Teenagers are often impulsive, acting on emotions and inclinations without thinking the consequences through. As a result, teens can get into dangerous situations, make poor decisions, and occasionally have trouble learning from their actions. Teenagers can also be moody, insecure, and eager to fit in with their peers. However, there is a biological explanation for all of this. Adolescence is a significant period of development, particularly for the brain.
Adolescence is also a period of great transition. Teens are halfway between childhood and adulthood, and therefore developing more independence in their lives. During this time, teens begin to have less reliance on their parents and feel more inclined to make their own decisions. They are – mentally and emotionally – preparing for their life ahead. They are learning about themselves, figuring out their identities, building relationships, experimenting with new things, and learning how to live and navigate challenges on their own.
As a result of life transitions and dynamic brain development, many teenagers are likely to exhibit undesirable behaviors during their adolescent years. However, parents often have trouble distinguishing “normal” teenage behavior from more concerning behavioral and mental health issues.
If you are a parent and concerned about your teen’s behavior, you are in the right place. Knowing what to expect during adolescence is important, and knowing what constitutes abnormal teen behavior can ensure you get the help your teen needs most. Teenagers often will not realize – or outwardly say when – they are struggling with deep-seated issues. It is up to parents to step in and get the help their teen deserves.
What is Normal Teenage Behavior?
It is important for parents to understand that even “normal” teen behavior can seem “abnormal” at times. Teenagers, as noted above, are undergoing a period of change. Their brains are still developing, including the parts dedicated to decision-making, learning, and reasoning. For this reason, adolescents might act out, take risks, and/or experiment. Below are examples of normal teenage behavior that still may seem odd to parents:
- Changing their appearance.
In an effort to establish their identity and live in their own skin, teenagers will often experiment with their appearance. They may dye their hair, get body piercings, wear loud clothes, or simply – and avidly – follow the trends to fit in. Some teens may feel awkward as they go through awkward periods of physical development, and may try to compensate that through pushing the boundaries in their looks.
- Prioritizing time with friends.
Teenagers are highly dependent on their peers’ approval and will often express a need to fit in with others. This is an inherent part of adolescent development: their friends might play a more important role in the choices they make. As a result, you may notice your teen distancing themselves from family members in an effort to spend more times with their friends. Or, your teen may be chasing the latest trends, fads, and events in attempts to be popular or fit in with a certain friend group.
- Exhibiting some mood swings.
On top of their brain still being “in progress,” teenagers are also experiencing a surge of hormones as they develop into adults. However, they are not yet adults – and therefore cannot do everything they want. This can be frustrating to the average teen, and they may exhibit some moodiness or become more argumentative as a result.
Emotional highs and lows are also common during the adolescent years, as they are going through many life changes and trying to figure out themselves. They may feel a lack of confidence or uncertainty as they navigate certain changes. They may revert to seemingly childish behaviors like slamming doors, rolling their eyes, or crying when frustrated. If you are a parent, you can ease this by being supportive, open, and communicative, while also respecting both yours and your teen’s boundaries.
- Rebellion and Risk-Taking
As described above, the parts of the brain dedicated to decision-making and impulse control are not yet fully developed in adolescence. As a result, teens do not always think before they act, or think about long-term consequences of their actions. Biologically, teens are therefore more prone to taking risks, having lapses in judgement, and acting against reason from their parents.
While rebellion and risky behaviors are normal to an extent – think, driving fast or trying alcohol – parents should always intervene and steer their teen away from dangerous behaviors. For example, committing crimes, having unprotected sex, racing cars, and using drugs are not normal risks taken during adolescence.
This is when parents might start to worry.
When Should Parents Worry About Mental Illness?
Adverse and abnormal teen behavior can often be the sign of a mental health problem. As explained by Nassir Ghaemi, the director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center:
“Most adolescents don’t repeatedly abuse drugs or alcohol, frequently engage in sexually risky behavior, become physically violent, or rebel strongly against cultural norms. In the minority of adolescents who exhibit such behaviors, various causes can be relevant, ranging from the onset of mental illnesses (like bipolar disorder or depression) to a response to adverse experiences (like sexual or physical trauma).”
Below are some signs of concerning teenage behavior that falls outside the normal boundaries. These can indicate a deeper-seated issue like mental illness, trauma, or a behavioral disorder.
