A high percentage of teenagers go through a rebellious or irrational phase that is quite normal for their age and brain development. The difference between normal teen craziness and abnormal behavior is when the teenager falls behind his or her peers in multiple key areas. At a bare minimum, a normal teen should be able to do the following:
- Attend school and do most school work if they want to;
- Have and keep a friend or friends their own age who also attend school;
- Have a maturity level roughly the same as his or her peers;
- Exercise self-control when he or she wants to;
- Have basic survival instincts and avoid doing serious harm to themselves, others, or property.
It is normal for teens to be inconsistent, irrational, insensitive to others, self-centered, and childish. Screaming, for example, is normal–regard this the same as a toddler temper tantrum. It is a phase that most teens grow out of unless something else is holding them back.
This is your challenge: even teens with mental disorders have some normal teenage behavior traits like those listed above. How do you tell which is which so you can get help? Look for pervasive patterns of social and behavioral problems that are more serious, and in almost all settings. The patterns repeat and the outcomes are increasingly worse.
Some signs of abnormal unsafe* behavior
*“Unsafe” means: there’s a danger of harm to themselves or others, property loss or damage, running away, seeking experiences with significant risk (or easily lured into them), abusing substances, and physical or emotional abuse of others.
- If a troubled teenager does something unsafe to themselves or others, it is not on impulse or an experiment, but is intentional and planned.
- They have a prior history of intentional unsafe activities.
- They have or seek the means to do unsafe activities.
- They talk about or threaten unsafe behavior.
- There are others who believe there is something abnormal or unsafe about your child. (e.g., your child’s friend comes forward, their teacher calls, other parents keep their children from your child, or someone checks to see if you’re aware of the nature of his or her behaviors).
How psychologists measure the severity of a child’s behavior
“Normal” is defined with textual descriptions of behaviors, and these are placed on a spectrum from normal to abnormal (“severe emotional disturbance”). Below are a few examples of a range of behaviors in different settings. These descriptions are generalizations and should not be used to predict your child’s treatment needs, but they do offer insight into severity and the need for mental health treatment.
Not serious – This child has occasional problems with a teacher or classmate that are eventually worked out, and usually don’t happen again.
Mildly serious – This child often disobeys school rules but doesn’t harm anyone or property. Compared to their classmates, they are troublesome or concerning, but not unusually badly behaved. They are intelligent, but don’t work hard enough to have better grades.
Serious – This child disobeys rules repeatedly, or skips school, or is known to disobey rules outside of school. They stand out as having chronic behavior problems compared to other students and their grades are always poor.
Very serious – This child cannot be in school or they are dangerous in school. They cannot follow rules or function, even in a special classroom, or they may threaten or hurt others or damage property. It is feared they will have a difficult future, perhaps ending up in jail or having lifetime problems.
Not serious – This child is well-behaved most of the time but has occasional problems, which are usually worked out.
Mildly serious – This child has to be watched and reminded often, and needs pushing to follow rules or do chores or homework. They don’t seem to learn their lessons and are endlessly frustrating. They can be defiant or manipulative, but their actions aren’t serious.
Serious – This child does not want to follow rules, even reasonable rules. They take no responsibility for their behavior, which can include swearing and damage to the home or property. They will do and say anything to get their way.
Very serious – The stress caused by this child means the family cannot manage normally at home even if they work together. Running away, damaging property, threats of suicide or violence to others, and other behaviors require daily sacrifices from all.
Not serious – The child has and keeps friends their own age, and has healthy friendships with people of different ages, such as with a grandparent or younger neighbor.
Mildly serious – The child often aggravates others by arguing, teasing, bullying or other immature behaviors, and friends often avoid them. They are quick to have temper tantrums and childish responses to stress. Or they have no friends their age, or risky friends.
Serious – The child is frequently mean or angry to people and animals, and can be manipulative or threatening, or damage others’ property. They have poor judgment and take dangerous risks with themselves or others.
Very serious – The child’s behavior is so aggressive verbally or physically that they are almost always overwhelming to be around. The behaviors are repeated and deliberate, and can lead to verbal or physical violence against others or themselves.
If your child’s behavior falls along the spectrum encompassing Serious to Very Serious behavior, get good mental health treatment for them now and spare them a difficult future.
Pay attention to your gut feelings.
If you’ve been searching for answers and selected this article to read, your suspicions are probably true. Most parents have good intuition about their child. If you’re looking for ways to “fix” or change your child… all I can say is that this approach will probably not work. You may need to work on yourself; you may need to change how you relate to your child or picture your situation. Regardless, seek help.
Early treatment, while your troubled teenager is young, can prevent a lifetime of problems. Find a professional who will take time to get to know your situation, and who will listen to what you have to say–a teacher, doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist.
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