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Teens at Risk: Stressors and Signs

Teens at Risk: Stressors and Signs

A guide for knowing when it's time to get help.

by Sarah Jacobs

Have you ever leafed through a medical encyclopedia? Suddenly you became a hypochondriac, certain the few symptoms you have match some catastrophic illness.

The same is true of the warning signs for at-risk teens. Your adolescent may have one of the signs (many do), a few of these signs, or even a cluster. That doesn't mean your child is necessarily at risk.

With one symptom you should probably just relax and assume your teen is normal. A few symptoms are like a yellow light; proceed with caution. Many symptoms are a more serious warning, but don't panic. Consult with teachers and friends, and seek professional help. It's not a death sentence.

Recognize that behind his mask of defiance or hostility, your teen is hurting. Above all, keep reaffirming your love.

As we examine some behaviors that are cause for concern, you may feel racked by guilt. This is not necessarily about bad parenting. This is not about what the neighbors will think or how others will judge. It's not all about you. Children have free will. They will act out even in "the best of families."

This is a child in pain crying out for help. Recognize that behind his mask of defiance or hostility, your teen is hurting. Above all, keep reaffirming your love.

Why do there seem to be so many adolescents at risk, such high numbers of kids on the fringe? What's changed?

There is a heightened level of personal freedom. With two working parents, there are many latchkey children in our communities. In general, kids are on their own much more than in the past. They're not in a small town surrounded by all their relatives. Add to that increased academic pressure, and you have a volatile mix. If you're feeling the situation is beyond control and see trouble is around the corner, don't wait to call in a professional. Act now.

What are some potential stressors? (Remember, only potential.) The following list of factors does not indicate teens at risk. This is a list that correlates with or frequently leads to a troubled teen. They are not foolproof; they are not exhaustive or exclusive. They're a "heads-up."

  1. Undiagnosed learning disability. This child is subject to constant personal frustration and criticism from others. Discouragement and disaffection soon follow. It's never too late for educational/psychological testing.

  2. Unhappy family life. More than anything else experts have found this to be a predictor of at-risk behaviors. It's not about single parents or stepparents; it's about attitude.

  3. Family size. The larger your family, the more needs to be served and the greater the chance of one falling through the cracks. Make sure each child has a special role in the family and private time with you.

  4. Traumatic illness in the family, especially if it's a sibling. An ill child absorbs most of the emotional and financial and temporal resources of the parents, sometimes leaving the other children stranded. I know it's an extra burden at a time when you feel stretched to the maximum but you must be on your guard.

  5. Severe moodiness or depression. Recent studies show a high rate of clinical depression among adolescents. This does not necessarily require medication (in fact many other studies have discovered that talk therapy is more effective in the long run and serious potential side effects to medication) but it does demand professional intervention.

  6. Isolated family. If you live far from grandparents or a supportive community, you are at greater risk.

  7. Peers with destructive characters and behaviors. Don't underestimate their influence.


Assuming you have some of these or other stressors in your family (and who doesn't?), what signs should you watch for? These are the actions of your teen that scream out "trouble," especially when more than one is present. If you haven't already, it's time to talk to the professionals - the teachers, social workers, therapists. We may be highly educated and extremely competent, but we are all subjective about our own children. We need an outside perspective. We need help. And it's available.

  1. Typical adolescent behavior taken to the extreme -- more moody, more hostile (just when you didn't think that was possible!)

  2. Defiance. Ignoring the rules. Violating curfew is a biggie.

  3. Totally uncommunicative to you or teachers. Only talks to peers.

  4. Sense of complete aimlessness or alienation.

  5. Destructive eating habits. Eating disorders can be life- threatening. Don't delay in seeking help. And don't be too proud of how thin your daughter is.

  6. Missing money or greater expenditures.

  7. Greater secrecy.

  8. Drinking or other substance abuse.

Sit down with your spouse and calmly evaluate the situation. If required, consult with a mental health professional. If there is a problem, it can usually be fixed. Your teen can be helped. Your teen wants to be helped. They don't have the words; they're in tremendous pain. We may not know why. There's no blame to be assigned; just good solid work to be done. And never giving up.

