How to Tell if Your Kid Is In Trouble

Don’t dismiss the warning signs of your child’s risky behavior.

Sad teenager looking down in outdoor
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You knew when you had kids that you'd also have drama. After all, you probably gave your parents their share of worry during those trying adolescent years. And, well, there's a reason they say what they do about karma.

But your cuddly kid who's suddenly become withdrawn, or the spate of outbursts by your usually placid daughter – is that the garden-variety angst of growing up, or is it something more worrisome? And if it is only a phase, how long should it last? In other words, at what point does their worrisome behavior warrant serious worry?

One key benchmark in making that call – psychosomatic symptoms, says Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of "Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success." If a child is experiencing headaches or stomachaches, trouble sleeping or becoming teary, these are all signs that a kid is not able to manage stress, she says.

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At the same time, a kid in distress doesn't always exhibit these symptoms. A drop in grades used to be a telltale sign of trouble, according to Levine, who noted a recent Stanford University study that found kids who were contemplating suicide showed no drop in grades whatsoever. "It's harder to tell when your kid is in trouble."

So what do you do? Pay attention, Levine says. And don't dismiss possible warning signs.

"Parents tend to wait too late because they're in denial," says Eddie Staub, founder and executive director of Eagle Ranch, a Georgia residence for children in distress. "Boys will be boys. Girls will be girls" goes a common sensibility among parents. "They just feel like it's going to go away on its own," he says. But when risky behavior becomes chronic, what's needed is just the opposite – an intervention that takes the entire family into account. "Take care of it before it goes down some roads that are so destructive that it's hard to remedy," he says.

Furthermore, focusing on whether a behavioral problem amounts to a phase or something more may miss the point.

"It's very difficult to predict whether something is a phase or an attribute," says Jim Taylor, psychologist and author of "Your Children Are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You." "If it's not healthy behavior, even if it might just be temporary, you want to try to change it."

You can start by talking to your kid, Levine says. And do so in a "quiet, non-confrontational way," but one that shows you are concerned and clear-eyed about the situation. If, for example, your son comes home reeking of alcohol, you'll want to show you don't buy his excuses while you work to find out what's really going on.

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And as you do, maintain your cool. "Often, when kids are having difficulty, they're out of control," and that can lead to frustration in parents, Taylor says. "Then the parents are out of control, and that's the worst thing for a child because one thing that a parent should provide in these difficult times, in these difficult phases, is calm, is a sense of stability."

Taylor recommends trying to determine whether something triggered your child's change in behavior such as bullying at school or conflict at home. On the other hand, the child may simply be feeling stressed about schoolwork and need additional attention at home, he says.

If you're not sure of the extent to which your child may be suffering, Levine advises checking with a pediatrician or school counselor – "people who have seen thousands of kids instead of your two or three." But if your child is so anxious that she's throwing up? Then you need an evaluation by a mental health professional, she says.

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"Parents know in their guts what a worrisome symptom is when they're paying attention," Levine says. And that goes for kids, too. "I think kids often know when they're in trouble and will ask if they can talk to somebody, and when a kid is at that point, they really usually need some help."