Typical vs. Abnormal Teen Behavior

Adolescence is a time of change. The changes can be so dramatic that it leaves parents wondering if what they are seeing is just typical teen behavior or cause for concern.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) reports that the teenage years are marked by trying on independence through experimentation. Typical teen behavior includes many things that seem strange to parents. Dyed hair, odd piercings, strange music and even new friends are all part of growing up for some teens. And some teenagers also choose this period in life as a time to experiment with alcohol and drugs, and sometimes sex. Also, the hormonal changes in a teenager’s body can produce moodiness. A teen’s brain is still developing, so some parts of the brain that house logical thinking and memory are not fully formed and can lead to lapses of judgment and sometimes risky behavior. Additionally, a desire for independence and becoming one’s own person can lead teenagers to distance themselves from their families.

Typical Teen Behaviors

It is important to understand that some teenage behaviors that seem bizarre to parents are a normal part of teen life. Here are some normal teenage behaviors:

  • Changing one’s appearance. Styles come and go, and keeping up with trends is important for teenagers. Dyed hair and a body piercing or two is stylish. Boys may experiment with goatees, growing long hair, or shaving their head. For teenage girls, appearance becomes very important. They want to be attractive and trendy. They become very aware of how they differ from their peers and will try on different identities as they try to fit in.
  • Some withdrawal from family life. Typical teen behavior includes a focus on one’s friends and a desire to be independent of the family, to be one’s “own person.” Your teen will not talk to you as often as he or she used to, and he or she may pull away, or not want to be seen in public with you. Teens seem to have different opinions than their parents and their friends have a more important role in the decisions they make.
  • Increased arguments. Your teen will quarrel with you more. There will be arguments and defiance. However, with typical teen behavior, these arguments are not constant, nor do they become violent or result in long-standing sullenness or resentment. Typical teen behavior will include accusations that you do not love him or her, that you are unfair, that all his or her friends get to do something, or that he or she hates you. They will also try to test limits, such as staying out a half hour past curfew.
  • Emotional ups and downs. Typical teenage behavior comes with emotional ups and downs, as well as intervals of moodiness. Teens feel things intensely. Your teen may complain of having no friends one week, and then go out on the weekend with friends and be fine for a couple of weeks. The teen years are filled with uncertainty and magnified emotional responses. One minute your sweet child is begging you to come on the class trip or to lie down with her while she falls asleep. Then, seemingly overnight, she starts treating you like dirt, slamming doors, discounting everything you say and snickering at your suggestions.

Ways to Deal with Typical Teen Behavior

It is easy to feel hurt by a teen’s treatment and rejection. It is also easy to respond by returning the rejection. But try to remember that the roller coaster ride they put you on is also the one that they’re feeling internally. Kids can wear weird clothes, pierce their lips, act rudely and still be decent kids. The best response to typical teen behavior is to stay calm, which provides teens the stability they need. However, staying calm does not mean that you allow all of their behavior. It’s important to establish clear rules and enforce them.

One thing to avoid: Parents tend to trivialize the importance of things in teenagers’ lives, but that makes kids feel misunderstood, and eventually they will stop telling you anything. When your kids talk to you, don’t offer advice, disparage their friends or try to minimize their worries. Just listen and sympathize. Read our previous blog “Effectively Communicating with Teens” to learn ways to improve your relationship with you teen.

Abnormal Teen Behavior

Some teenager behavior is actually a warning sign for more serious problems and not just a ‘typical teenager,’ such as:

  • Stealing.
  • Being physically abusive to others or destructive in the house.
  • Being verbally abusive, intimidating or threatening.
  • Anxiety or sadness that never seems to go away.
  • Obsessing about weight and/or dramatic changes in eating habits.
  • Pattern of never going out with friends.
  • Hanging out with a dangerous crowd.
  • Coming home drunk or high.
  • Staying out all night.
  • Getting arrested.
  • Constant need to argue, even over small things.
  • Openly defiant and/or refusing to follow rules.
  • Passing the blame for everything – never taking any responsibility for their actions.

If you see these behaviors in your teen, it’s time to investigate possible problems and/or get professional help.

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