Distinguishing Typical Teen Behavior from Red Flags
The teenage years can be overwhelming – not just for the parents but for the
teen himself. It seems that teens are in a whirling vortex of emotions.
Generally, they are more volatile, more apt to explode in anger, more prone to
indulge in reckless behavior, arguments and fights. Some teens even go to the
extent of getting into trouble with authorities, experimenting with drugs and
other behaviors that may cause harm to them or to others.
As a parent who despairs about the marked changes in your child’s behavior,
you will often be told by parents who have gone through the same turbulent years
that most of the teen’s “acting out” is normal, ‘typical teen behavior”. But you
ask, is it, really? Is the latest call from the principal or that shoplifting
episode that almost ended up with some jailtime normal or are they red flags
pointing to a troubled teen?
It will be crucial to identify the difference between what is “normal” and
what can indicate that you have a troubled teen. Knowing the difference can help
you decide whether you may need to consider a troubled teen program for your
child. Here are some identifying markers:
Appearance. The sweet princess who used to love pink may now radically make
changes in her wardrobe and makeup. Your teen may want to start sporting a
tattoo, go for an all-black look or have piercings at unexpected places.
Red flag: When changes are more physical than superficial. Your child’s
changing fashion preferences (while you may not agree with it) are normal.
However, if the changes have to do with his body – abrupt weight gain or loss,
sunken eyes, presence of unexplained bruises or bloodshot eyes – there may be a
more serious problem. You should also watch out for changes in wardrobe where
your child seem to be hiding a specific part of the body such as the neckline or
the lower arms. These may point to suicidal tendencies or your child cutting
Mood swings. The changes in the teen’s body and the surging of his hormones
may leave the teen more prone to volatile mood changes. Your teen may seek to be
alone, withdrawing from and refusing to participate in family and other social
activities. He may also be irritable, sullen, overly sensitive when it comes to
himself and insensitive to others.
– Red flag: It may be time to seek help or consider other troubled teen
services when your child starts talking about death and the meaninglessness of
life, is persistently sad, is excessively withdrawn or losses interest in things
that he previously loved to do. The same is true if your child is unreasonably
angry and respond with violent words or acts, even with no or very little reason
Rebellious behavior. Your child seems to be at odds, not just with you, but
also with siblings and other loved ones, as well as authorities in school. The
bid towards independence will often cause a child to chafe at any boundaries.
Aside from getting into arguments with you, teens may sometimes roll their eyes,
deliberately disobey your orders or will be obviously defiant.
– Red flag: When the behaviors lead to harm not just on themselves but on
others, you may need to consider this as falling below normal behavior. This
includes sudden drops in school performance, running away, getting into physical
fights, threatening harm on someone, using weapons or damaging property. If the
teen is deliberately and repeatedly violent (either with their threatening words
or their harmful actions), this may point to a more serious problem.
Experimentation. Be observant and look for indications that your child is
experimenting with smoking, sex or drugs. It is important for parents to
maintain honest and open communications so that you can guide your child during
– Red flag: When there are indications that the experimentation has
progressed into something that is habitual. Valuable items in the home have
started to mysteriously disappear, your child comes home with an apparent high
or are exhibiting signs of engaging in risky sexual behavior. Your teen may also
start missing curfews or lying about his whereabouts or becoming sullen and
rebellious when asked about where he has been.
Relationships. Peers become a stronger influence on your teen due to their
desire to fit in and become accepted. As a parent, you may despair about your
waning influence on your teen, especially on his choices, but this increased
focus on friends is typical of teenagers.
Red flag: Your teen may start going with a different set of friends, one he
is loathe to introduce to you. Another red flag to watch out for is if his
friends’ influence is leading the teen towards taking harmful risks or making
As a parent, it is important for you to know your child intimately and to
also keep the above list with your child’s unique personality. Your child may be
naturally introverted and happy to be alone. Another child may be
characteristically strong willed, and may be more prone to show rebellious
behavior. Keep yourself informed about teen development and familiarize yourself
with a typical teen’s preferences and common behavior. Start with his circle of
friends, as well as your teen’s peers in the neighborhood. This can give you
insight about what constitutes “normal” to today’s teens. Know your child’s
friends as well.
It is also important to remember that your teen, no matter if he seems to be
always at odds with you, needs to know that he is loved unconditionally.
Continue to provide him with your presence and make your child feel that he can
come to you if he has any questions or any issues he wants to thresh out. Try to
listen to your child with the goal of understanding your child and what he is
going through himself. Forge strong connections with your child, especially
while he is young so that you and your child can be more able to navigate the
turbulent waters of the teenage years.
If you feel that your child’s behavior has gone out of the norm and ventured
into troubled teen behavior, there are a number of options you can choose from
including teen summer camp or a teen military program.