- Breaking the Law
Although defying household rules may be common in adolescence, delinquent behavior that involves breaking the law is not normal. If your teen is shoplifting, vandalizing, drinking and driving, or other means of getting in legal trouble, you should as a parent be concerned. Ask yourself if your teenager has respect for the law and authorities, or if their disregard may be signaling a problem. Some teenagers will act out and disrespect authorities for attention or an escape from deep-rooted mental health problems.
- Falling Grades, Skipping Class, or Getting in Trouble at School
Another sign of abnormal teenage behavior is academic troubles—and we are not just talking about the occasional slacking off. While cases of “senioritis” are normal for teens, a complete lack of care for school is not. If your teenager is skipping school or defying their teachers, ignoring assignments or failing tests, it may signal that they have other worries or struggles taking up headspace. Be open with your teen, ask questions, and let them know you are there for support.
It’s also important to note that it’s common for teenagers to experience stress around big exams or projects at school. However, if your teen is exhibiting high anxiety around schoolwork or academic performance, it could also be a cause for concern. Many teens experience great pressure to excel in school, but this in turn can negatively impact their mental health. Some students turn to performance drugs in efforts to succeed. As a parent, be mindful of the amount of pressure and stress your teen is experiencing academically, and always encourage them to take time for themselves and their mental health.
- Binge Drinking and Drug Use
Many teenagers experiment with alcohol and marijuana during their adolescent years. In fact, a recent survey estimates that over 60 percent of students consume alcohol before the end of high school. However, excessive and/or recurring substance use is not common during adolescence. Even more, it can be dangerous at this age.
Due to their stage of brain development, drug and alcohol use as a teenager can lead to long-term issues with learning, memory, mental health, and addiction. As a parent, it is important to educate your teen about the dangers of early substance abuse, and to seek professional help if your teen is exhibiting signs of a substance use problem. Early intervention can be an important factor in helping your teen find success.
- Violent Behaviors or Excessive Anger
Rebellion and some level of defiance can be expected of teenagers. However, ongoing or extreme outbursts of anger are a sign of abnormal behavior in teens. If your teen is angry a lot of the time, they may be dealing with something internally and need professional help. This is also the case for teenagers who are violent towards other people (e.g. getting in fights) and animals, too.
- Persistent Sadness or Anxiety
Although many teens will experience bouts of insecurity or have emotionally fueled days, these feelings should be temporary. Those teenagers who experience feelings of sadness, worthlessness, hopelessness, guilt or shame – typically for longer than a two week period – may be experiencing signs of depression. Similarly, teenagers who are excessively worried, fearful, or insecure may be facing symptoms of anxiety. These are common mental health disorders in teens that require professional intervention and support.
- Severe Changes in Sleeping, Eating Habits, or Health
It is normal for teenagers to want to sleep in, or increase their appetite, as they are growing rapidly. Their bodies need this level of fuel during such a dynamic period of development. However, some teenagers will sleep in excess, staying in bed for long hours and experiencing a lack of motivation to get up. Some may be feeling unexplained physical aches and pains. These could signal depression. Cutting, self-harm, and suicidal talk or attempts are also physical signs of depression that are extremely worrisome.
Further, teenagers who completely change their eating habits, such as dieting, binge eating, or stopping eating, may be facing an eating disorder. As a parent, it is important to pay attention to these physical signs.
- Distancing from Friends and Activities
While teenagers may distance themselves from family, or become “embarrassed” to be around their parents, it is very uncommon for teenagers to withdraw from friends and social groups, too. If your teen has changed friend groups and hangs out with friends you do not know, this warrants a conversation. Additionally, teens who withdraw socially altogether, including away from once-loved activities, may be struggling with a mental health issue. Have open conversations with your teen, ask questions, and always offer support without judgement. Do not hesitate to get a professional involved if you suspect a mental health disorder.
While the transition to adulthood is a challenging time to navigate, it can be too much for some teenagers to handle alone. It is during these years that teenagers typically start exhibiting symptoms of mental health problems, due to the changes happening biologically and on a macro level. In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, most mental illnesses (about 75 percent) begin by age 24.
As a parent, know that it is never too early to intervene. You know your teen best, and you are the person who can have the greatest impact in his or her health. Always stay involved in your teenager’s life, stay aware of your teen’s friend groups, and check-in on your teen’s mental health. Be an advocate for your teen, and if you suspect any signs of concerning teen behavior, do not hesitate to reach out for help.
Turnbridge is a recognized treatment center specializing in mental health and substance use disorder treatment for teenagers and young adults. Call us today for guidance at 877-581-1793.