Teenage Behavior: What's Normal and What Isn't?

How to know when to be concerned about your teen's behavior.

All teens act a little weird sometimes.
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The teen years can be marked by a variety of quirky behaviors. And it might seem like your child goes from being happy-go-lucky one minute to moody and oppositional the next.

Adolescence is also a prime time for mental health issues and social problems to emerge. So it's important to know what type of teen behavior is normal and what behaviors might be a cause for concern.

Normal Teen Behavior

There’s a big range of what’s considered “normal” when it comes to teen behavior.

Today's teens are experiencing  new opportunities that previous generations haven’t—such as growing up in a digital world. Despite the changes to teen culture, the spectrum of behavior considered “normal” has remained largely the same. Here are some normal teen behaviors:

  • Minor disrespect – As teens gain increased independence, it’s normal for them to talk back, roll their eyes, and behave mildly disrespectful sometimes.  
  • Defiance – Teens often test the limits by breaking the rules. Your teen  may try to find out what will happen if he doesn’t clean his room. Or, he may want to see if you really mean it when you tell him he can’t go out with friends if he doesn’t stay caught up on his school work.
  • Dishonesty – It’s normal for teens to lie sometimes. They may decline to “tell the whole truth,” or they may outright lie in an attempt to get out of trouble.
  • Changing interests – Normal adolescent development involves experimenting with new activities. A teen who has played soccer for years may suddenly decide he wants to take karate lessons instead. As long as teens continue to explore new opportunities, changing interests may simply reflect maturity as they outgrow their childhood activities.
  • Minor rebellion – Breaking the rules and doing the opposite of what authority says can be a big part of becoming independent. So if your teen wants to dye her hair purple or wear some strange-looking clothing, it’s most likely just a form of self–expression that will pass.
  • Self-Centered thinking – It’s normal for teens to think much of the world revolves around them. A teen who sees some girls whispering may assume they’re talking about her or a teen may think strangers don’t like him. Teens often assume others are paying a lot more attention to them than they actually are.

    Behavior That Should Be a Cause for Concern

    There are many behaviors that can be be warning signs that indicate something is wrong. Here are a few things to be on the lookout for:

    • Behavior that interferes with learning – If your teen’s behavior interferes with his education, clearly it’s a cause for concern. Skipping school, frequent suspensions, or school refusal are just a few examples of ways a teen’s behavior can impact education.
    • Behavior that interferes with friendships – If your teen has trouble making and keeping friends due to behavior problems, don’t ignore it. A teen who lacks social skills or who bullies others may need professional help.
    • Behavior that will make it difficult for your teen to get a job – There’s a small window of time between the teen years and the adult years. Teens should be able to behave in a manner that would allow them to maintain a job. If an older teen isn’t responsible enough to get out of bed, or can’t follow directions well enough to maintain a job, intervention may be necessary so your teen can learn how to become a responsible adult.
    • Behavior that interferes with family life – If your teen’s behavior is causing major disruption to family life, it’s important to pay attention to it. If your teen isn’t able to maintain healthy relationships or can't seem to have positive interactions with the rest of the family, it could be a warning sign that there’s a bigger problem that needs to be addressed.

      Specific Teen Behavior that Isn’t Normal

      Although there are many behaviors that can be a cause for alarm, here are a few behaviors that you certainly shouldn’t ignore:

      • Extreme defiance – It isn’t normal for teens to be defiant all the time or in multiple environments. If your teen argues with authority figures constantly and won’t do what anyone tells him, it may be a sign of a bigger issue.
      • Aggressive behavior – Verbal aggression, such as threats of hurting or harming anyone shouldn’t be ignored. Difficulty with anger management and physical aggression should also be addressed. It’s not normal or healthy for teens to still be hitting siblings or throwing things at their parents, for example.
      • Self-harm – Self-injury, like cutting or burning one’s body, should be addressed by a mental health professional.
      • Cruelty to people or animals – A teen who lacks empathy could have serious problems. If your teen is intentionally harms people or animals, seek immediate help.
      • Stealing – While many kids steal candy from a store once in their life, repeated stealing can be a sign of a big problem. Stealing money from parents, taking electronics from peers, or stealing items from a store should never be ignored.
      • Substance abuse – Teens can develop serious drug and alcohol problems while they’re young. If your teen is experimenting with drugs or you’ve caught your teen drinking on several occasions, it’s essential that you address it right away.
      • Major changes in habits – While it’s normal for teens to go through phases, major changes in habits can be a cause for concern. For example, if your teen shows extreme changes in sleeping, eating, or activity level there could be a problem.
      • Overdependence on friends -  It’s normal for teens to be influenced by their peers, but sometimes friendships can cross the line into dependency. If your teen can’t make decisions independently or seems to do whatever others tell him to do, it may signal same underlying issues.

      How to Seek Help for Behavior Problems

      There are many underlying reasons that contribute to abnormal and unhealthy behavior in teens. Teen mental health issues, like depression or anxiety, may be a factor. Other issues, like ADHD or learning disabilities can also play a role. Sometimes situational problems, like dealing with a parent's divorce or being bullied at school, can lead to behavior changes. 

      If you have concerns about your teen’s behavior, seek professional help. Start by talking to your child’s doctor. Discuss the behaviors you’re concerned about and inquire about treatment options. A doctor may refer your child to a mental health professional for a complete evaluation. 

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