Winter Break: Time to Check In with Your Teen

When your kids reach high school, family dynamics shift. In elementary school, you take care of almost every aspect of their lives. You get them out of bed, fed, and off to school. Then you ferry them to and from after-school activities. You help with homework, if they had it at all. When they have activities to do, you probably stay and watch. You’re required to stay at most birthday parties.

During middle school, though, your job changes from total caretaker to chauffer and personal assistant. You drive them to activities and birthday parties, but probably don’t stay. Of course you still keep an eye on grades, but you shift homework and study responsibilities to them. You help less on the actual assignments and let them manage their studying time. The whole process is a gradual transfer of responsibility from you to them: with each passing year, they do more, and you do less.

You’re still there, of course, as a safety net. But the goal is to give them the tools to be fully functioning, independent adults. High school is a big step toward that ultimate goal. Extracurricular activities might keep them busy past six in the evening or later. When they finally get home, you get a quick hello.

And if you’re lucky, a hug.

Then they rush off to their room, shut the door, and disappear into teenland.

You drive the car, you swipe the debit card, you keep track of grades. You approve their schedule and ask the right questions about who they’re hanging out with, where, and when. You’re still the boss, but the facetime dwindles. And that’s natural: the teen years are about independence, differentiation, and learning responsibility.

But one thing might suffer: communication.

Make the Most of Holiday Downtime

We’re sure you don’t want the communication between you and your teen to suffer, but it’s almost inevitable. They don’t need you for every little thing they do on a day-to-day basis, so the in-between times are missing. By in between times, we mean times like in the car after school pickup, on the way to soccer practice or music lessons, the walk home from the bus stop, or after-school school snack time. Those are the times you get to check in with your kid and get a read on how they’re doing. You know when things change because you talk to them almost every day.

But in high school, three of four days can go by with no substantial facetime. Things in their lives can come up and fade away without you ever knowing about them. Good things and bad things. Through no fault of yours or theirs, they can have a whole series of growth and change experiences right there under your nose – without you fully realizing what’s going on. In August, you have a teen you know well, because you just spent the summer with them. But come December, that teen you knew so well might be a completely different person.

The holidays are the perfect time to get re-acquainted. You can go back over the year, talk about what went well, what didn’t go so well, and decide what you want to improve or keep the same in the year to come. For tips on how to do a quick debrief on the year, read our helpful article Looking Back Over Your Year: How Did It Go?. That article was written for a post-school year debrief, but you can easily adjust it for a full-year review.

In addition to getting reacquainted and talking about the year, the holidays are also a great time to do a quick, family-style assessment of your teen’s mental and emotional health.

Common Mental Illnesses: Age of Onset

Why should you check in on their mental and emotional health?

Because many emotional and behavioral disorders show up late in elementary school, during middle school, and in high school. Research shows the following average ages at which various attentional, behavioral, emotional, and mood disorders may appear:

Impulse Control and Conduct Disorders
  • Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: 7-9
  • Oppositional Defiance Disorder: 7-9
  • Intermittent Explosive Disorder: 13-21
  • Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder: 6-10
Anxiety Disorders
  • Phobias and Separation Disorders: 7-14
  • Panic, Generalized Anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: 15 and up.
Mood Disorders
  • Early Onset Depression: 14-19
  • Early Onset Bipolar Disorder: 14-17
Psychotic Disorders
  • Schizophrenia: 15-35
  • Other psychotic disorders: 24

[Note: Onset of psychotic disorders in children and adolescents is rare. Research shows they typically appear in early adulthood. The earliest documented cases on the extreme ends of the spectrum are age 3 and age 64]

Alcohol and Substance Use Disorders

(from The Journal of the American Medical Association)

  • Early onset alcohol use disorders: 14
  • Early onset substance use disorders: 14

When we offer this information, we don’t expect you to diagnose your teenager. Only a qualified mental health professional can do that. We do, however, want to reiterate that the early signs of many mental illnesses appear before or during adolescence. Some arrive and develop quickly into full-blown disorders in a matter of months, while others may take years. And when issues like alcohol and substance use disorders do develop during adolescence, the chance they’ll persist into adulthood increases. Although attentional and behavioral disorders often appear before adolescence, they may appear during adolescence as well. It’s crucial to understand that for all mental illnesses – including alcohol and substance use disorders – the earlier they’re diagnosed and the sooner an individual begins treatment, the better chance that individual has at managing the symptoms and mitigating their long-term effects.

What to Watch For Over Winter Break

Now that you have some uninterrupted, quality time to reconnect with your teen, make sure you use it intentionally. Especially if they’ve been away at boarding school, you have a hectic work schedule, or your child is very independent.  Some families are so busy they don’t have much time to connect during the daily grind that consumes their time from the beginning of the school year until the holidays.

When you go back over the year with your teen and perform your unofficial mental health assessment, keep an eye and ear out for the following signs of developing mental health or substance use disorders.

Over the past few months, has your teen:

  1. Stopped doing activities they used to love
  2. Withdrawn from friends or family
  3. Displayed or discussed feelings of hopelessness or sadness
  4. Shown increased levels of irritability, anxiety, or anger
  5. Significantly changed their sleeping or eating patterns
  6. Had difficulty maintaining attention or concentration
  7. Neglected their appearance or personal hygiene
  8. Engaged in reckless or risky behavior
  9. Complained of chronic physical ailments like headaches or digestive issues

When you’re looking for the signs on this list, or listening for them during your check-in conversation, remember that any or all the signs above – when they occur alone or in small clusters – can be typical adolescent behavior. Minor irritability is no big deal. Changes in appearance, sleeping patterns, or new friends are not always things to be concerned about. It’s when these signs persist that you need to pay attention, or when you know for a fact their new peer grew regularly engages in risky behavior. If you do identify some of the warning signs, the key is to ask your teen follow-up questions. For each symptom, ask the following:

  1. When did it first appear?
  2. How often does it happen?
  3. When it does happen, how long does it last, and how intense is it?

The rule of thumb is that when symptoms of mental illness occur daily for more than two weeks, it’s time to consider getting professional help.

What To Do With What You Learn

Keep in mind that sometimes, the ways teens communicate can be unnerving. They may be melodramatic about small things and pretend big things are of no consequence. What sounds like something major, at first, might turn out to be nothing – once you ask the follow up questions. On the other hand, something that seems small might turn out to be major – once you start digging. That’s why asking the three follow-up questions is important.

Hopefully, your winter break mental health check in will get you and your teen back on the same page about what’s going on in their life and about how they’re feeling in general. It may be just what you need to re-establish clear lines of communication. But if – using the criteria we offer above – you think your teen may have developed a behavioral, emotional, or substance use disorder, it’s time to consider getting a full psychological assessment administered by a licensed mental health professional. To find a qualified therapist in your area, begin with this psychiatrist finder provided by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Scroll down the page, agree to the terms, type in your city, state, and zipcode, and start searching.