Is it puberty or something else? Navigating your child’s changing behavior

As a parent of four, I understand how stressful it can be to carry that title. Being a parent means carrying a world of responsibilities. We have to watch out for all sorts of external triggers – think peer pressure, social media and school shootings – to help our children navigate through this world as best as possible. And we’re also needed to help them through their various developmental stages.

One of those stages is puberty and all the mood swings that come with it. If you’re a parent, you’ve probably experienced the eye-rolling, the snappy response out of nowhere, and the need to ask the same question multiple times before something gets done (asking them to look up from their phone during dinner!).

Sometimes those behaviors are normal, it’s your child navigating new emotions and developmental changes. But sometimes, it’s a result of something more than just puberty or “kids being kids.” I have been working in the mental health field for the past 30 years and a lot has changed. What used to be a slight increase in mental health problems reported over the years has turned into an ever-increasing peak.

But why? Think about everything that society has dumped on kids nowadays: Anxiety based on school safety, higher expectations, challenging curriculums and, of course, there’s social media. This is a lot of “weight” for a child to carry.

How do you know what’s normal and what’s not? Here are a few warning signs that can help you tell if your child needs another layer of support and/or professional help:

Elementary Age

  • Change in behavior or change in play (hitting, bullying, biting).
  • Intensity of emotions (anger or fear).
  • Increased physical complaints.
  • Change in sleep patterns (nightmares).
  • Difficulty concentrating.

Middle School Age

  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger.
  • Difficulty relating to peers.
  • Thinking and/or talking about suicide.
  • Avoidance of friends and social activities.
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating.

High School Age

  • Excessive worry or fear.
  • Feeling excessively sad or low.
  • Extreme mood changes.
  • Abuse of substances (alcohol and drugs).
  • Thinking and/or talking about suicide.

The best thing you can do as a parent is provide a safe, nurturing home and community with realistic limits on social media and screen time. Give them a sense of stability and a true balance of exercise, activities, nutrition, family meals and something I call the “gift of time” for optimal emotional health.

The gift of time is listening without interruption and giving one’s full attention if even for 15-30 minutes a day. Take the time to listen – really listen – to your child without interruption and judgement. Encourage them, foster their independence and above all, love them unconditionally!  Providing stability among our world’s instability is one of the most critical components to supporting our children and teenagers.

Ask questions, find resources and learn more at

 Cindy Radovic, MA, BA, BSN Board Certified, is the manager of Mental Health Services at Anne Arundel Medical Center’s (AAMC) Emergency Department. To schedule an appointment with her, call 443-481-3519.