has been struggling with a lot of different issues as he is going through puberty and it can get pretty tough. I really like what you said about finding a potential problem is hard because they are teenagers and mood swings are normal. I’m glad I’m not the only one struggling. Thank you for the insights and for sharing.

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