Common Problems in Adolescents

Adolescence has been described as a period of “storm and stress”. This article explores the common problems experienced by both teenagers and their parents. The words teenager and adolescent, he/she and his/her are used interchangeably throughout.

Parents often have three concerns about their adolescent child:

  1. Appearance
  2. Attitude
  3. Friends

It may be surprising to know that adolescents are just as concerned about the same things!


Adolescence is a time of major body changes due to an increase in certain body chemicals called hormones. It is a time of pimples, cracked voices and changing body proportions. The adolescent who is self-conscious may find this “changed appearance” somewhat distressing or unattractive and resort to brief meetings, even avoiding contact, with adults who are critical of him.

Adolescents are often influenced by what society considers attractive and many of them, especially girls, begin to diet (sometimes to dangerous levels). Their dressing may reflect popular fashion or what is considered desirable by their peer group – and it may be awkward, unsightly and also unsuitable for their size and personality.



Adolescence is a time when the adolescent begins to explore his independence. His manners may be awkward, curt and blunt. He may avoid being seen with his parents. As a result, parents often feel that the adolescent’s attitude is rebellious and defiant. Research shows that conflicts are usually triggered by ordinary matters such as tidiness, personal hygiene, quarrelling with siblings and disobeying parents. Parents may feel that the adolescent is unreasonable and vice-versa.

Parents should assist the adolescent to separate from them and to make mature decisions for himself. As such, it may be appropriate for parents to allow the adolescent to exercise some choice in areas such as dressing, hobbies and friends.



Parents often worry that wayward friends will be a bad influence. In fact, this is a time when friends can seem more important than family! However, friendships outside the family and with both sexes are a necessary development in adolescence and the wise parent will encourage them. The ability to develop and sustain friendships enables the process of healthy maturation and independence to occur. The adolescent appreciates parents who refrain from being too critical about their friends, who respect their choice and welcome their friends into the home. It is helpful to remember that the teenager, like any human being, is eager for approval and acceptance. Remember too that the teenager has a strong sense of loyalty to his group and may be resentful and sensitive to critical comments.

Adolescence often coincides with the beginning of sexual awareness. Teenagers are curious and fearful about sexual matters and the bodily changes can give rise to sexual feelings that may be confusing yet pleasurable, raising awareness but also fostering guilt. The intimacy of friendships can be confused with sexual intimacy. The ability to handle heterosexual relationships can be a powerful source of self-esteem.


What Can Go Wrong During Adolescence?

It is not surprising that in this time of intense self-examination and adjustments, serious problems can occur. Psychiatric clinics and counsellors who deal with adolescents encounter a few common problems. The most frequent of these are called adjustment reactions. Adjustment reactions are short term reactions that occur as a result of a stressful event, e.g. a break up in a relationship, a death in the family or even academic failure. The distress is very real and some teenagers may find themselves feeling quite troubled. With time, and for some, support and counselling, most adolescents with adjustment reactions recover fully.

Emotional disorders, in particular depression and anxiety disorders, become more frequent in late adolescence. These are not just adjustment difficulties but disorders that tend to persist and are accompanied by considerable suffering which can affect many areas of the adolescent’s functioning. Depression, with its feelings of sadness, hopelessness and helplessness, needs professional treatment and may have an impact in the personality formation of the affected individual. Anxiety disorders are illnesses that are characterised by tensions, fears and worries that can handicap the adolescent’s ability to cope.

Suicidal thoughts and suicidal acts in an adolescent are not to be taken lightly. They can be the result of adjustment reactions or depressive illness but the wish to die as a solution to the immediate problems can end up in an impulsive and irrevocable suicide. Suicidal thoughts and acts should be handled by skilled professionals, trained to respond to crises. Consult your doctor or counsellor for advice.

Severe mental illness is characterised by irrational thoughts and dysfunctional behaviour. Psychiatric intervention will be necessary.

How Can We Help?
In Singapore, there are many social work agencies, government bodies and voluntary organisations whose staff are specifically trained to work with adolescents. In addition, telephone hotlines allow direct and convenient access for the adolescent and his family when faced with a crisis. Child Guidance Clinics also cater to teenagers and offer a more specialised service for those with emotional and other disorders that cause significant suffering and dysfunction.

In general, mild adjustment problems may need the help of a student counsellor, whereas more serious problems will require psychiatric help.