A wise rabbi whose daughter was at risk related to me that at one point, when things were really bad and every conversation involved cursing, his daughter would scream, "I hate you! I hate you!" And he replied, "I love you and I'm going to keep loving you more than you hate me!" When she finally reached a point of desperation, and she wanted to climb back up and reconnect Jewishly, whom did she ask to help her? Her father, who had clearly communicated that whatever she did, wherever she went, she was his daughter and he loved her.

March 12, 2005

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Visitor Comments: 11

(10) Teen me, June 11, 2017 6:52 AM

I'm the one

Wow! I want to take this article right now and forward it to my parents. I was looking for programs for kids at risk and this popped up! I felt like God was giving me a hug, and it felt good. I haven't felt his warmth in a while, so the reminder was great. Thanks for all.

(9) Anonymous, July 25, 2012 4:21 AM

hear it from the teens point of veiw

i liked the article, but i just want to say one thing. the fact is that its true. behind the mask of anger and curses. the tattoos and peircings are just ways of how we cry out and are begging for help but arent sure how to ask for it. i cut myself. ive attempted suicide multiple times. yeah i guess this may come as a shock. but these r just symptoms. theyre not the source of the pain. if someone had reached out to me earlier, maybe things wouldve been different . who knows. im from a bais yaakov in brooklyn. and when my principal found out what i was doing to myself, you know what she said? she asked me to find a nother skool. !! no questions of how she can help, no chizuk, NOTHING! i was bullied for 6 years in elementary school. i was humiliated infront of my classmates. hurt and shredded to peices while the onlookers laughed in my face. so yes, please be sensitive. patient. and loving. dont get bogged down by the externals of the issue. look for the core. the source

(8) Anonymous, May 1, 2010 2:01 PM

Not enough rescources

Great article...but the reality is our Jewish communities do not do enough to support the families and the children. Paying 33K for 60 days for a program is beyond the majority of us to pay. The Jewish community does not do enough to recognize and help treat our children. It is a truly underfunded and overlooked crisis in our communities. I have gotten no help..

(7) Deena, October 29, 2008 6:40 PM

Parents to kids with special needs

I'm sorry if this is being posted in the wrong place, but we're trying to get this to as many parents to kids with SN as possible. I am a mother to an adorable 5 yr. old with William's Syndrome. Following our own frustrating experiences since receiving the dx (and it took a long time..), we are trying to open up a sort-of "g'mach" to assist other Jewish parents in the same situation. We believe that one of the most important and relieving factors after receiving a dx - and later on too - is connecting with other, possibly more experienced, parents who are going through the exact same thing. Therefore, we are compiling a list of parents to children with special needs, who are willing to have us give their info over to "new" parents. Once we have a long and detailed enough list, we will contact as many geneticists, doctors, and organizations as we know and let them know that, from now on, they can send parents to us to receive the contact info (number and/or phone number) of experienced parents in teh same situation. If you are a parent to a child with special needs of any sort, and agree to share your experience with other parents, please contact me at Tizku lemitzvos, Deena

(6) David, August 26, 2007 10:05 PM

my thoughts

I think the big mistake is the attention is focused in the wrong place. There are so many good kids out there that change and start feeling worthless because they are not rewarded with attention for being good and doing good things. there is a saying, 'the wheel that squeaks is the one that gets oiled'. People change and become 'bad' because they need attention and to be loved and unfortunately, they are being neglected when they are fine and don't cause any 'trouble' and then when they do cause 'trouble', then they get all the love and attention. I think a good child should never be neglected and put to the side and when someone causes trouble, they should realize its not going to get them love and becoming better will get them love.
Every person in this world has a unique reason they were put here and something beautiful to contribute in his or her way. For any person who feels empty and purposeless, just realize that the one who created you cannot and does not make mistakes and if you feel empty and without a purpose, realize that if you truly had no purpose, you wouldn't be here.
Just like there are a lot of events and places created for 'troubled' teens, the same and even more, there should be outlets and attention given to ones that are 'ok'. We are all humans and all of us have needs. all of us have things which make us happy and things which make us sad no matter how 'perfect' we appear. We all need love and if part of us are neglected and ones who change for the worse are not neglected, then more will change for the worse to get the love and attention they felt they were missing.
sorry if i repeated myself little. i hope my message came across and helps people.
May everyone find their purpose and the beautiful reason they are here for and may everyone fulfill their purpose and be as happy as they could be in life.

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