Adolescents admitted to acute mental health inpatient units can experience episodes of distress for numerous reasons. Little is known about how they attempt to cope with this distress. This paper explores adolescent experiences of distress in an acute mental health inpatient unit. Fifty hours of non‐participant observations were conducted and documented using a critical incident technique (CIT) framework. An interpretive descriptive approach was used to analyse the observation data collected. Nineteen episodes of adolescent distress were observed and five themes emerged, of which two will be explored in this paper: clinical contexts and triggers, and coping or help‐seeking actions. The findings of this study will help mental health nurses working on acute adolescent units understand how adolescents attempt to cope with, and seek help for, episodes of distress, and enhance early responses to prevent escalation of distress.