Teens live amid such tumultuous waters, it can be hard to detect if something is just an adolescent squall or if there’s a real storm brewing.  As a parent, you’re caught between a rock and a hard place.  You don’t want to be perceived as a meddling parent.  You want your teenager to learn how to handle adversity on his or her own, without always wanting you to step in and save the day.

You’ve gotten the message of “hands off” loud and clear when it comes to your teenager, but you know something’s not right.  You’ve waited and you’ve watched, and that feeling in your gut just won’t go away.  You feel like you ought to do something, but you don’t know what.

Parents need to be like smoke detectors, ever alert and vigilant in case of fire.  Unlike battery-operated smoke detectors, you’re not equipped to know the exact particulate level that presents a danger in your teen’s life and start beeping your head off.  This isn’t a mechanical switch; it’s a judgement call, and that’s where parents can have problems.  Step in too soon, and you look like a hysterical parent, further alienating your kids.  Step in too late, and, well, the consequences of that can be ghastly.

Complicating all of this is your teenager’s uncanny ability to hide how he or she is really feeling or doing.  Living in an adult world, teens become quite adept at telling adults what they think we want to hear.  With all of the other stuff we’ve got going on in our lives, we’re often just as willing to believe and not question what they say.  Teens live within a shell of protective coloration, meant to shield their inner selves from others — especially, perversely, parents.

Sometimes, it isn’t evident that a storm’s brewing until your family is lashed in the ninety-mile-an-hour winds caused by an eating disorder, substance abuse, early pregnancy, or self-harm.  These are high stakes so, as a parent, I’d rather look ridiculous and be considered as overacting than be wrong and left wondering why I didn’t do something sooner.

One of the biggest red flags that you need to be aware of in teenagers, as we discussed in the last chapter, is clinical depression.  Again, we’re not talking here about normal, periodic, short-term bouts of teen angst.  Instead, we’re talking about lethargy.  A couple of down days with teenagers are a normal consequence of the age; it takes them awhile to process their feelings — in some cases to even connect with their feelings.  During that sorting-out period, a teen’s emotional equilibrium can get a little skewed.  Multiple weeks and, certainly, months, are not healthy and normal.

For adolescents, these feelings of despair are truly overwhelming.  The unique thing about teens is they can be feeling this way and do their very best never to show it.  Of course, complete concealment isn’t possible so they may lapse their camouflage in front of friends or in unguarded moments when they think no one else is paying attention to them.  It can also come out in sarcastic, caustic, or fatalistic statements about themselves, the future, and life in general.

The more of these indicators that exist in a teen’s life, the heavier the burden that teen carries.  These can build up over time, brick by brick, until your teen’s attitude about self and life collapses.  When this collapse occurs and your teenager enters a severe depressive episode, the warning signs will become more pronounced and harder to hide.  The lethargy and “who cares?” attitude will take center stage even more, along with increased references to hopelessness, helplessness, and even death.  That inner dialogue of hopelessness can leak its way into comments that are anything but casual.

Even if your teenager is not forthcoming about he he or she is doing or feeling, you can collect collateral information.  One of the first things to be aware of is what challenges your teen is currently facing.  Normally, resilient, steady adolescents can be knocked over by significant traumas or stresses in life.  They have fewer experiences with which to marshal a response, and their brains are still working out how to integrate upper-level reasoning and long-term strategies.

Using a flood analogy: A teen barely treading water can be forced under by waves you’ve dismissed as small and insignificant.  If teens are caught in a trough of lowered self-esteem, having a fight with a friend (romantic or not), tanking a test, failing an audition, or being laid off a part-time job can dunk them under.  You need to watch to see how soon and how well they’re bobbing back up.  When you know what your kids are doing, you can watch, listen, and make yourself available.

Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 35 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.