How to handle your moody adolescent

IF YOU’VE EVER perused the funny pages, you may have noticed Zits, the comic detailing the angst-ridden life of 15-year-old Jeremy Duncan and his bumbling parents. Depending on your kid’s age, Zits may seem less like a cartoon and more like your nightmarish reality. Jeff Sprague, a professor at the University of Oregon’s Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior, says that with the onset of puberty, which can be as early as age 10, an influx of stress and sex hormones begins to inhibit the calming effects of the hormone serotonin. The result? Kids may act grumpy or aggressive for no apparent reason. Furthermore, those hormonal imbalances tend to make them less receptive to punishment and praise, because the part of their brains that associates consequences with behaviors is out of tune. Sprague offers these tips for cultivating a new attitude. —Brian Barker

1. Dish out discipline in small doses.

Sprague suggests that frequent, mild punishments are much more powerful than hefty ones. Try taking Halo 3 or a similar privilege away for an hour each night as opposed to nixing the game for a whole week. By doing so, you’re reminding your child that a particular rule violation results in a specific consequence.

2. Stay connected.

He’d probably rather mow the lawn than sit down for a bonding session with Mom and Dad, but it’s crucial to spend at least five minutes every day talking with your child. Sprague suggests asking the following: What went well today? Were there any problems? This gives you key opportunities to praise him for good behavior and to help him rethink things he could have handled better. It might sound simple, but it can go a long way toward preventing unhealthy antisocial behavior—even if he already seems like he’s from another planet.

When it’s more than a mood

IN OREGON, some 25 percent of girls and 12 percent of boys experience at least one major depressive episode between the ages of 12 and 17, but how do you know if your child is just experiencing run-of-the-mill adolescent turmoil or if there might be a real mental health issue? Drew McWilliams, the director of disorder services at Morrison Child and Family Services, says that if your child’s behavior or mood raises even a small worry flag, you should talk to a school counselor. “But remember,” he adds, “while some counselors may have a mental health background, most are going to refer you and your child to a professional outside the school.” Depending on your child’s insurance situation, there could be hundreds of options. If you feel comfortable exploring those with a school counselor, you should. But while the Portland School Board recently approved more than $2 million for school counseling positions that have been left unfilled for over a decade, there are plenty of schools that still lack counselors. If your school is one of them and you’re setting out on your own to find your child the help he needs, these agencies can help. —Camas Davis