If you have a child approaching adolescence, you may wonder how you can tell if your pre-teen is staying on track to healthy adulthood.
Healthy children will naturally want to break away from their parents' control, says St. Louis Children's Hospital psychologist Catherine Hutter, Ph.D. "In terms of appearance, all parents can do is set a baseline for what is expected in keeping preteens' hair, teeth and body clean." Establishing those basic habits early on and through repetition will ensure that they are ingrained and will not change with every mood.
"If you notice a rapid decline in your child's personal hygiene, however, you could be facing a problem," Dr. Hutter warns. "Depression, drug use or the onset of a mental illness could cause a child to stop taking care of himself."
But neglected hygiene is never the sole marker of a problem, adds Lynn White, M.D., director of the St. Louis Children's Hospital Adolescent Care Center. "Parents should also key into general mood and other behavior. Has socialization stopped with friends? Have grades dropped? Have eating or sleeping habits changed?"
These changes in behavior are taken seriously at the Adolescent Care Center, where prompt assessment and care for kids ages 12 through 21 is the main focus. "It is estimated that one in five in this age group has a serious health problem that should be addressed before it profoundly and permanently affects the rest of their lives," Dr. White says. She points out that substance abuse, including alcohol, drug and tobacco use, often begins during the teen years. Of teenagers who drink, 89 percent started by age 15.
Experts at the Adolescent Care Center agree that helping children learn self-respect is one of the biggest jobs a parent has.