Adolescence (10-19 years) is a unique and formative time. Multiple physicals, emotional, and social changes, including exposure to poverty, abuse, or violence, can make adolescents vulnerable to mental health problems. Promoting psychological well-being and protecting adolescents from adverse experiences and risk factors that may impact their potential to thrive is critical for their well-being during adolescence and for their physical and mental health in adulthood.

Puberty is a time of massive changes

Donna Matthews, Ph.D., with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) stated that we are seeing epidemic levels of stress in children and teenagers, with increasing rates of clinical depression, anxiety, and other coping problems. Fear, uncertainty, and lack of control—factors that trigger stress—are ramped up in times of rapid, unpredictable change. Puberty is a time of massive change: hormonal, physical, sexual, social, cognitive, and neurological. Puberty brings a level of volatility in attitudes, behavior, responsibility, and moods that can look and feel like a mental illness. Most parents experience at least some moments of concern for their children’s mental health during the puberty ages of 11 to 14. But… should you be concerned or is your child experiencing a normal transition into adulthood?

According to Very Well Mind (VWM), puberty can be a difficult time for you and your child. While your child is developing physically, he/she is also experiencing rapid growth of psychosocial maturity. Put simply, during this time, children begin to naturally pull away from their families and connect with their peers to establish independence and individuality. While social withdrawal, moodiness, and other behavioral changes are commonly attributed to this normal developmental stage, researchers are realizing that in some cases, these changes could indicate that puberty is actually contributing to depression.

It is estimated that 2% of children under age 10 experience depression, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). However, between the ages of 10 and 14, the average age range of puberty onset, depression rates increase from 5% to 8% for children overall.

Puberty and Mental Health Problems

It is not always easy to distinguish between the typical moodiness of puberty and mental health problems that require professional attention. If you are wondering about your child’s behaviors, here are some questions to ask yourself. They provide a good starting point for understanding how serious the problems might be, and whether you should seek professional help:

  • Does your child have at least one good friend? Although most young teens prefer popularity, one close friend is enough to get through puberty with resilience. If your child has no friends, that is often a sign of isolation, and a strong reason to consider professional help.
  • Does your child have at least one adult they can talk to? This might be a parent, another relative, a teacher, or someone else—someone who can provide wisdom and support.
  • Does your child have at least one activity that engages her/him? One productive area of interest can sustain a young person through tough times. It might be a sport, the arts, a school subject, gardening, anything that involves thinking, learning, and developing competence.
  • Is your child ever happy? It is normal for pre-teens and early-teens to express more irritability, annoyance, and anger (especially with their parents). But if your child never seems happy or content, that is cause for concern.
  • Is your child engaging in self-harm? This includes alcohol, drugs, and other toxic substances; cutting; sexual promiscuity; and self-sabotage like skipping school. It is normal for a child to be curious about these things, but it is time to seek help if you think your child’s well-being is threatened by dependence on any of these activities.

If your child does have an effective network of social support—including at least one friend and one adult they can talk to—is happily engaged in one or more productive activity and is not engaging in self-harming activities, you are likely dealing with “normal” puberty. However, that does not mean your child does not need your help.

Minimizing the Likelihood of Puberty Problems

There has been considerable research done showing that parents can make a difference in their children’s ability to handle stress, thereby minimizing the likelihood of mental health problems. Here are some ideas for supporting resilience in your child, whether they are experiencing a mental health condition:

  • Listen:

Being available when your children need you can make the difference between a good decision and a dangerous one. Be fully present when your teen wants to talk and be fully positive. Tweens are painfully aware of others’ perceptions and believe that everyone is looking at them with critical or even mocking eyes. Make sure your teen feels your positive gaze. No criticism, no judgment, no distractions.

  • Strive for Balance:

We all need balance in our lives, but that is especially true for early adolescents. Make sure your young teenager has opportunities for quiet reflection, ample sleep, regular outdoor exercise, and good nutrition. Practice breathing techniques, and other mindfulness skills. You will be better at managing your own stress, and you will provide your teenager with a good model of coping with their ups and downs.

  • Welcome Conflict:

Respect your child’s need to create their own unique blend of mainstream values with your family’s values. If you are an immigrant, single parent, member of a cultural or religious minority, or in a same-sex relationship, your child may feel a conflict between their home values and their peers’ values. A friendly dialogue is a great way for your teenager to discover what you care about, and why it is worth caring about. You are likely doing a good job of parenting if you and your teenager can argue, but there is still love and warmth in your home.

  • Own the Parenting Space:

Tweens and teens can appear to take pleasure from pushing your buttons. But on a deeper level, they need you to stay strong and calm. Just like a toddler who challenges the rules, teens feel safest when they know they can trust you to be solid no matter what grief they give you. That applies whether (or not) your child is dealing with diagnosed mental health problems.

The years from 11 to 14 can be highly stressful for children as well as their parents. Unfortunately, there is not an easy or simple template for parents to determine whether (or not) their child has a diagnosable problem—that is something only a mental health professional can do. You can, however, support your child’s resilience, and help them get through adolescence as smoothly as possible.


This article is provided by Dr. Ralph Kueche (Child Psychologist). Dr. Kuechle is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle.