As teenagers begin to assert their independence and find their own identity, many experience behavioral changes that can seem bizarre and unpredictable to parents. Your sweet, obedient child who once couldn’t bear to be separated from you now won’t be seen within 20 yards of you, and greets everything you say with a roll of the eyes or the slam of a door. These, unfortunately, are the actions of a normal teenager.
As the parent of a troubled teen, you’re faced with even greater challenges. A troubled teen faces behavioral, emotional, or learning problems beyond the normal teenage issues. They may repeatedly practice at-risk behaviors such as violence, skipping school, drinking, drug use, sex, self-harming, shoplifting, or other criminal acts. Or they may exhibit symptoms of mental health problems like depression, anxiety, or eating disorders. While any negative behavior repeated over and over can be a sign of underlying trouble, it’s important for parents to understand which behaviors are normal during adolescent development, and which can point to more serious problems.
When Typical Teen Behavior Becomes Troubled Teen Behavior
Typical Teen Behavior
Warning Signs of a Troubled Teen
Changing appearance. Keeping up with fashion is important to teens. That may mean wearing provocative or attention-seeking clothing or dyeing hair. Unless your teen wants tattoos, avoid criticizing and save your protests for the bigger issues. Fashions change, and so will your teen.
Changing appearance can be a red flag if it’s accompanied by problems at school or other negative changes in behavior, or if there’s evidence of cutting and self-harm or extreme weight loss or weight gain.
Increased arguments and rebellious behavior. As teens begin seeking independence, you will frequently butt heads and argue.
Constant escalation of arguments, violence at home, skipping school, getting in fights, and run-ins with the law are all red flag behaviors that go beyond the norm of teenage rebellion.
Mood swings. Hormones and developmental changes often mean that your teen will experience mood swings, irritable behavior, and struggle to manage his or her emotions.
Rapid changes in personality, falling grades, persistent sadness, anxiety, or sleep problems could indicate depression, bullying, or another emotional health issue. Take any talk about suicide seriously.
Experimenting with alcohol or drugs. Most teens will try alcohol and smoke a cigarette at some point. Many will even try marijuana. Talking to your kids frankly and openly about drugs and alcohol is one way to ensure it doesn’t progress further.
When alcohol or drug use becomes habitual, especially when it’s accompanied by problems at school or home, it may indicate a substance abuse issue or other underlying problems.
More influenced by friends than parents. Friends become extremely important to teens and can have a great influence on their choices. As teens focus more on their peers, that inevitably means they withdraw from you. It may leave you feeling hurt, but it doesn’t mean your teen doesn’t still need your love.
Red flags include a sudden change in peer group (especially if the new friends encourage negative behavior), refusing to comply with reasonable rules and boundaries, or avoiding the consequences of bad behavior by lying. Your teen spending too much time alone can also indicate problems.
Seeking professional help for a troubled teen
All teens need to feel loved
Teenagers are individuals with unique personalities and their own likes and dislikes. Some things about them are universal, though. No matter how much your teen seems to withdraw from you emotionally, no matter how independent your teen appears, or how troubled your teen becomes, he or she still needs your attention and to feel loved by you.
If you identify red flag behaviors in your teen, consult a doctor, counselor, therapist, or other mental health professional for help finding appropriate treatment.
Even when you seek professional help for your teen, though, that doesn’t mean that your job is done. As detailed below, there are many things you can do at home to help your teen and improve the relationship between you. And you don’t need to wait for a diagnosis to start putting them into practice.
No, your teen is not an alien being from a distant planet, but he or she is wired differently. A teenager’s brain is still actively developing, processing information differently than a mature adult’s brain. The frontal cortex—the part of the brain used to manage emotions, make decisions, reason, and control inhibitions—is restructured during the teenage years, forming new synapses at an incredible rate, while the whole brain does not reach full maturity until about the mid-20’s.
Your teen may be taller than you and seem mature in some respects, but often he or she is simply unable to think things through at an adult level. Hormones produced during the physical changes of adolescence can further complicate things. Now, these biological differences don’t excuse teens’ poor behavior or absolve them from accountability for their actions, but they may help explain why teens behave so impulsively or frustrate parents and teachers with their poor decisions, social anxiety, and rebelliousness. Understanding adolescent development can help you find ways to stay connected to your teen and overcome problems together.
Teens see anger everywhere
Teens differ from adults in their ability to read and understand emotions in the faces of others. Adults use the prefrontal cortex to read emotional cues, but teenagers rely on the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions. In research, teens often misread facial expressions; when shown pictures of adult faces expressing different emotions, teens most often interpreted them as being angry.
Source: ACT for Youth
If you feel threatened by your teen
Everyone has a right to feel physically safe. If your teen is violent towards you, seek help immediately. Call a friend, relative, or the police if necessary. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love your child, but the safety of you and your family should always come first.
If you’re a parent of a teenage boy who is angry, aggressive, or violent, you may live in constant fear. Every phone call or knock on the door could bring news that your son has either been harmed, or has seriously harmed others.
Teenage girls get angry as well, of course, but that anger is usually expressed verbally rather than physically. Teen boys are more likely to throw objects, kick doors, or punch the walls when they’re angry. Some will even direct their rage towards you. For any parent, especially single mothers, this can be a profoundly upsetting and unsettling experience. But you don’t have to live under the threat of violence.
Dealing with angry teens
Anger can be a challenging emotion for many teens as it often masks other underlying emotions such as frustration, embarrassment, sadness, hurt, fear, shame, or vulnerability. When teens can’t cope with these feelings, they may lash out, putting themselves and others at risk. In their teens, many boys have difficulty recognizing their feelings, let alone being able to express them or ask for help.
The challenge for parents is to help your teen cope with emotions and deal with anger in a more constructive way:
- Establish rules and consequences. At a time when both you and your teen are calm, explain that there’s nothing wrong with feeling anger, but there are unacceptable ways of expressing it. If your teen lashes out, for example, he or she will have to face the consequences—loss of privileges or even police involvement. Teens need rules, now more than ever.
- Uncover what’s behind the anger. Is your child sad or depressed? For example, does your teen have feelings of inadequacy because his or her peers have things that your child doesn’t? Does your teen just need someone to listen to him or her without judgment?
- Be aware of anger warning signs and triggers. Does your teen get headaches or start to pace before exploding with rage? Or does a certain class at school always trigger anger? When teens can identify the warning signs that their temper is starting to boil, it allows them to take steps to defuse the anger before it gets out of control.
- Help your teen find healthy ways to relieve anger. Exercise, team sports, even simply hitting a punch bag or a pillow can help relieve tension and anger. Many teens also use art or writing to creatively express their anger. Dancing or playing along to loud, angry music can also provide relief.
- Give your teen space to retreat. When your teen is angry, allow him or her to retreat to a place where it’s safe to cool off. Don’t follow your teen and demand apologies or explanations while he or she is still raging; this will only prolong or escalate the anger, or even provoke a physical response.
- Manage your own anger. You can’t help your teen if you lose your temper as well. As difficult as it sounds, you have to remain calm and balanced no matter how much your child provokes you. If you or other members of your family scream, hit each other, or throw things, your teen will naturally assume that these are appropriate ways to express his or her anger as well.
Red flags for violent behavior in teens
It only takes a glance at the news headlines to know that teen violence is a growing problem. Movies and TV shows glamorize all manner of violence, many web sites promote extremist views that call for violent action, and hour after hour of playing violent video games can desensitize teens to the real world consequences of aggression and violence. Of course, not every teen exposed to violent content will become violent, but for a troubled teen who is emotionally damaged or suffering from mental health problems, the consequences can be tragic.
Warning signs that a teen may become violent include:
- Playing with weapons of any kind
- Obsessively playing violent video games, watching violent movies, or visiting websites that promote or glorify violence
- Threatening or bullying others
- Fantasizing about acts of violence he’d like to commit
- Being violent or cruel to pets or other animals
Whatever problems your teen is experiencing, it is not a sign that you’ve somehow failed as a parent. Instead of trying to assign blame for the situation, focus on your teen’s current needs. The first step to doing this is to find a way to connect with him or her.
It may seem hard to believe—given your child’s anger or indifference towards you—but teens still crave love, approval, and acceptance from their parents. That means you probably have a lot more influence over your teen than you think. To open the lines of communication:
- Be aware of your own stress levels. If you’re angry or upset, now is not the time to try to communicate with your teen. Wait until you’re calm and energized before starting a conversation. You’re likely to need all the patience and positive energy you can muster.
- Be there for your teen. An offer to chat with your teen over coffee will probably be greeted with a sarcastic put-down or dismissive gesture, but it’s important to show you’re available. Insist on sitting down for mealtimes together with no TV or other distractions, and attempt to talk to your teen then. Don’t get frustrated if your efforts are greeted by nothing more than monosyllabic grunts or shrugs; you may have to eat a lot of dinners in silence, but when your teen does want to open up, he or she will have the opportunity to do so.
