Defining a Disorder: Four Ways to Determine Normal Behavior for Teens

As a parent, how can you tell between the tumultuous stage of adolescence and the presence of mental illness? It might be difficult to understand how clinicians determine whether your child is in fact suffering from depression, anxiety, or post traumatic stress disorder, for example.


Of course, there are signs to look for, which is the purpose behind the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). It is the standardized text and clinical reference used by psychologists and therapists across North America to diagnose their clients. The manual includes the names, features, symptoms, and demographical information on all the recognized mental illnesses, including addictions. The DSM is now in its fifth edition, published in the Spring of 2013.


Defining a disorder is not random. It is based on the definition of abnormal behavior, which psychologists have defined not only psychologically, but also culturally, statistically.  It’s important to note that abnormal here is defined in a specific way and not used critically as the word might sometimes suggest in every day conversation.


In general, a mental disorder is a pattern of behavior or thought that is not reasonable or easily understood. It is associated with significant distress or impairment in coping with the environment.  Mental disorders by definition include some sort of abnormal behavior, which are defined in four ways.


The first is whether it falls outside of a particular statistical range considered normal. For instance, if most people in the world can run a mile in 10 minutes, then that could be considered the normal range for the running speed of a human being. However, if someone can run a mile in 5 minutes or on the other end of the spectrum, let’s say 20 minutes, both the quick speed and the longer speed are considered to be statistically abnormal. When applied to mental health, someone who exhibits behavior that most of the population does not might be looked at as having a mental disorder.


However, being statistically abnormal does not immediately equate to having a disorder. For example, if an individual’s IQ is incredibly high, although it would be considered statistically abnormal, there’s no problem with being very smart!


Therefore, another requirement of abnormal behavior is whether it causes significant distress. If an individual feels depressed, anxious, fearful, or suicidal, then his or her behavior and thought pattern would be considered abnormal.


Also if his or her behavior or thought pattern leads to an inability to adapt or cope with circumstances, then that might also be considered abnormal. If someone is sad occasionally but is able to function at home, work and school, his or her behavior might not be defined as abnormal and might not meet all the clinical requirements for a diagnosis of depression. The inability to enjoy life, have significant relationships, function at work, or do well in school might indicate abnormal behavior.


And finally, abnormal behavior is any pattern that goes outside of what society sees as normal. For instance, in most societies, shouting in public to your deceased relatives might be considered abnormal, and in fact, a clinician might see that person as experiencing hallucinations or mania.  It’s important to consider cultural differences because in some societies talking to your ancestors, even though they are deceased, might be a part of spiritual tradition.


Abnormal behavior or patterns of thought is the first indication that a mental disorder might be present. This is what clinicians look for when formulating a diagnosis. However, most therapists and psychologists can spot the typical symptoms for certain diagnoses quite quickly. To confirm their observations, professionals in the field use the DSM, the manual mentioned above. It is America’s medical reference for diagnosing a client.  Sadly, it’s true that there are some clinicians who are quick to make a diagnosis and prescribe medication. For this reason, it’s important to get a second opinion if you feel that your child’s diagnosis isn’t right or arrived at with not enough information.


Of course, you can do a little of your own assessment by exploring the level of functioning of your child. Behavior that signals trouble and possibly the signs of a mental illness are those that reveal impairment in a teen’s functioning. For instance, if your teenager is not doing well in school, if grades are dropping and there are continued behavioral issues, then there might be a problem. If conflicts among peers are escalating or if arguments at home worsen, then perhaps it’s worth exploring whether a mental illness is present. Again, one way to determine whether behavior is normal for adolescence or whether it warrants a diagnosis is if that behavior interrupts your child’s functioning at home, school, or work.