A decade or more ago, you made it through the “terrible twos” with your child. Now that he or she is a teenager, you might feel as though you’re playing a whole other ballgame. Your adolescent is transitioning from a child into an adult, and they might exhibit some behaviors that are puzzling or concerning to you. How can you tell whether a behavior is normal teenage behavior or something more? Here are some normal teenage behaviors that you should be ready for, as well as tips on determining whether something requires a professional evaluation.
Do you remember when your child was three years old, and they went from elated over being able to have chocolate milk to furious because you served it in a green cup? While teenagers won’t throw themselves on the floor and scream, they do tend to have mood swings that can seem irrational and confusing to their parents. Your son might be happy about his team winning the game, then angry because the coach pointed out something he could improve on. Your daughter might go from tearful over an argument with a friend to excited and chatty when her current crush texts her five minutes later. Mood swings are a part of normal teenage behavior and to be expected most of the time.
Mood swings that are affecting your teen’s daily life, however, can indicate a problem. If your adolescent is aggressive to the point of being physically or verbally abusive or if they’re sad most of the time, these behaviors and feelings should be evaluated. Similarly, if your teen vacillates from having high levels of energy, erratic behavior, and ecstatic to spending an entire day in bed crying, this is another situation that requires professional help.
Spending Less Time With Family
In years past, you might have enjoyed having breakfast with your child before school, followed by them sitting next to you on the couch doing homework, family dinner, and an hour of television or chatting before bed. Weekends might have been spent on family pursuits such as going to the beach or just puttering around the house. Now that your child is a teen, though, you might feel as though you hardly see them! If they’re not out with friends, they’re in their bedroom chatting with classmates and buddies on their devices.
Spending more time with friends and less time with family is very normal teenage behavior. It means that your teen is shifting his or her circle of support to peers and away from parents and siblings. While it might feel hurtful, this is a necessary stage of development and should be expected and even encouraged.
A problem should be suspected if your teen is avoiding contact with everyone, however. If your teen is spending hours in his or her bedroom without communicating with anyone and is declining invitations to go out with friends and family members alike, they might be showing symptoms of depression.
Pushing Boundaries and Challenging Rules
Is your teen rolling in a half hour past curfew, making noise long after your family’s “quiet hours,” and getting up late for school? Maybe they’re breaking the school’s dress code or using foul language in everyday conversation. Teenagers are trying to figure out what type of adults they’re going to be, and one way they do this is by pushing against the boundaries and rules that they have followed without a problem in recent months. They are asserting their independence and autonomy and telling the adults in their lives, “you can’t tell me what to do!”
When it comes to parenting teenagers, it’s important to choose your battles. You might decide to let the school handle the too-short shorts and let your child deal with those consequences. On the other hand, you might insist that quiet hours are kept and enforce the loss of privileges if they continue to be inconsiderate to others in the family. Many parents decide to ignore and accept unnatural hair colors and odd fashion choices while honing in on misbehaviors that could have real consequences.
While it is normal teenage behavior for teens to push boundaries, if your teen is frequently getting into trouble at school or breaking laws, this indicates a problem that goes beyond simple boundary-pushing.
The teenage years are a time for experimentation with adult behaviors, and although parents don’t like it, many adolescents will try alcohol, mild drugs (such as marijuana), and sexual activity. It’s important to make your stance on these activities well known; let your child know that you disapprove of substance use, for example, and don’t allow it in your home. At the same time, it’s important that you don’t overreact if you find out that your teen tried a beer at a party or that they have had (safe) sex. Flying off the handle is one way to encourage your teen to continue on and simply hide it better the next time.
Create a dialog that helps your teen make safer choices. For example, agree to pick them up, no questions asked, if they do not have a safe ride home or if they feel uncomfortable at a party or a friend’s home. Talk about the importance of safe sex to prevent not only pregnancy but also disease. Also, create age-appropriate boundaries such as knowing where your child is and who they’re with. Be aware of the signs of drug use and intervene promptly if you suspect that your child’s rare experimentation has turned into regular use or abuse of substances or, worse, an addiction.
Is this normal teen behavior or something more serious?
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.
First, whether the behavior 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.
Your adolescent will go through many ups and downs between puberty and the time that their brain is fully developed, usually in the early to mid-20s. While a 14-year-old needs more supervision and boundaries than a 19-year-old, be aware that a continuum of parental guidance is necessary as you shepherd your child into adulthood.
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.
If you have need help deciphering whether the way your teen is behaving is normal teenage behavior or something to be concerned about, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Your teen’s physician is a good place to start for advice. If necessary, your physician can refer you and your teen to a mental health specialist for an evaluation.