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How to spot, and help, your troubled teen

Get the sense that your teenage son or daughter is bothered by something? Can't figure out why he or she spends so much time alone, avoids family functions and generally acts withdrawn and disinterested in things that once were a source of pride and joy?Your teen may be in trouble, and it's your job to get to the bottom of it.Judge Glenda Hatchett knows all about troubled teens. On her nationally
/ Source: TODAY

Get the sense that your teenage son or daughter is bothered by something? Can't figure out why he or she spends so much time alone, avoids family functions and generally acts withdrawn and disinterested in things that once were a source of pride and joy?

Your teen may be in trouble, and it's your job to get to the bottom of it.

Judge Glenda Hatchett knows all about troubled teens. On her nationally syndicated show, "Judge Hatchett," she's often instituting her trademark "intervention" sentences to the at-risk youth who end up in her court. 

These sentences are to help the youth in her court understand the implications of their actions and learn how to better handle problems or situations.

She's considered an expert when it comes to troubled teens. She wrote a book in 2003 called "Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say: Saving Your Child from a Troubled World." The book focuses on just that and helps parents learn how to bridge the gap between themselves and their teens.

Hatchett says that there are warning signs that a parent can look out for to tell whether or not their teen is heading in the wrong direction, with the end result being juvenile court or a worse situation later in life.

Here's what she had to say about the warning signs of a troubled teen:

One of the most perplexing issues a parent faces is how to determine if their child is at risk for such behaviors as drug/alcohol abuse, school failure, violence, depression, self-destructive behavior or suicide.

Q. What defines a troubled teen and when does a parent need to step in to help and/or seek professional intervention?

A. The following list is not exhaustive, but is an important filter as you closely consider the behavior of your child. I would caution parents not to compare your child's behavior to anyone else's, not even another one of your children's. Each child is unique and the signs may be very subtle and inconsistent. If you believe your child is at risk, then respond. Over the years I have seen too many parents in and outside of my courtroom who have said, "I wish I had done something sooner — I simply thought it was a phase and that they would outgrow the problem."

Q. How do you know the difference between a troubled teen and a teen who's just going through adolescence?

A. You have to look at all of the pieces, not just one in isolation. For example, a child who's sleeping a lot may need more rest and also may be an adolescent. But if they are sleeping, have depression, and are disrespectful or lie, then it may be something more. Moodiness by itself may not be a red flag, but severe mood swings may be something you have to pay attention to.

Q. At what age would you expect to see a behavioral change in your teen?

A. I think we all agree you'll see change during adolescence. That's a difficult passage, moving from being a child to becoming a young adult. It's a period of time that requires a great deal of patience and attention. There's not a magic age. I've have seen cases with kids in 6th grade. It seems like 6th, 7th and 8th grade where I've mostly seen a kid's behavior changing. Each child is different and unique. Children within the same family can exhibit different behavior. We have to look at the child as an individual.

Q. When should you seek professional help?

A. If your child is not responding to whatever methods you're using to intervene, you should seek professional help. Instantly you should seek help if the child is saying "suicide." 

Seek outside help if the child is not responding to you or family members who are trying to reach out to help them. If things are not getting better, the worst thing you could do is postpone it. I've had too many people tell me, "I wish I could have done things sooner; I just thought it was a phase." You have to follow your gut and not abandon the issue.

Let's take a look at the signs:

1. Abandoned friends for new, questionable peers

You child has had the same set of friends since 3rd grade. They played soccer, swam together and danced together. Suddenly she dumps them and starts going out with friends that you know nothing about. They are questionable; they don't want to associate with their old friends. As a parent you have got to know who your kids are with. You have to know who her friends are and what their influences are in your child's life.

They abandoned friends for new questionable peer group that has influenced a change in behavior and attitude. [Note: One of the most tragic cases I presided over involved a 15-year-old girl from an upper-middle-class family. The family moved to a new neighborhood and she began associating with a crowd of kids that frequently got into trouble. She had been an honor student and a great kid. Suddenly her grades fell, she became truant, she was sneaking out of the house at night, got arrested for joy riding in a stolen car. Eventually she tested positive for HIV. Life-changing. It is so important that the signs not be ignored.]

2. Sudden drop in school performance

That's a huge red flag. I'm not talking about a case of a math whiz struggling with English. Be concerned with a child who has been consistent in their performance all along and now they have dropped a lot. You have to really drill down and figure out why this is happening. If it's a new school and the expectations are different, then there's a reason, but if they go off a cliff and you don't know, then you have to figure out why. Is it depression? Could it be drug abuse, could it be that they're being bullied and school becomes traumatic? We have to figure out why. When a great kid becomes detached, it raises a red flag.

Another note is if they are cutting class or school and going to house parties during the day or engaging in promiscuous manners. It's a huge red flag that I see often. The question becomes, what are they doing if they are not at school? Are they falling prey to drug dealers? Going to parties, etc.? If they are not in school, why not? And where are they?

So, if the child becomes truant [truancy is the No. 1 predictor that a boy will have a criminal record and the No. 2 predictor for girls, according to the U.S. Department of Justice]; has lost interest in his or her positive activities; has abandoned goals; lacks motivation; is very apathetic.

3. Extreme mood swings

That's where it gets complicated ... but it's also another huge red flag. With hormonal changes and body chemistry, kids are going through a lot. They are moving through puberty ... I get that. You can expect that ... but if your kid is going from being deeply depressed to extremely happy, you need to figure out what is going on. If they are disrespectful, alienated, being noncommunicative. etc., and their sleeping pattern is very important, too. Either they're not sleeping or they're sleeping all the time — if it goes from one extreme to another, you know you have a problem.

By extreme moodiness I mean the child has unreasonable fits of anger; is very disrespectful; exhibits hostility toward family members; is very withdrawn and barely communicative; wants to be left all alone most of the time; has a radical change in sleeping patterns.

4. Lies about whereabouts

Another big one: You think they're at soccer practice, but she's over at another person's house without supervision. You think he's spending the night with a person he knows well, and instead he's at a friend's house. You have to find out why are they lying; also, what are they doing when they get there that they can't come clean about it?

Other signs are that they frequently miss curfew; or disappear without explanation.

5. Mysterious financial changes

The child either has lots of unexplained money at one time and doesn't at other times. If a kid is supporting a drug habit, where are they getting the money from? Stealing from family or family members. You can't account for the stuff they are buying. Unexplained valuables, jewelry or other things. They are getting stuff from older peers or they are exchanging their valuables for drugs. So you got an MP3 player for your birthday and now you don't have it anymore, if it's lost, that's one thing. If you continually see things missing and there's no reasonable explanation, plus they're withdrawn, there may be a problem. You have to take pieces and piece them together and know what's going on before you make an assessment.