The first and most important step in helping a troubled teenager is to understand what is happening. Being a teenager is inherently difficult, confusing, and frustrating. Some of a teen’s stress comes from changing hormones in the body that create a roller coaster of emotions and mood swings. Another factor is the changes that happen in a teenager’s brain as they begin to transition from a child to an adult, when certain abilities develop without the knowledge yet of how to use or control them. This makes a teenager overly aware of what their peers think of them, which may cause insecurity, anxiety, and even depression. Additionally, a lot of new experiences begin happening, such as a first date, a first kiss, a first slow dance, a first car. Put this all together, and it’s no wonder teenagers are so susceptible to problems with drugs, drinking, sexual activity, and driving recklessly.

Depression. If you take a look at an online teenage forum, you’ll probably be shaken by the many teens that write about suicide. In the United States, suicide is the third leading cause of death among kids from 15 to 24 years old. Some of the signs to watch for are withdrawal from family and friends; neglect of personal appearance; loss of interest in what used to be pleasurable activities; and giving away important possessions. If you notice these symptoms, take action immediately. Find a counselor that your teen feels comfortable with, or consider a residential school or program that is equipped to help your child.

Peer Pressure. Peers or groups of kids can be relentless, pressuring your teenager to do drugs, drink, and have sex. It may reach the point where your son or daughter believes there’s something wrong with them because they don’t want to do these things. This can lead to anxiety, depression, confusion, low self-esteem, or participating in activities they are not ready for.

Cliques. At school, cliques are a fact of teen life. Groups of friends become labeled: the popular crowd, the brainy crowd, the nerds, the geeks, the losers, the weirdoes, and the risk-taking “bad” kids. Usually, kids become labeled quickly, and then it is almost impossible to move to another group. While it’s true that kids can become close friends in every clique, being labeled a loser or a weirdo can be an experience that may leave scars for a very long time.

Body Image. This is an enormous issue as a teenager’s body develops. Being overweight, having braces, skin problems, being too short or too tall, having the wrong kind of hair for the current fashion — all of these can make a teenager’s life miserable and destroy self-esteem. Some kids at school can be cruel, and there has even been a trend recently of posting negative (and often untrue) comments about kids on Internet sites. The effect of this experience is often devastating.

Grades. Ironically, getting very good or very bad grades can both be a problem. Teens with good grades may be called names as much as teens with bad grades. Besides that, the pressure to maintain good grades in order to get into the college of their choice can cause extreme stress. Poor grades often create low self-esteem and the often mistaken belief that the teen is not intelligent.

Cutting Classes. This is often a reaction to stress or peer pressure. It may lead to kids getting together to drink or do drugs. Both alcohol and certain drugs may temporarily alleviate stress and anxiety and give a teen a feeling of serenity or even exhilaration. This kind of escape quickly becomes addictive.

Dating. The stress of being asked out at all, the awkwardness of first dates, the anxiety about sexual activity, the risk of teen pregnancy and of sexually transmitted diseases may create anxiety, fear, and stress.

Divorce. Many teens are dealing with this situation. Traveling back and forth between parents and feelings of anger or blaming themselves for their parent’s divorce can be overwhelming. This may result in feeling alienated and unloved, in withdrawing and acting out, in behavior such as staying out all night and risky behavior such as using drugs or alcohol and driving recklessly.

The more you understand the processes, ordeals, and challenges your teenager may face, the better equipped you will be to help them. Pay attention and listen to your instincts. There are many programs, schools, counseling services, weight loss programs, and wilderness programs that have the ability to help your teenager through a difficult time.