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Can you recognise the warning signs that your teenager is struggling?

Do you need a guide to reading your teenager? Do you need help to see red flags or warning signs that they might be in trouble? Louisa Woods, a high school teacher, counsellor, and mother of three, shares her advice on supporting your young person through their teenage years.

So, let me tell you something about teenagers. Even the most well-adjusted, kind, and sensible teenager, the Dalai Lama of adolescents, is doing or dealing with things you don’t really want to think about. Take it from one who knows.

Some of their antics are funny (though perhaps less so if the teen in question is yours), eyebrow rather than hair raising: tweeting anime porn, singing show tunes ad infinitum until the relief teacher cracks, or snogging in the dean’s office when she’s nipped out to the photocopier.

As a high school teacher myself, I confess to collapsing in giggles on more than a few occasions once the subject of my mirth was safely out of earshot. I mean come on, anime porn?  I had to look it up. And then notify the techie so I didn’t get reported for inappropriate online activities.

Then there’s the stuff of low budget teen rom-coms: setting off school fire alarms to avoid PE, smoking in the back of class, submitting assignments copied verbatim from a teacher’s example. You know, downright stupid stuff. Art imitates life, I’m afraid.

More inevitable is the upheaval, joyous or otherwise, of relationships. Friendships in adolescence can be tricky; romantic relationships are a quagmire of sweaty palms, confused expectations, sexual exploration and miscommunication. And that’s when things are going well.

Then there’s the balancing act of maintaining an online presence that fits the ‘cool but not cocky’ criteria. Even more pressing, in a popularity contest measured by likes and shares, is avoiding the rumours and slurs most never dare utter face to face but flow with ease through social media. The greatest challenge? Resisting the temptation to join the mob in throwing virtual stones.

The list goes on, comprising the bread and butter of teenage existence. If you don’t think yours is partaking, they probably have a talent for subterfuge.

Look, I get it, you don’t really want to think about it. But you should. Beyond thinking, you should be asking. Even if they give you the broad strokes, you’ll have some sense of life as they know it. Over time you’ll get to know what constitutes a state of equilibrium for your teen and develop a benchmark against which you can judge their emotional wellbeing.

Be respectful of their need for independence, for self-expression, to hold a few secrets close to their heart, but get them talking. Notice changes. Listen for what’s not being said, as much as for what is.

If you do get a detailed version, brace yourself. Not because what you hear is going to be too shocking (although maybe brace yourself for that just in case) but because bread and butter can get a bit… tedious. You have my permission to switch off just a bit once they’re deep into their analysis of the ‘he said, she said’ from last night’s group chat.

For a teenager driven by unwieldy emotions and hormones, anything can be a major. It’s hard not to sigh and dismiss a snarky text message. It’s tempting to roll out the ‘plenty more fish/doesn’t deserve you/both so young’ lines when the girlfriend breaks it off. Imagine the strength of will it took to suppress an incredulous eye-roll at the tears shed when Zayn left One Direction.

But this is their reality.

You can’t tell them how to feel.

Cripes, half the time we don’t listen to our own advice about how we’re feeling, so we’ve no business trying to wrangle other people’s emotions. A little bit of empathy goes a long way.

So brush off the things that matter to them at your peril, but equally, don’t freak out. You might be suffering all manner of inner turmoil, but present a calm exterior. As calm as you can possibly manage, anyway. Hard when it’s your kid, I know, but freaking out helps nobody.

And heads-up: the way you digest the bread and butter might be a test. If you can’t handle the comparatively bland then the likelihood of your teenager sharing anything more taxing is slim.

To be honest, many teenagers I’ve worked with try pretty hard to avoid letting their folks in when life gets tough. Sometimes ‘they just don’t understand me’ or sometimes ‘they need to just chill out’ but often, heartbreakingly, it’s because they desperately don’t want to be the source of pain or disappointment.

I know and you know – when our kids aren’t travelling well we’d rather not be kept in the dark. No matter how complicated the situation, how much trouble they’re in, no matter how bad they’re feeling, we’d rather be told.  Always. But teens don’t necessarily think that way, especially when their world is collapsing at the edges and everything’s getting a bit wobbly.

So it’s up to us to get in there and check. Have those bread and butter conversations. And keep an eye out for warning signs.

Pretty much all of the red flags for emotional or mental distress flutter under ‘Change’ with the four biggies being sleeping, eating, activity, and socialising. This is where your benchmark comes in. It’s really hard to judge any change in behaviour or emotional state without one. Know your child; follow your instincts.

And I should clarify, I’m talking significant, lasting change here. We all have the odd day where we eat everything in sight, turn the phone to silent, and blub over crappy TV, but if that’s become the norm for someone previously active and social, then something’s up.

There can be physical signs too: eyes with dark circles, weight loss or gain, hair loss, bitten nails, random aches and pains. If the brain’s not well, often the body’s not so flash either. And of course, evidence of self harm is cause in itself to seek help.

Joylessness is another indicator. Many teenagers lose the childhood gift of uncomplicated joy as they negotiate their way into adulthood. Some are downright cynical by the time they’re 14, but most have at least some slivers of joy sneaking through the angsty cloud-cover. It could be drama, friends, motocross, reading. Hell, it could be anime porn, but if there’s nothing that they’re into simply for the joy of it, life in general probably isn’t good.

Teenagers are masters of apathy; it can be desperately uncool to care too much. Having said that, there’s almost always something that gets them going. Most teens have a heightened sense of injustice and a finely tuned radar for bullshit.  They have their pet issues, peeves that they cannot ignore, not least among them the dictatorial attitudes of power-wielding adults. To meet a teenager struck by the curse of true apathy is terrible indeed, and if yours has turned into one it’s time to investigate why.

There are other warning signs of course, some specific to particular illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and some seemingly specific to your teen, signs you recognise as their parent. Don’t dismiss them because they’re based on instinct. Go with your gut.

Sometimes, no matter your vigilance or knowledge, bad things will happen. Forgive yourself in advance. Mental illness comes for some of us no matter what our circumstances or who we have in our corner.

There’s that old saying ‘hope for the best but prepare for the worst’ and that’s just about perfect advice. There’s no point catastrophising about possible futures or lamenting the adolescent condition; about those you can do very little. Besides, you might be one of the lucky few whose teen only ever serves up bread and butter. What you can do is simple: communicate, connect, be watchful – and be there, no matter what.

Louisa Woods is a high school teacher and counsellor, currently filling her days looking after her own three children, writing a bit, singing a bit, and reading as much as she can.

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