The teenage years involve many changes, both emotional and physical, which can result in a lot of confusion for teens themselves as well as for their parents. One of the major tasks associated with adolescent development is that of gaining increased independence. This means you may notice your teenager disagreeing more, becoming more defiant, looking differently and trying to push you away. Many parents of teenagers struggle with trying to determine what changes are “normal” or “healthy” and what changes should cause them concern.
Below can be used as a guide for parents who are wondering if the changes they are seeing in their teenager are a normal part of the developmental process or if they should be considered problematic. Unfortunately there is no black and white answer but by thinking about the information below as well, as listening to what your gut tells you, you should have a pretty good sense of whether you may want to consider some outside intervention or whether your teenager is “just being a normal teenager”.
Normal Behaviors of Teenagers:
Expressing a difference of opinion more often / Arguing more with you. Unfortunately this is very normal (but certainly not fun!). Teenagers are starting to think more independently and like to assert this independent thinking when they can. This is not a bad thing much of the time and should be considered normal. When you may start to be concerned is if the arguing is constant, they get out of control when arguing or their opinions or ideas could lead to dangerous behaviors.
Change in appearance. This is also very normal. Teens usually start to dress differently and may push the limits with their hair, makeup, piercings, etc. Generally teenagers are struggling with both how to fit in as well as with figuring out who they are. This is very confusing for teenagers and they may go through a couple different “styles”. You may not always like their choice of style but should allow some freedom of expression during this time. When you may start to be concerned is if they are getting excessive piercings, tattoos, dressing very provocatively or in a way that is against a school or potential job dress code.
Mood swings. Unfortunately this is also typical during adolescence and parents are most often on the receiving end of such mood swings. During adolescence, your child is experiencing many hormonal changes which impact their overall mood. In addition, they are experiencing many changes, pressures and a lot of confusion which further contributes to these mood swings. Often, teenagers see their lives as all good (someone they like paid attention to them) or all bad (a friend was talking about them behind their back). When you may start to be concerned about these mood swings is if your teenager seems to be angry most of the time or is being aggressive. In addition, teenage depression can be very concerning so it is important to watch for signs of excessive isolation, crying, sleeping or eating a lot and especially if your teenager is having any thoughts of death or of hurting themselves. Any increase in violence, aggression or any instance where your teenager is hurting themselves should be addressed immediately with outside support if necessary.
Withdrawing from family or from activities they used to enjoy. Wanting to spend less time with family members is very common among teenagers. Friends become the center of their world and they generally become consumed with what their friends think of them, who is doing what and with wanting to spend as much time as possible on the phone, computer, texting or hanging out with friends. In addition, they may have a shift in things they enjoy doing. This may be a genuine change of interest that is a result of maturity or may be an effort to fit in more with a group of peers or wanting to explore new interests. This is all normal and exploring new things (as long as they are not dangerous or unhealthy) is a good thing. However, if your teenager is not speaking to you at all, outwardly refuses to do anything at all with family members including major holiday events and / or has stopped showing an interest in any activities, this could be a warning sign of depression, anxiety, substance use of some other deeper issue.
Experimenting with drugs or alcohol. The bad news is that this is very common during the teenage years. Most teens do some sort of experimentation with drugs or alcohol. While this should not be ignored by parents (parents should issue consequences, review their rules, provide education about the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol, etc), it does not automatically warrant the need for professional help. Signs to look for that may indicate your teenager is doing more than experimenting with drugs and alcohol include: decline in academic performance, increased difficulty getting up for school or missing a lot of school, loss of friends or significant change of friends, missing money, significant behavioral changes.
As I have stated, it is difficult to give any clear cut answer for when outside parenting support or consultation or intervention for your teenager are warranted. As a parent, you know your child, so it is important to gather factual information, but to also listen to your gut which could be telling you something is wrong.