We asked, experts answered. These are the most common teen health issues parents need to know about.
By Shandley McMurray

When they were little, I worried that my children would stop breathing while they slept, break an arm falling off the monkey bars, or get a concussion from tobogganing into a tree. As they grew, so did my concerns — what if they hung out with a bad crowd, what if they did drugs, what if they flunked out of high school?

It’s natural to be concerned about our children’s well-being; even if those children have somehow turned into risk-taking know-it-alls who can almost take care of themselves.

Since you’re going to worry anyway, here are four extremely common health issues facing teens today, along with tips on what you can do to both treat and prevent them.

What it is: Teens are prone to drinking. In fact, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA ) found that two-thirds of students in grades seven to nine have already consumed alcohol and 83 per cent of Canadian kids aged 15 to 24 are current drinkers. They also tend to binge (drink more than five drinks in succession) and are at a higher risk of suicide. Other associated risks of teenage drinking include liver disease, central nervous system disease, memory problems, neurocognitive damage and physical injuries. Also, teen drinkers are three times more likely to develop mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, say researchers of a study published in the
journal Pediatrics.

Symptoms: A craving for alcohol, bloodshot eyes, memory loss, damaged relationships at home and with peers, problems at school, irritability, verbal or physical defensive behaviour and a loss of interest in hobbies and activities.

Why teens have it: According to the CCSA , “over 40 per cent of 15-19-year-olds have binged at least once in the past year, and more than one-quarter of drinkers aged 12-19 have binged 12 or more times in the past year.” While there are strong genetic links to alcohol use disorders (if parents have a drinking problem, kids might, too) the
CCSA attributes other causes such as lax, abusive or uninterested parents, childhood trauma, academic failure and low bonding with peers and teachers.

Treatment: Experts from the CMHO suggest that affected teens find ongoing treatment programs that include things like: family involvement (to help reduce conflict), Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (to help treat underlying mental health issues), interventions (to help stay motivated to remain in recovery) and long term follow-up (alcohol
abuse is a chronic condition).

Prevention: Be a good role model. Be aware of how much and how often you drink in front of your kids. Don’t let them see you intoxicated. Show them you care. Set a curfew and keep track of where they are and who they’re with. Develop consequences to deal with rule-breaking.

Be open. Talk to your kids about the pros and cons of drinking. Be there to listen when they have questions or a problem.

obesityWhat it is: A preventable condition in which excessive amounts of fat and a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above is present. According to the World Health Organization, the rate of obesity has tripled in the last 25 years, making it the leading cause of death worldwide.

Obesity can lead to serious illnesses such as obstructive sleep apnea, anxiety, depression, hypertension, insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes, says Dr. Claire LeBlanc, Chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) Active Kids, Healthy Kids Project Advisory Committee.

Why teens have it: Today’s teens favour computer screens and text messaging over a game of pick up at the park. “Their fruit, vegetable and milk intake tend to drop off, many teens tend to skip breakfast and they often don’t get the recommended nine to 10 hours of sleep each night,” says LeBlanc.

Add to that a drop in family meals, an increase in sugary drinks and frequent trips to fast-food joints and you’re left with under-active kids with poor diets who aren’t sleeping enough.

Symptoms: In addition to suffering from expanding waistlines, obese teens experience multiple symptoms associated with affiliated illnesses. In addition, LeBlanc says, “many have poor self-esteem and lower quality of life and they have a higher risk of mental health problems like anxiety, depression and body dissatisfaction.”

Treatment: Instead of attempting to tackle everything at once, LeBlanc suggests focusing on one or two of the following at a time. Boost their diet: Add more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Avoid fast food, don’t skip meals, opt for water instead of juice or pop, and reduce portion sizes. Pump up the exercise: According to the CPS, a 13 to 17-year-old should have 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity at least six days a week. Three days a week, these 60 minutes should be filled with vigorous activities such as running or participating in a fitness class. The other three days a week should include muscle and bone-strengthening exercises, such as weight training or out-of-the-box activities like rock climbing.

Limit screen time: No more than two hours of daily recreational screen time is ideal. Keep TVs and computers out of the bedroom and set limits on home Wi-Fi use.

Model good behaviour: Monkey see, monkey eat. Make a concerted effort to munch on healthy snacks and meals as a family and enjoy an evening walk.

Prevention: Boost your family’s level of exercise, improve your eating habits and cut down on electronics.

depressionWhat it is: A mood disorder that affects the way you feel, think and behave, someone experiencing depression often feels sad, irritable and uninterested in things they used to enjoy. The rate of depression in teens rises from five per cent in early adolescence to 20 per cent by the end of the teen years, and affects more girls than boys, say researchers of a study in The Lancet. Depressed teens often exhibit an increased risk of suicide, obesity, anxiety and substance abuse as well as multiple physical illnesses.

Symptoms: Feeling tired and irritable, a significant change in appetite resulting in an increase or decrease in weight, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness and sometimes suicidal thoughts. Depressed teens also tend to shun activities and avoid interacting with their peers in and out of school.

Why teens have it: Kids who have a depressed parent are up to four times more likely to develop serious depression, states the CMHO.

According to The Lancet study, other teens develop depression as a result of biological and social changes as well as alterations in hormone-brain relations during puberty.

Treatment: Talk therapy: Talking to a mental health professional on a regular basis can help dramatically, and visiting a therapist as a family can also be beneficial.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy: A technique that helps teens to challenge and reason through negative thoughts, this can serve as a coping mechanism for the disorder.

Go to bed: According to Dr. Mary Carskadon, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour at The Alpert Medical School of Brown University, the root problem of depression may well be a lack of sleep, so make sure kids are getting between eight-and-a-half and nine hours of uninterrupted zzzs a night.

Medication: There are multiple medications on the market to help treat symptoms of depression. Speak to your doctor to see which, if any, are right for your child.

Prevention: While there’s no definitive way to prevent depression, you can try to ward it off by trying a few of these techniques: Reduce and control stress, exercise, talk to family and friends for support, get treatment as soon as you notice there’s a problem, and have your child continue to see a therapist even after they’re feeling better.

What it is: A group of disorders characterized by a chronic feeling of fear, unease, worry or nervousness. Similar to depression, these feelings can impact how kids act and lead to other physical illnesses, including obesity, substance abuse, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep disorders, chronic pain and fibromyalgia.

Symptoms: Increased heart rate, dizziness, shaking, sweating, shortness of breath, tiredness, muscle aches, difficulty sleeping, stomach ache, headache and dry mouth.

Why teens have it: Genetics can account for a large number of teens with anxiety. According to a study by Dr. Golda Ginsburg, Psychologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 65 per cent of children whose parents suffer from anxiety disorders meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. Increased pressures to do well at school,
stress and exposure to new social situations can also be factors.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy: This treatment has proved successful at teaching anxious teens to view worrisome situations in a more positive light and alter their behaviour to help combat worries.

See a therapist: Anxiety is often well-treated by talking to a professional. See your doctor to find someone who’s right for your teen.

Medication: Some medications have aided anxious teens. Speak to your doctor to see if this is a good option for your child.

Relax: Meditating, practicing yoga and exercising can help ease stress and worry.

Prepare in advance: Avoid anxiety-inducing situations by being organized. If your teen gets nervous before a big test, help him develop good study habits and prepare well in advance.

Sleep: A good night’s sleep helps to relieve additional tension caused by overtiredness.

Prevention: Getting enough sleep, exercising and eating well can decrease stress, boost your mood and increase a sense of calm. Being optimistic (looking at the positives) can help put worries in their place, and avoiding excessive smoking and drinking (caffeine or alcohol) can decrease feelings of anxiety.