How to Know If Your Teen Is Struggling Emotionally (and What to Do)

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how to know your teen is struggling emotionally
Photo: Courtesy of Cristian Newman

Adolescence is a challenging time for most individuals, but being an adolescent in 2018 – now that’s a topic for discussion.

Adolescence is characterized as the transition from childhood to adulthood, which involves dramatic physical, sexual, psychological, and social developmental changes, all taking place at the same time. As it stands, many adolescents have a difficult time navigating their way through these transitions. According to the World Health Organization, ten to 20 percent of children and adolescents will develop some form of mental disorder. Half of these mental illnesses begin by the age of 14, and three-quarters of them will have started by the mid-20s.

Context is key when trying to put ourselves in adolescents’ shoes. Not only does it help to understand the current state of the world we live in, but it is also necessary that we take the nature of the expat lifestyle into account. Growing up in this part of the world presents various difficulties — parents frequently traveling for work and leaving teens to their own devices, feeling lonely and isolated, difficulty establishing deep meaningful relationships due to friends emigrating, having to rebuild one’s social network, and so on. What’s more, over-scheduled teens face academic pressure as well as having to contend with augmented social expectations. Given the fast-paced, transient nature of the region, teens may often feel overwhelmed and stressed in their daily lives and not have adequate resources in place to deal with this.

As parents, we need to place the same level of importance on our children’s emotional development as we do to their physical and intellectual development.

As parents, we need to place the same level of importance on our children’s emotional development as we do to their physical and intellectual development. In order to do so, we need to be equipped to detect when a child is presenting significant indicators of emotional difficulties.

Most often, family, friends, teachers, or individuals themselves begin to recognize small or significant changes in an adolescent’s behavior, which may gradually or immediately start to impact their personal, occupational, and/or social functioning. Learning about developing symptoms or early warning signs and taking action can help; early intervention can help reduce the severity of an illness.

The signs and symptoms of a mental illness can vary depending on the disorder, the context in which it occurs, and other factors, but here are a few things to look out for.


Mood changes

Teenagers might present an irritable or low mood more days than not.

Emotional or anger outbursts

This includes frequently crying or being highly reactive with others.

Concentration difficulties

Teenagers might find it challenging to focus on tasks, experiencing a ‘clouded mind’ or being forgetful.


This includes recent social withdrawal or loss of interest in being around loved ones.

Deterioration in functioning

This could manifest itself in an unusual drop in functioning at school, with homework, or in social settings (e.g. frequently missing sport practice, failing class tests, difficulty performing familiar tasks, and so on).

Feeling indifferent

This manifests itself in lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern.

Feelings of worthlessness

They might experience feeling as though they have no purpose or reason for living.

Excessive worrying

This includes an increase in intensity of worries, fears, or feelings of guilt.


A teenager might start showing signs of feeling tired despite getting adequate sleep.

Low motivation

A struggling teenager might start feeling unmotivated and lacking drive.

Sleep or appetite changes

Significant changes in both these domains might be a sign that something is wrong.

Society deems it an invaluable skill for an adult to provide immediate assistance to a child who is physically choking, but what about being equipped for example to help out when a child is experiencing chronic anxiety and is refusing to go to school?

With the recent launch of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) in the UAE, a parent will have the skills to be able to approach a child or an adolescent who may be struggling with a mental health problem and ask questions in a non-judgmental way that elicits open communication between parent and child. They will also be able to recognize the key symptoms suggestive of a mental health problem, such as an anxiety disorder, and will therefore feel more empowered in helping their child by making the appropriate referral to a mental health professional.

The Adolescent – MHFA Course will run on May 10th and 11th at The Lighthouse Arabia in Dubai. This course is suitable for parents, teachers, sports coaches, and youth workers and will be held over two consecutive days from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The course runs on a quarterly basis. For more information, call (+971) 4 380 9298.

Christine Kritzas is a Counseling Psychologist and Accredited MHFA Instructor at The Lighthouse Arabia.