Teens in Crisis: 11 Warnings Signs Parents Should Look For

12.38Parents must be able to identify teens in crisis and not just assume it is normal teenage moodiness or rebellion. Mental health struggles like depression, substance abuse, learning difficulties, and low self-esteem are often problems your teen cannot handle on his or her own. And unfortunately, the pandemic has only made things worse, “Mental health visits to emergency rooms by 12- to 17-year-olds increased 31 percent in 2020 compared with the previous year.”

As a parent, you know your child better than anyone else. It may be time to seek outside help for your son or daughter if you’ve noticed some of these warning signs that are indicative of a teen in crisis:

1. Disengagement from school

If your teen suddenly loses interest in subjects they used to enjoy, it could indicate emotional disturbance or substance abuse. If your straight A’s and B’s student starts to flail academically, this is an indication that he or she needs help – likely beyond tutoring.

2. Avoiding Old Friends

If your child is avoiding peers with whom they have always shared interests, it could indicate a radical change in behavior. This is often linked to more serious substance experimentation or a mental illness like anxiety or similar mood disorders.

3. Promiscuity

If your child is engaging in unsafe, unhealthy sexual behavior, this is often a symptom of underlying anxiety, depression, or another mental health problem.

4. Violence

Involvement in physical conflicts is a sign that your troubled teen does not have appropriate coping strategies for their day-to-day life, and needs help. Violence definitely goes beyond the scope of a violent teen and into the realm of a teen in crisis. Conflict resolution for teens who are displaying violent behavior is extremely vital.

5. Self-harm

This includes cutting, burning oneself, or being obsessive about food intake. Self-harm is often connected to more severe warning signs like suicidal thoughts, talking about suicide, or making plans to commit suicide. Early intervention is crucial to help prevent teen suicide, so if you notice any of these signs please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

6. Changes in Eating Patterns

Avoiding food, emotionally eating, hoarding food, binge eating, or extreme weight loss or weight gain can indicate an underlying emotional disturbance. These can be deadly if left untreated.

7. Extreme Disregard of Personal Health and Hygiene

Lack of self-care, such as infrequent showering or brushing of teeth, can result in social alienation and may indicate depression or developmental issues.

8. Dramatic Changes in Sleep Patterns

Excessive sleeping, or not sleeping enough, is often an indicator of depression. It has also been linked to problematic electronics use.

9. Overuse of Electronics

We all need to use the internet and computer on a daily basis, students in particular. However, some adolescents are especially vulnerable to videogame, smartphone, and internet addiction. For these individuals, it is a distraction that can become an all-consuming addiction. This can disrupt school and devastate peer and family relationships.

10. Habitual Alcohol or Drug Use

Some experimentation is normal for teenagers, but when substance use becomes a frequent, regular escape, there is a deeper problem that is not being addressed. While some parents may view this as their child being a defiant teenager, this can be a red flag sign of a young person in crisis.

11. Verbal, Emotional, or Physical Abuse within your Household

If your teen engages in bullying behavior, name-calling, yelling, or blatant disregard toward you or other members of your household, this may indicate a teen in crisis. While all teenagers push boundaries, this type of behavior is not acceptable and indicates that your child may need a lifeline. Conflict resolution for teens in crisis is especially important to ensure a healthy family dynamic.


If your struggling teen has gone beyond being a typical defiant teenager and is displaying some of these red flag signs of a teen in crisis, there could very well be an underlying cognitive, emotional, or mental health issue that requires the intervention of a trained counselor, or even a mental health treatment program. If you suspect that your child is in crisis, take the necessary steps to get help today.

To learn more about how you can help teens in crisis, download our free white paper. 

Additional Resources

About the Author

McKay Deveraux, Executive Director at Outback Therapeutic Expeditions

McKay Deveraux, MSW, LCSW, is the executive director of Outback Therapeutic Expeditions

McKay has over 17 years experience working with troubled teens in wilderness therapy. Before becoming the executive director at Outback Therapeutic Expeditions, McKay received his Masters of Social Work from Brigham Young University, worked as a field staff, field director, program director, and as a primary therapist at Outback.  He is honored to have served as Battalion Operations Sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves and is a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.


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