Typical Teen Behavior Versus Troubled Teen Behavior

Adolescence is a time of major change. The changes can be so dramatic that it leaves parents confused and uncertain if what they are seeing is just typical teen behavior or cause for concern. Today’s blog will explain why teen behavior can be confusing, what behaviors are appropriate for this age group, and how you can best handle the typical teen conduct.

Reasons for Adolescent Behavior

While you might think your teen’s behavior is baffling, there are several reasons your child might be acting differently:

Experimentation. 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 involves teens trying out different looks, attitudes, beliefs, and experiences all in an effort to define themselves and establish independence. Adolescents need positive experimentation to help them make sense of the world and their place in it.

Hormones. Your adolescent’s body is full of raging hormones. These hormones are needed to produce the physical changes of puberty in your teen’s body, but they can negatively impact your teen’s feelings, mood, and decision-making ability.

Brain Development. A teen’s brain is still developing. The parts of the brain that manage emotions, make decisions, employ logic, and establish self-control are restructured during adolescence, and the whole brain does not reach full maturity until the mid-20’s. Your teen is simply not capable of thinking things through on an adult level, which can lead to lapses of judgment and sometimes risky behavior.

While these biological changes explain why teens behave the way they do, it does not excuse them from poor behavior or the consequences of their poor decisions. You can have sympathy and understanding for your teen, while still enforcing consequences to teach them important life lessons.

Typical Versus Troubled Teen Behaviors

It is important to understand that some teenage behaviors that seem bizarre to parents are a normal part of teen life. Let’s take a look at some of these teenage behaviors:

Changing appearance

Typical. Styles come and go, and keeping up with trends is important for teenagers. Hair and clothes are common ways for teens to express themselves. Boys may experiment with goatees, growing long hair, or shaving their head. Girls might try attention-seeking clothing or dying their hair. Teens are becoming very aware of how they differ from their peers and will try on different identities as they try to fit in or stand out.

Troubled. There are a few appearance changes that can indicate your teen might need your intervention. If your teen is suddenly wanting to wear one specific color, like always needing something red on, it is possible they are interested in a gang. If your teen suddenly loses or gains a lot of weight, that can be a sign of mental distress. If they want to wear long sleeves in hot weather, check for evidence of cutting or self-harm. Additionally, changing appearance can be a red flag if it’s accompanied by other negative behavior changes.

Shift from family to peers

Typical. Friends become extremely important to teens and can have a great influence on their decisions. Your teen will also want to be more independent of the family and be their own person. It is typical for teens to withdraw from the family, such as not talking to you as often or not wanting to be seen in public with you. They will likely experiment with different beliefs and values than the family has.

Troubled. Red flags for troubled behavior include if your teen spends the majority of their time alone, refuses to spend any quality time with the family, has a complete change in peer group, or won’t let you meet any of their friends.

Increased arguments

Typical. Your teen will quarrel with you more. As teens begin seeking independence, you will frequently butt heads. While there will be arguments, they shouldn’t be constant, nor should they ever be violent. Typical teen behavior will include eye rolling, door slamming, and accusations that you do not love them, that you are unfair, that all their friends get to do something they can’t, or that they hate you.

Troubled. Unacceptable behavior includes: being verbally abusive and/or name calling; intimidating or threatening others in the family; hitting, punching, slapping, kicking or being physically abusive; and being destructive to the house or other people’s property.

Testing limits

Typical. Most teens will try to test limits. A teen might try skipping school, staying out a few minutes past curfew, using foul language, lying, or perhaps trying an alcoholic drink. Parents should respond calmly to these limit tests with a consequence that “fits the crime.”

Troubled. When your teen refuses to comply with reasonable rules and boundaries consistently, you might be entering troubled behavior. Habitually using drugs or alcohol, staying out all night, frequently skipping school, stealing, getting in fights, or getting arrested are all red flags that you should seek professional help.

Emotional ups and downs

Typical. Teenage behavior is characterized with moodiness, irritability, drama, and emotional ups and downs. Teens feel things intensely, and they feel uncertain about their role in the world. Your teen may complain of having no friends one week, and then go out on the weekend with friends and have a great time. One minute your sweet child is begging you to lie down with her while she falls asleep, and the next minute she will discount everything you say and snicker at your suggestions. Teens struggle to manage their emotions.

Troubled. Rapid changes in personality, falling grades, persistent sadness or anxiety (over 3 weeks), or sleep problems could indicate depression, bullying, or another mental health issue.

Ways to Deal with Typical Teen Behavior

Kids can wear weird clothes, pierce their lips, act rudely, test a house rule 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 means you pick your battles. Avoid criticizing their clothing choices or friends, but address rude behavior or the breaking of rules. It’s important to communicate your expectations and enforce consequences when your teen is clearly out of line.

It is easy to feel hurt by a teen’s treatment and rejection as they strive for independence, but don’t respond by returning the rejection. Try to remember that the roller coaster ride they put you on is also the one that they’re feeling internally. Have sympathy for their raging hormones and undeveloped brain, but stick to your principles and guide your teens towards positive decisions. The role of parenting shifts in adolescence from being authoritarian to becoming more of a coach.

Troubled Teen Behavior

If you identify red flag behaviors in your teen, such as the ones listed under “troubled” above, please consult a doctor, counselor, therapist, or other mental health professional for help finding appropriate treatment. You absolutely cannot do this alone. Parenting a troubled teenager can be overwhelming for you and your family. Teens who are defiant, failing school, depressed, running away, violent, withdrawn, or otherwise struggling can fill your home with chaos and tension.

Keep in mind that whatever problems your teen is experiencing, it is not a sign that you’ve somehow failed as a parent. Instead of trying to assign blame for the situation, focus on your teen’s current needs. The first step is to find a way to connect with what they are experiencing emotionally and socially.

Final Thoughts…

Every teenager is an individual with a unique personality and their own likes and dislikes, so no one parenting technique or environment will work for all youth. However, there is one thing that is true of all teenagers. No matter how much your teen seems to withdraw from you emotionally, no matter how independent your teen appears, no matter how troubled your teen becomes… every teen still needs your attention and to feel loved by you.

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