A high percentage of teenagers go through a rebellious or crazy phase that is normal for their age and brain development. The difference between normal teen crazy and truly troubled 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 or swearing is normal–regard this the same as a toddler temper tantrum. It is a phase that crazy teens grow out of unless something else is holding them back.
This is your challenge: Troubled teens with mental disorders have the same challenging behaviors as ‘normal’ teens… which is to say, sometimes it’s just obnoxious, but not serious. How do you tell which is which so you can get help? Look for pervasive patterns of social and behavioral problems that stand out against their peers, which are persistent, and which occur in different settings. The patterns repeat themselves, and you fear they will become increasingly worse. You sense your troubled teen cannot control themselves if they tried.
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 an experiment, but is impulsive, intentional, and planned.
- They have a 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).
“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 in the crowd 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 enough to merit a strong response.
Serious – This child does not want to follow rules, even reasonable rules. They take no responsibility for their behavior, which can damage to the home or property, or cause harm to themselves or others. They bring everyone down.
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. Police are commonly called.
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 – This immature child will argue, tease, bully or harass others, and most schoolmates avoid them. They are quick to have temper tantrums and childish responses to stress that make them “high maintenance.”
Serious – The child has no friends their age, or risky friends, and is manipulative or threatening. They can have violent tendencies, poor judgment, and take dangerous risks with themselves and others. They don’t care about others’ feelings, and readily harm others physically or emotionally.
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.
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 child and you and the situation, and who will listen to what you have to say–a teacher, doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist.
Your comments are welcome.