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Red Flags in Teenage Behavior: How To Spot Warning Signs

As the parent of a teen, you’re likely watching for red flags in teenage behavior that indicate they’re having a tough time with their mental and behavioral health and need help. To identify warning signs you should look for and what to do if you spot any, we spoke to Madison Braid, licensed professional counselor candidate and enrollment director at Embark Behavioral Health in Greenwood Village.  

“It’s important for parents to recognize these warning signs because red-flag behaviors are warning signs that lead parents, family members, caregivers, and professionals to know something is off,” Braid said. “They provide indicators that something needs to change in a teen’s life. Although we may not know exactly what the change should be, we’re alerted that something is wrong and needs to be investigated more deeply.” 

Understanding Teen Red Flags: What’s Normal, and What’s Not?

When it comes to red flags in teenage behavior, Braid recommended looking for behavioral changes outside the norm that disrupt routine functioning. For example, she said, depression is one of the mental health red flags, and the loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities is a warning sign. If your teen suddenly shows a disinterest in an activity or sport they’ve loved for a long time, you should look into it. 

“Things that feel drastic are the changes that are worth exploring,” Braid said. “They’re worth acknowledging and bringing up in conversation because it’s a significant deviation from how they used to behave.” 

Identifying Common Red Flags in Teenage Behavior

Common red flags in teenage behavior can occur as your teen navigates the pressures of school, friends, relationships, and family. Keep an eye out for the 15 emotional and behavioral flags below so you can determine if your child is experiencing red flags. 

1. Anxiety

Anxiety can be normal for teens as they engage in activities like studying for a big test, competing in a sporting event, or performing in a school play. It becomes one of the mental health red flags when it disrupts their daily functioning. This can look like an inability to focus, eat, or keep food down because they’re so anxious.  

2. Depression

Depression is one of the most serious red flags in teenage behavior because of how significantly it can interfere with a teen’s daily life. Warning signs include difficulty concentrating or eating, trouble managing schoolwork, avoiding eye contact, shutting down, or becoming withdrawn from social activities. If left untreated, depression can lead to suicidal thoughts.*   

3. Suicidal thoughts or suicidal remarks  

Suicidal thoughts and remarks are mental health red flags that should be evaluated and addressed immediately. Teen suicide warning signs you should look for include making negative or hopeless statements, isolating from family and friends, or losing interest in activities they once enjoyed. 

4. Appetite changes and problems eating  

Although appetite changes are common for teens as they grow and develop, extreme changes can be a red flag that could lead to identifying eating disorders. Warning signs include suddenly skipping meals or experiencing sudden changes in weight.  

5. Substance use

Substance use is another one of the serious red flags in teenage behavior. Whether teens are using substances as a coping method or for other reasons, this behavior can have dangerous and potentially deadly consequences. Warning signs include breaking rules, suddenly dropping old friends for new friends, or exhibiting physical changes such as sudden weight loss or frequent nosebleeds. 

6. School issues

A teen experiencing school issues can be common, but it could also be a red flag. Warning signs include a sudden decline in academic performance, isolating or avoiding social interactions, or suddenly and consistently refusing to go to school, known as school refusal.   

7. Sleep problems  

Whether it’s getting too little or too much sleep, sleep problems are one of the red flags to watch for in teenagers. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends teens ages 13-18 get eight to 10 hours of sleep each day, noting that getting less rest can increase the risk of depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts. A teenager sleeping too much could indicate mental health concerns such as anxiety or depression.  

8. Avoidance and isolation  

Avoidance and isolation can be normal teen behavior as teens go through hormonal changes and experience mood swings. They may simply want to be alone sometimes. This behavior crosses into one of the mental health red flags in teenage behavior when teens are suddenly and consistently avoiding and isolating from close friendships or social relationships and aren’t hanging out with anyone or are more alone than usual.  

9. Low self-esteem

As teens begin forming their identities, they re-evaluate themselves and how they represent themselves in the world. Low self-esteem can result as they compare themselves to others, especially if they use social media. According to Braid, low self-esteem becomes a red flag when teens avoid going to school or being in photos because they don’t like how they look or if they self-harm to cope with their intense emotional pain. 

10. Increased anger and moodiness

Experiencing anger is common for anyone, but if the anger seems excessive for the situation at hand, this could be one of the red flags in teenage behavior. Warning signs for an angry teenager include displaying extreme and persistent episodes of anger, which could indicate underlying issues, such as being bullied. Moodiness is also common as teens experience hormonal changes but can cross over to a red flag when it’s intense and consistent across multiple situations and people, such as parents, teachers, and friends. 

