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Recognizing Emotional Problems in Teens – and When to Seek Help

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
mental health

Adolescence is accompanied by physical and emotional changes, a desire for independence, and facing decisions about social activities. Beyond this typical navigation through teenage years, the COVID pandemic has added new challenges and heightened anxiety.

How can you give your child the support needed at this critical time?  It helps to identify the differences between age-appropriate teen behavior and a presentation indicative of a treatable condition such as depression.

John Hertzer, MD, Director of the Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital and psychiatric consultant for the Highland Springs Changes program, answers some questions about recognizing signs of mental or emotional problems in teens and when to seek help.

What Can I Do To Help with My Child’s Mental Health?

Establish and maintain an open, loving relationship that includes trust, honesty and respect.

Offer praise along with education and encourage your children to talk with you when they are confused or feeling stress.

Creating a family environment that is safe, supportive and structured helps foster positive development and resilience among children.

That said, even in the most nurturing and empowering households, youth can develop mental health conditions, so it is important to monitor children for emotional and behavioral changes, and recognize as parents that it is not about shame or blame.

What Are The Signs of Adolescent Depression?

Mental health conditions, such as depression, interfere with a teen’s ability to function at home or school.  Learning to recognize such a problem is vital to his or her emotional well-being. These signs and symptoms include:

  • Agitation
  • Gaining or losing weight
  • Trouble with school work, including a drop in grades
  • Signs of depression, such as persistent sadness/irritability
  • Lack of motivation or losing interest in people or activities
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Low energy
  • Destructive behaviors
  • Substance abuse
  • Expressing thoughts of hopelessness or not wanting to live

What Should I Do If My Teen Shows Signs of a Mental Health Issue?

If you observe concerning changes in your child's mood, thinking, or behavior, approaching your son or daughter about it is a pivotal first step and more often than not a conversation that is desired by someone experiencing emotional distress.

Talking with your child's doctor is also important to determine if a referral to a mental health professional is advised. 

What Are Some Treatments To Help Teens?

Depending on the diagnosis, your child may be treated with therapy or a combination of therapy and medication.  Some effective therapies include: 

  • Cognitive behavior therapy, which aims to help teens replace harmful thought patterns with positive feelings.
  • Family therapy, which helps parents, teens and siblings function more positively.
  • Group therapy, which brings several teens together with a therapist to promote positive interactions and group support.


The transition to adulthood is filled with challenges. Each person’s journey is unique, and life doesn’t come with a clear road map. Sometimes things happen that make the transition to adulthood harder, and for young adults suffering from mental illness, the road can be even more difficult. Learn more about adolescent psychiatry services at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital.