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.
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. 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.