Is it a Phase, or Does Your Teen Need Counseling?

Is it a Phase, or Does Your Teen Need Counseling?

I recently had the honor of moderating a panel of community members dedicated to assuring the safety of our teens, especially when dealing with self-harm and suicidal issues. It is a tough subject, but I was impressed with the fact that it was standing room only for the discussion. As a member of the Community Services Board, we will be working hard to make sure that we are doing everything we can to meet the needs of the teen community.

One of the hard things about being a parent is trying to figure out whether your child is “just going through a phase,” or whether the issues might benefit from additional help. On one hand, we want to do what is best for our child, but on the other hand, we also don’t want to blow things out of proportion.

So how should you decide whether it might be time for counseling? There are two big factors to consider: length of time, and severity of the issue.

Length of Time

When something is a phase, it tends to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. For instance, most kindergartners and first graders have some difficulty adjusting to school, especially in the beginning. Usually, this will fade after a few weeks. If it doesn’t fade, it might be a good idea to consult with a counselor to see if counseling might be helpful.

When it seems like the issue should have resolved itself on its own, and it hasn’t, then it might be time to consult with a counselor.


If the issue is more extreme or severe than you would expect, then counseling might be in order. For instance, all teens are moody. It’s a part of their species. But if the moodiness is extreme, and you worry about the severity, then it might be more than just a phase.

Here is a list of things to look for that might help in deciding whether to consider seeking some help.

Sleep Changes

  • Trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep
  • Feeling unrested even after a normal sleep cycle
  • Recurrent nightmares or fear of going to sleep

Behavior Issues

  • Significant disrespect toward parents
  • Defiance of rules at home or school
  • Increased irritability and a desire to bother others

School Issues

  • Low motivation
  • Difficulty starting or completing homework; losing assignments
  • Giving up
  • Decreased concentration and/or easily distracted

Anxiety Issues

  • Significant worry and focus on future issues
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Perfectionism and/or irritability
  • Repeated behaviors; needs things ‘just so’

Depression Issues

  • Sense of sadness and/or irritability
  • Negative comments about life
  • Loss of interest in sports, hobbies, etc.; isolation
  • Difficulty concentrating

Friendship Issues

  • Difficulty making or keeping friends
  • Difficulty in coping with teasing
  • Hanging out with a different peer group

If you have decided that it might be time to consider counseling, there are several great resources in our area. I am available at and would be happy to help find the right professional. In addition, Loudoun County Mental Health Department provides counseling services to all residents, regardless of income. Call 703-771-5100 for more information. If you feel that it is an urgent issue, call their 24-hour hotline at 703-777-0320.

Neil McNerney is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Leesburg and author of Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out! and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. For more information go to He is a regular contributor to the Tribune.