11. Self-harm

Self-harm is another one of the mental health red flags.  There may be an underlying issue such as anxiety or depression that needs to be addressed, and self-injury can even become an addiction. Signs of self-harm include teens suddenly wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, especially in hot weather, sudden mood changes, or excusing injuries as accidents. 

12. Paranoia

Some paranoia is normal during the teen years as teenagers become more self-aware and aware of how others view them. It becomes one of the mental health red flags when it becomes persistent or excessive, which can be a sign or symptom of a mental illness. 

13. Ruminating or intrusive thoughts

Teenagers have repetitive thoughts throughout the day, but they’re often relatively harmless. If they start thinking obsessively about these thoughts, they’re experiencing rumination. When these thoughts involve negative or intrusive thoughts, it can create stress or anxiety, which can affect a teen’s school, job, or personal life. This is when ruminating thoughts — and intrusive thoughts — become a red flag. 

14. Shifts in personality

Youths are developing their identities during the teen years, and this stage of life can involve many pivotal milestones, so their personalities can shift. When those shifts are sudden and out of character, include aggression, or involve excessive anger, they become a red flag behavior.  

15: Excessive technology use

Technology plays a significant role in the lives of today’s teenagers. When they use it excessively, and it negatively interferes with their daily life, it can become a red flag for technology addiction. Warning signs include irritability or panic when they’re without their phone or Wi-Fi, poor sleep habits, or sudden changes in academic performance. 

How Can Parents Help Their Teens With Red Flag Behavior?

To help your teen with red flag behavior, communicate openly about mental health, encourage a healthy diet, participate in self-esteem activities with them, and set boundaries on screen time.  

A great first step is to initiate check-ins with your teen. Braid said this is the easiest way to identify and address red flags because it gives your teenager an outlet to share any struggles or challenges they’re experiencing. 

Communicate openly about mental health

When you openly communicate about mental health, you normalize the conversation and reduce the stigma and negative beliefs related to seeking help. This can allow your teen to feel more inclined to share what they’re going through because that door is open, and it’s easier for them to walk through it as opposed to opening the door themselves. 

Practice empathy and validation in these conversations. Ensure your teen feels accepted, heard, and supported so they don’t have a negative experience that makes them not want to talk about the issue again, Braid said. 

Encourage a healthy diet

Encourage a healthy diet, as physical and psychological health are closely linked together. Create meals around whole foods, fiber, seafoods, lean poultry, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid packaged and processed foods such as microwavable meals, which contain food additives and preservatives that can disrupt healthy bacteria in the gut, which can promote good mental health. Limit sugar intake. 

To encourage your teen to embrace a healthy diet when they’re the ones preparing the meals or grabbing a snack, explain the benefits of this style of eating and stock your fridge and pantry with foods that match it. This gives them a sense of control over what they eat while also encouraging they make nutritious choices. 

Participate in self-esteem activities with your teen

While self-esteem activities can be beneficial, Braid recommended doing them as a family instead of directing your teen to do them alone. Participating in a self-esteem activity together benefits the family as a whole, increases connection, and prevents your teenager from feeling singled out or punished.   

“If we want change to happen, it’s best that the whole family acts together to shift the family system toward a more effective and sustainable routine,” she said. 

To identify the right self-esteem activities for your teen, pay attention to their interests, and find activities based on those interests. For example, if they’re interested in skin care or facials, then a spa day at home could be a fun activity to encourage self-care and conversation.  

Set boundaries on screen time

Setting boundaries on screen time can be difficult but is important because technology is so woven into daily life. Braid recommended establishing boundaries relevant to your teen for the whole family. For example, if your teen is refusing to come to the dinner table because they’d rather play their video game or scroll through social media, clearly define the boundaries regarding appropriate use of technology for the household, and implement them — for everyone.  If the house rule is no technology during meals, parents should follow these rules too.  

Make the rules and expectations clear, writing them out so everyone is aware of them. This way, your teen doesn’t feel scrutinized or punished when rules are enforced. 

“The most important thing to remember when it comes to establishing boundaries is consistency,” Braid said. “Being consistent with boundaries creates an expectation for every family member to uphold until it becomes an ingrained aspect of the family routine.” 

Teen Red Flags: Wrapup  

Red flags in teenage behavior let parents know their teen is struggling. If you’re worried about your child, initiate check-ins so you can watch for the 15 red flags listed above and address them. By showing empathy, communicating openly about mental health, encouraging a healthy diet, participating in self-esteem activities as a family, and setting boundaries on screen time, you can help your teen combat red flags in teenage behavior.  

*This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your child is having a mental health emergency, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling or texting 988 or chatting online. You can also text HOME to 741741 ─ the Crisis Text Line ─ from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.    

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.