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Major Problems of Adolescence

Researcher Daniel Offer and his colleagues studied thousands of high school students and found that the majority got along well with their parents, enjoyed life, felt relaxed and had a positive self image. Of the 17 million teenagers in this country, only about 20 percent have moderate to severe psychological problems. Many adolescents who try the patience of adults are merely trying out new roles and will grow up to be mature, responsible adults. Others have potentially severe problems such as eating disorders, depression, manic depression, conduct disorder or schizophrenia.

Anorexia & Bulimia

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia are most common among young females, particularly those adjusting to physical maturation and a changing body image. In an effort to improve their self esteem, teenage girls may diet constantly, eventually leading to malnutrition and a body fat content so low that menstruation stops. Anorexics need treatment to stave off physical as well as emotional complications. This disorder affects about one of every 100 to 200 females. Some males become anorexic when weight is a factor in making an athletic team.

Bulimia typically starts a bit later in adolescence and is particularly common on university campuses. A bulimic may start by dieting but later swings to the opposite extreme: eating without constraint and then trying to control weight by purging with laxatives or by vomiting. Although a bulimic may maintain normal weight, she usually develops other problems, such as dental complications, related to her purging habits.

Depression & Manic Depression

About 5 to 10 percent of American adolescents have depression, and the symptoms are similar to those of adults: appetite loss, oversleeping (or insomnia), hopelessness and suicidal thoughts. Often the depressed mood is expressed as irritability. Manic depression often appears for the first time in adolescence or young adulthood. The onset can be sudden, either with a manic episode or a depressed mood that may be accompanied by lethargy or delusions. A teenager’s mania may be expressed through anger, irritability and restlessness. Or it can resemble that of an adult with a period of intense energy and frenzied behavior sometimes accompanied by inflated self-image, pressure to talk, racing thoughts, distractibility, decreased need for sleep, non-goal-directed activity and excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that may later invoke guilt or pain. Depression and manic depression are responsible for many of the 12,000 suicides and suicide attempts that involve American youth every year.

Conduct Disorders

Whether labeled juvenile delinquency or a conduct disorder, socially disapproved behavior includes skipping school, lying, sexual promiscuity, illegal drug or alcohol use, fighting, running away from home, theft, gang behavior and violent activities. Parents may unknowingly contribute either by not supervising activities closely enough or by being overly rigid and harsh in discipline. On the other hand, what seems to be antisocial behavior can sometimes be traced to depression, manic depression, schizophrenia or another mental disorder.


Schizophrenia most commonly strikes first between ages 15 and 22, with males tending to exhibit symptoms a little earlier than females. Some young schizophrenics may have a sudden break with reality, with obvious delusions and hallucinations; others may simply show intermittent periods of irrational behavior or an inability to maintain close relationships.

Alcohol & Drug Abuse

Parents often assume that bizarre behavior is drug-related—and it often is. Mental health professionals report a high incidence of co-existing mental illness and substance abuse among young patients. Alcohol abuse brings on depression; other drugs can create a wide variety of mood and behavior changes. On the other hand, many adolescents experimenting with drugs may be trying to come to terms with depression, intense emotions or stressful situations and medicating themselves.

Whenever parents suspect a severe problem of any kind, they should seek an early evaluation. Most of the problems described above can become chronic and shadow a person for life. Parents can help by spotting the symptoms early and getting professional help.

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Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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