What's a struggling teen? This Emotional Life - PBS

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Adolescence / Blog

 Frederic Reamer Ph.D.

Frederic Reamer Ph.D.'s Bio

Dr. Reamer is a professor in the Graduate Social Work Program at Rhode Island College.

What's a struggling teen?


Topics

What, exactly, is a struggling teen? The term struggling teen describes youths who show signs of distress, some subtle and some obvious. Common warning signs include the following behaviors:

  • Isolation and withdrawal:  Most teens withdraw from parents, but some sink into themselves too far. They may feel profoundly alone and alienated, unable to connect with any safe adult. They crave friendships but feel too demoralized and fearful to reach out to others or respond to friendly overtures. Many struggling teens have poor self-images and little confidence. They doubt that they can be competent and successful, and they become increasingly cut-off from school, family, and friends. These teens are easy prey for involvement with the “wrong crowd” because of their hunger to belong. 
  • School failure and truancy:  Many struggling teens perform poorly in school. Some were strong students in grade school but became discouraged and alienated from academics in middle school or high school. Other teens have difficulty with school their entire lives because of learning disabilities, mental health issues, difficult home lives, or school environments that are hostile, unresponsive, racist, and non-nurturing.
  • Defiance toward authority:   Many struggling teens refuse to obey rules laid down by parents, teachers, the police, and other authority figures. They may refuse to obey rules at home, cheat on school assignments, and become involved in delinquent activity (for example, shoplifting, reckless driving, and drug use). They may be suspended or expelled from school, chronically truant, or in trouble with the police.  <!--[endif]-->
  • Running away from home:   Teens may run away from home to escape conflict with their parents, assert their independence, avoid the consequences of breaking rules, or flee their own distressing emotions.
  • Choosing the “wrong” friends:  Teens normally seek solace from peers. Struggling teens have a knack for finding other struggling teens. These friends, who themselves are having a difficult time, engage the teen in high-risk behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use, sex, and delinquency.
  • Impulsive behavior:   Teens who hang out with other struggling teens sometimes engage in high-risk and impulsive behaviors such as speeding, driving without a license, shoplifting, using drugs and alcohol, and having unprotected sex. They may have a “devil-may-care” attitude and take chances because they feel invulnerable and believe they have everything under control. Teens who abuse drugs and alcohol are even more likely to engage in impulsive behavior because of their impaired judgment.
  • Getting in trouble with the law:   Struggling teens may break the law, ranging from committing crimes against property (for example, spray-painting graffiti, turning over gravestones, stealing cars) to committing violent crimes (for example, assault, robbery, rape).
  • Depression: A significant percentage of struggling teens show signs of depression. Common symptoms include poor appetite or overeating; difficulty with sleep (insomnia, premature awakening, or sleeping too much); low energy and fatigue; low self-esteem; poor concentration; difficulty making decisions; feelings of hopelessness, guilt, and worthlessness; and irritability. 
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs:   Many struggling teens experiment with or abuse alcohol or drugs, including marijuana, methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin, or prescription medications. Teens who are abusing substances may experience a persistent desire for the substance, difficulty cutting down or controlling consumption despite negative consequences; frequent intoxication; withdrawal symptoms; impaired school, job, or social functioning; and a need for increased amounts of the substance to achieve a “high.”
  • Eating disorders:   Some struggling teens show signs of an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia. They may seriously undereat, binge eat, or purge through vomiting or laxative use. Teens can compulsively overeat or exercise excessively to avoid weight gain.
  • Self-injury:   Some teenagers try to hurt themselves by cutting, burning, branding, bruising, or hitting themselves, among other methods. Mental health professionals generally agree that teens who try to hurt themselves in these ways do so in an effort to cope with emotional pain; the self-injury temporarily releases unbearable psychological tension.

Parents, teachers, and other concerned adults should pay close attention to these warning signs.  They often signal the need for professional help.