Parents ask me: “Roy, how do I know if what my son is doing is a ‘normal teenager thing’ or if it’s something more serious? How do I know when I’m at the point where I should get my teenager some help?”
One of the hardest aspects for parents raising teenagers is understanding the difference between normal teenager behavior and unhealthy, abnormal teenage behavior. It’s normal for teens to become surly, withdrawn, and — let’s be honest — obnoxious. But how can you tell if a teen is being distant or showing the warning signs of anxiety and depression? How can you distinguish typical teenage behavior from dangerous red flags?
What’s normal and what’s not
Normal: Fashions are constantly changing and its important to teens to keep up with these changes. Its also important for them to do two things simultaneously: be included and stand out. With their appearance they want to be in style while maintaining their own look. Today’s teenagers want tattoos and piercings more than any previous generation. It’s their way of standing out and fitting in. Parents will differ on allowing piercings and tattoos, but its important to know that the desire for them and attempts to get them are normal.
Abnormal: Sudden, drastic changes of appearance especially when a teen is experiencing social or school related problems. Self harm or cutting is not normal and needs immediate professional attention. Any sudden or extreme weight loss or gain are red flags that warrant special attention.
Normal: As teenagers’ grow, so does their capacity for abstract thought. Combine that new found ability with a normal need to become their own person and you’ve got the source of most parental stress. Being argumentative, inquisitive, skeptical, questioning, doubting, disobedient are all normal teenage behaviors and should be expected–no matter how well they’ve been raised or how good they are.
Abnormal: Teenagers who are too good, too nice, to acquiescent too consistently concern me and potentially indicate an unhealthy need to please or excessive anxiety about making mistakes. Constant and consistent escalation of arguments at home or at school, violence, skipping school, legal problems are all concerning and merit more concern and attention.
Normal: The developing teenage brain is like a buzzing bee hive. Lots and lots going on in there. Hormone generation and regulation, along with a host of other processes to help them integrate their personalities, make sense of the world, survive in the world and find meaning in life make it difficult for teens to maintain the stability of mood commonly expected and seen in adults. Going from being happy or joyful to being sad, worried, preoccupied, irritable and angry are all normal for the developing teen.
Abnormal: when mood swings are unusually intense, rapid or happen consistently are not normal. Sudden changes in a teenagers personality are not normal. Pay attention to a change in their school work. Falling grades, especially sudden falling grades, when they cannot be otherwise explained, are usually a cause for concern. Changes in sleep patters, inability to fall or stay asleep should be discussed. Any mention of suicide should be taken seriously. Even if the teen isn’t a threat to themselves it may indicate underlying depression, a desperate need for attention, inability to cope with circumstances and their accompanying emotions. Any sudden or drastic change in routine should be noted and possibly discussed.
Normal: Most teens want to or do experiment with drugs, alcohol or tobacco/nicotine products. Its important to have open, forthright discussions about your values, expectations and consequences for not respecting your rules.
Abnormal: any habitual use of substances is something needing more attention. As I’ve said before, any of these abnormal behaviors when combined with other problems and home, school or in their social lives warrant more concern.
Normal: as teens grow they will be less influenced by parents and more influenced by their peers. While they live at home, school and their friendships are, for teens, a second home and a second family. This normal withdrawing of teens is often painful and worrisome for parents. Discuss this with your teen, but understand that this is a normal teenage behavior.
Abnormal: If your teen suddenly or drastically changes friends or friend groups. If your teen is spending excessive amounts of time around negative, teens who are consistently poorly influencing them this is not normal. If your teenagers friends are influencing them to do anything illegal, blatantly disobedient to reasonable rules and expectations and refusing to comply with consequences for their behavior, there is cause for heightened concern.
Normal: Its normal for teens to question their faith, doubt the existence of God and be skeptical and questioning of religious leaders and institutions. This is not only normal, but when they receive support from adults during this process, this “kicking against the goad” is quite healthy in the formation of a faith, spirituality and life ethic that the teenager owns, rather than one they ascribe to out of obligation.
Abnormal: Sudden changes of beliefs, refusal to attend family church services, fear of attending church services especially when accompanied by other problems in different areas of their life are warning signs that should be heeded. There are ways to talk with your teen about any changes in their beliefs or attitudes toward God, religion or religious institutions.
What can adults do to help?
Teens are constantly communicating with adults, but too often we’re distracted not ever paying full attention. Teens know this and will not tell us the most important concerns on their minds and hearts if we’re not fully tuned in. Listen, listen and listen even more. Ask questions for clarification. Admit you’re being annoying, but tell them that its important to you to really understand. “Look, I know I’m a nag and I’ll leave you alone if that’s what you really want, even though I really don’t think it is, but I do want to understand what you’re going through. You say “nuthin” but everything in me says “somethin!”
Are there drastic changes in behavior, grades, friends, social activities and other behaviors? Are their consistent eruptions of anger? Does the intensity of the teen’s reaction consistently not match the level of what triggered the reaction? Are their sudden, drastic changes in appearance, weight, style?
It has always taken a village to raise teenagers but today very few live in the village. We must intentionally recreate the village. Ask teachers, ministers, friends parents, your friends who share your values, experts and anyone else who knows your teenager or will listen if they think what you’re seeing is normal or is it a problem. Look for what’s consistent in their verbal responses and their facial expressions when you describe the behaviors or changes that concern you. If you’ve determined there is a problem, it’s time to ask for help. Ask around to people whose discretion you trust, if they can recommend any professionals who can help you to determine the severity of the problem and what you can do to help your teenager.