Ill or a teenager - should I be concerned?

Ill or a teenager – should I be concerned?

One question I’m often asked by concerned parents is around their childrens’ behaviour. “They’re acting out of character and getting moody and angry – are they ill or a teenager behaving normally?”

The fear behind this question is usually one of undiagnosed mental or behavioural difficulties, or drug use. The problem however is that the normal effects of hormonal changes during puberty can be difficult to separate from the signs of depression, anxiety, or other illnesses.

One advantage that every parent has when dealing with teenagers is that they were a teenager once themselves. Think back to your own teenage years – do you remember feelings of being hemmed in by family when you wanted to be independent? Did that ever come out as frustration or anger? Were you ever embarrassed by your parents, even when on reflection they weren’t doing anything to actively embarrass you? Were you ever criticised for spending too much time on an activity or interest?

Compare that with your child’s behaviour. In considering whether they are ill or a teenager remember that whilst the context might change – from computer games to social media – the fundamental needs of adolescents to make space for themselves don’t.

Beginning to separate from the family is something that is a healthy part of teenagers’ development. This can make them appear distant and awkward, especially when they feel they’re being embarrassed. However fractious things become in the family though you should still be able to see them spending and enjoying time with friends and in other activities. An adolescent who is angry and frustrated, but who is disconnected from other people or activities, is who may be displaying signs of illness rather than healthy teenage behaviour.

In deciding whether your child is ill or a teenager displaying normal behaviour look out for the following. They may be signs of a developing mental or behavioural problem.


  • Resistance to attending, non-attendance, and school-avoidance.
  • Significant decrease in academic performance or behaviour
  • Problems concentrating, or forming or recalling memory


  • Significant decrease in time spent/enjoyment from friends and activities
  • Frequent or constant disobedience or aggression
  • Illegal or dangerous adrenalin-chasing behavior


  • Significant changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Significant changes in energy levels, either up or down
  • Increased physical manifestations – aches, pains, stomach complaints
  • Persistent feelings of anxiety or hopelessness, including crying

When looking at these don’t react just on the basis of any one of these signs. Think also about your child’s baseline of behaviour, when considering the frequency, duration, and scale of any problem. Above all though don’t delay in seeking a professional opinion or help if you suspect the answer to “Are they ill or a teenager?” may be that they’re ill. And if you need pointers on supporting your child then see this blog on how to help your teen.

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