What Is (and Isn’t) Normal Teen Behavior?

If you are the parent of a teen, it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether his or her behavior is normal or something to worry about. Teenagers can have some baffling behaviors and some of them can overlap with mental health issues. Here is a primer of some common concerns that parents have and the difference between normal teen behavior and abnormal behavior.

Parents and Friends

When your child was younger, he or she would go to you first for comfort and advice. Once the preteen years came along, however, you might have noticed that your child was more likely to go to their friends for support and advice. Of course, preteens are not known for always giving the most sensible advice to other preteens, so this likely caused you some concern.

The good news is that a preteen or teen who goes to his or her peers before parents is completely normal teen behavior. It is part of the developmental process for children to stop depending on their parents for emotional support as they grow toward adulthood. If your teen is ignoring your advice and support in favor of that of their friends, this is not something to be concerned about.

More concerning would be a situation where your teen was consistently angry at you or exhibiting violent or abusive behaviors toward you. Or if they had a group of friends that was encouraging them to break the law, drink alcohol regularly or excessively, or use dangerous drugs. Sometimes, teens make friends who drop out of school or cause various types of trouble and these friends can be a bad influence.

Sleeping Pattern Changes Are a Normal Teen Behavior

Children naturally change their sleeping patterns as they enter their adolescence. Rather than going to bed fairly early and waking up early, they begin staying up late at night and finding it hard to wake up in the morning. This is normal. In fact, some high schools have changed their hours to accommodate this common change in a teen’s circadian rhythm.

If, however, your teen is having trouble falling asleep and is not able to get eight to nine hours of sleep even when they try, this could indicate an issue. So can refusing to get out of bed in the morning or being unable to get up for school. Some teens have sleep disturbances as a result of anxiety or depression. Some become addicted to video games or other types of electronics, which negatively impacts their sleep. Talk to your teen to find out if better habits can improve their sleep difficulties; if not, make an appointment with their doctor.

Changes in Appetite or Eating Habits

You might notice that your teenager, particularly if you have a son or if a teen of either sex plays sports, they are eating much more than they used to. Athletic teens and teen boys have big appetites and it can be surprising to parents to see their teens eating so much, especially if they don’t gain weight as a result of their eating habits. This is normal in many cases; as a teen goes through growth spurts, they naturally eat more to compensate for the extra energy used.

If, however, your teen is eating a lot of unhealthy food and is gaining weight in an unhealthy manner, this could be a cause for concern. With two-thirds of Americans struggling with overweight and obesity, it is worth taking your teen to the doctor to see whether lifestyle changes need to be made.

Another potential issue is if your teen is not eating at all, is bingeing and throwing up, is using laxatives, or is showing other signs of an eating disorder. Disordered eating commonly begins during the teen years and can result in potentially deadly complications. If you are concerned that your teen is developing an eating disorder, an appointment with his or her primary care physician is warranted.

Mood Swings and Sadness

Adolescents can be moody at times, and whether you have a son or a daughter, it is natural to see some anger and sadness that might not make sense to you. Your teen is dealing with hormone surges, increasing responsibility, and some stress about becoming an adult, so it is a normal teen behavior for them to have some mood swings at times.

If your teen is feeling sad and discouraged most of the time, however, this is another matter. Depression is not uncommon during the teen years. The symptoms can include sadness or discouragement that lasts two weeks or more or that negatively impacts everyday life. Your teen might isolate him- or herself in their bedroom, refusing to come out and interact with the family. They might drop out of sports teams and clubs and quit their part-time job. They might also stop going out with friends. These behaviors are not normal and should warrant investigation by their primary care doctor.

If your teen is talking about plans for suicide or you have another reason to believe that his or her life might be in danger, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or head to the emergency room for immediate assistance.

Experimenting vs Destructive Patterns

Most teens, whether parents like it or not, will occasionally experiment with risky behaviors. They might try a beer or a marijuana joint at a party, they might have sex at a young age, or they might steal a candy bar from a store. While these behaviors should be discouraged, you should not worry too much if your teen tries these behaviors at some point. This is particularly true if your teen is making these behaviors safer; for example, a teen might try a beer but also refuse to get in the car with someone who has been drinking. Or they might have sex while using protection.

If your teen has developed a pattern of destructive behavior, however, that has gone past the point of experimentation. A teen who is driving recklessly, getting in trouble with the law, drinking regularly, using drugs, or having unprotected sex needs an intervention. Ask your teen’s primary care doctor for a referral to a mental health counselor who can help.