- Find common ground. Trying to discuss your teen’s appearance or clothes may be a sure-fire way to trigger a heated argument, but you can still find some areas of common ground. Fathers and sons often connect over sports, mothers and daughters over gossip or movies. The objective is not to be your teen’s best friend, but to find common interests that you can discuss peacefully. Once you’re talking, your teen may feel more comfortable opening up to you about other things.
- Listen without judging or giving advice. When your teen does talk to you, it’s important that you listen without judging, mocking, interrupting, criticizing, or offering advice. Your teen wants to feel understood and valued by you, so maintain eye contact and keep your focus on your child, even when he or she is not looking at you. If you’re checking your email or reading the newspaper, your teen will feel that he or she is not important to you.
- Expect rejection. Your attempts to connect with your teen may often be met with anger, irritation, or other negative reactions. Stay relaxed and allow your teen space to cool off. Try again later when you’re both calm. Successfully connecting to your teen will take time and effort. Don’t be put off; persevere and the breakthrough will come.
The tips below can help put balance back in your troubled teen’s life, no matter the exact diagnosis of his or her problems:
- Create structure. Teens may scream and argue with you about rules and discipline, or rebel against daily structure, but that doesn’t mean they need them any less. Structure, such as regular mealtimes and bedtimes, make a teen feel safe and secure. Sitting down to breakfast and dinner together every day can also provide a great opportunity to check in with your teen at the beginning and end of each day.
- Reduce screen time. There is a direct relationship between violent TV shows, movies, Internet content, and video games, and the violent behavior in teenagers. Even if your teen isn’t drawn to violent material, too much screen time can still impact brain development. Limit the time your teen has access to electronic devices—and restrict phone usage after a certain time at night to ensure your child gets enough sleep.
- Encourage exercise. Even a little regular exercise can help ease depression, boost energy and mood, relieve stress, regulate sleep patterns, and improve your teen’s self-esteem. If you struggle getting your teen to do anything but play video games, encourage him or her to play activity-based video games or “exergames” that are played standing up and moving around—simulating dancing, skateboarding, soccer, or tennis, for example. Once exercise becomes a habit, encourage your teen to try the real sport or to join a club or team.
- Eat right. Healthy eating can help to stabilize a teenager’s energy, sharpen his or her mind, and even out his or her mood. Act as a role model for your teen. Cook more meals at home, eat more fruit and vegetables and cut back on junk food and soda.
- Ensure your teen gets enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can make a teen stressed, moody, irritable, and lethargic, and cause problems with weight, memory, concentration, decision-making, and immunity from illness. You might be able to get by on six hours a night and still function at work, but your teen needs 8.5 to 10 hours of sleep a night to be mentally sharp and emotionally balanced. Encourage better sleep by setting consistent bedtimes, and removing TVs, computers, and other electronic gadgets from your teen’s room—the light from these suppresses melatonin production and stimulates the mind, rather than relaxing it. Suggest your teen tries listening to music or audio books at bedtime instead.
The stress of dealing with any teenager, especially one who’s experiencing behavioral problems, can take a toll on your own health, so it’s important to take care of yourself. That means looking after your emotional and physical needs and learning to manage stress.
- Take time to relax daily and learn how to regulate yourself and de-stress when you start to feel overwhelmed.
- Don’t go it alone, especially if you’re a single parent. Seek help from friends, relatives, a school counselor, sports coach, religious leader, or someone else who has a relationship with your teen. Organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA, and other youth groups can also help provide structure and guidance.
- Watch out for signs of depression and anxiety, and get professional help if needed.
This won’t last forever
It’s worth reminding your teen that no matter how much pain or turmoil he or she is experiencing right now, with your love and support, things can and will get better—for both of you. Your teen can overcome the problems of adolescence and mature into a happy, successful young adult.
Teenage Drinking – Learn about teenage drinking, its risks, and what to do if you have a teenager with an alcohol problem.
Resources & References
Teenage Behavior Issues
Teens and Violence Prevention – Tips for parents about reducing or eliminating teen violence. (Palo Alto Medical Foundation)
Understanding Teens (PDF) – Information about typical adolescent development and how to handle common teen problems. (New Mexico State University)
A Parent's Guide to Surviving the Teen Years – What to expect during the teenage years and how to handle typical adolescent behavior problems. (KidsHealth)
Parenting Troubled Teens – Articles and resources for parents raising a troubled teen, including information on programs for troubled teens. (About.com)
Teenage Brain Development
Adolescent Brain Development (PDF) – Research from Cornell University, University of Rochester, and the NYS Center for School Safety about brain development in teens. (ACT for Youth)
That Teenage Feeling – How Harvard researchers may have found biological clues to quirky adolescent behavior. (APA)