Recognizing Troubled Teen Behavior

Let’s face it. Teens misbehave. This is often their way of testing the boundaries, as they wrestle towards owning their independence and discovering their identity. There are also temptations to be “accepted” by peers and thus acting in a way that they think looks “cool.” Sometimes, the misbehavior is rooted in hormones going awry or the teen’s inability to cope with the rapid changes in his body.

It can be helpful to remember that physiologically, your teen’s brain has not finished the process of development, so your teen may be impulsive and unable to think things through. But this does not mean that we can easily dismiss your teen’s behavior as a phase that will pass. Your teen may be exhibiting signs that of a deeper problem, such as depression, a behavioral disorder or an eating disorder.

If we fail to see that our teen is troubled, we will not be able to give him the help he needs. Telling the difference between normal teen behavior and troubled teen behavior is an important first step towards helping your teen.

So, be on the lookout for warning signs. Here are some indicators:

  • Your teen is becoming uncooperative and argumentative. It may come as a surprise when your normally compliant teen has started to engage you in arguments about even the smallest of things. Getting into verbal fights with you (and just about everybody else) may be your teen’s way of asserting his independence, that he is his own man. It’s normal. However, if the arguments turn into verbal shouting matches that involve threats, when he is always arguing with persons of authority (teachers or the police), when there is actual physical violence and brawling, this may point to a deeper problem.
  • Your teen’s mood swings give you a serious case of whiplash. One moment, you are happily discussing his day and then the next moment, he is sullen and irritable. Again, this may be attributed to the physiological changes he is experiencing. But if the mood swings are accompanied by sleep problems, extreme changes in weight (loss or gain), loss of appetite, truancy and problematic grades, you may want to take a closer look at your teen’s problems and even consider counseling or a troubled teen program.
  • Your teen is becoming more secretive. Teens value their privacy, and they will go to great lengths to protect it. As a parent, you should respect your teen’s desire for privacy even as you are on the lookout for any problem areas. If your teen starts lying about his whereabouts, refuses to talk about his friends or misses his curfew, he may be mixed up with the wrong crowd. Anxiety about your seeing his phone or social media accounts, as well as his unexplained disappearances, are also red flags you have to take note of.
  • Your teen’s appearance is changing. From pink princess to Goth, from the boy next door to rock fashion, it can only be normal as your teen tries to establish his sense of identity. You may not agree with his choice of fashion, but this can be something you can live with unless it is something like his desire to get a tattoo. However, if your teen insists on wearing long sleeved shirts or jackets (even in hot summer weather), he may be indulging in some cutting behavior.
  • Your teen is trying out substances. Your teen may be tempted to experiment with marijuana, heavier drugs or alcohol and may actually give these a try. This is dangerous as this can lead him towards substance abuse as he becomes addicted.


Often, the troubled teen behavior is a downward spiral, worsening in scale and frequency. If you suspect that your teen’s behavior is very into something more serious, it may be time to take a closer look at his issues and how you can help him. You can think about getting him counseling or enrolling him in a teen wilderness program or a troubled teen residential program.


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