Is my teen ‘normal’ crazy or seriously troubled?

Is my teen ‘normal’ crazy or seriously troubled?
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photo8A 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.

photo5It 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.

photo2

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).


photo7How 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.

School behaviors

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.

photo6Home behaviors

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.

photo9Relationship behaviors

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.

photo1If 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.

photo4Early 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.
–Margaret

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  1. I am concerned for my son,he is in the mild category, he doesn’t talk much unless it’s to argue so I am a little concerned (he loves to argue and he likes to bring others into the conversation whenever he feels that we are picking on him) so I am not sure how to get through to him, we have a good relationship ship but he will purposely be annoying and then say, we never praise him…..he chooses to show the negative behavior, how do I praise him without supporting his behavior (I also am concerned bc there is a history of bipolar and I to not want that to be the case )

    • Hello Tina,

      Your son sounds emotionally manipulative, which may or may not be intentional. Regular teens can go through a defiant, manipulative, and hurtful phase that eventually passes. If you have a good relationship in general, then he may be angry or irritated–perhaps he doesn’t like how he’s being treated and wants to be treated differently? Instead of communicating his needs honestly, he’s throwing out distractions and being obnoxious. Perhaps he’s frustrated and doesn’t think he can say what he wants to say? Perhaps he wants to be praised for something else? or not at all?

      You might try bringing his unspoken feelings out in the open by frankly asking what’s bothering him: “You’ve been arguing a lot and you seem irritated, what’s bothering you?; Are we doing something that irritates you?”; “Is there something else on your mind?”. But before you ask any questions steel yourself for a blast of anger, and prepare to listen without reacting or responding. You WANT him to let everything out that’s bottled up! When you ask him these questions, he may say something hurtful and refuse to answer. Just wait. Ask again and say something like “Really, I want to know and I promise I won’t say anything.” Then wait more. Let there be an uncomfortable silence and wait. When someone releases their feelings, they need to feel heard, and this happens when you do nothing but pay attention and listen, and repeat what you heard now and then. No input except for acknowledgement.

      It’s hard to tell from your comment if there are bipolar symptoms. Are there? Be honest with yourself if you see them. If so, these things should happen:
      — The first is really hard, face it and be strong, grieve, accept, and have hope. You can handle this because you are a good mom. You wouldn’t have commented if you weren’t!
      — The second thing is to get mental health treatment for him, and add in a good diet, exercise, sleep, & gut health.
      — Next, hold a family meeting with or without him depending on the situation (trust your gut). Lead your family to work together, support each other, and be a team. You want a strong family and a therapeutic home for everyone, especially you. As the team leader, be prepared for discomfort at first. Everyone needs to have a say and there may be bottled up emotions.

      Please feel free to clarify anything or ask questions. The fact that you have a good relationship with your son is very very positive. You may just have to endure his behavior and pull back on things that irritate him.

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  3. My brother is out of control he falls into the serious catergory in school and home. my mother is trying to look for help but when she finds help from the gov or courts, they usually dont help.

  4. Hopefully this will give my brothers brain a jolt with his evil daughter who is 17. I rate her more than very serious but he who is a medical doctor is frightened at upsetting her! This girl needs help and boot camp!! How can i as an onlooker get help for this child??

    • Hello Sally,
      Many parents have the same response as your brother, whether they are doctors or drop outs. He may have two things on his mind: if I upset her, she’ll make my life hell, or if I upset her, she’ll do something to hurt herself. In my own case, I was worried about triggering a suicide attempt. II have a suggestion for helping your brother.

      First, he needs to admit she needs serious mental health treatment, psychiatric and psychotherapeutic. Perhaps you can show him this article.

      Second, he needs to build up inner strength,and make a crisis plan for managing the backlash when he tries to get treatment for your niece. He will need tons of support from you and others, possibly his own therapist (we parents really need our own therapists in tough cases like this). He will need to hear he’s a good dad and doing the right thing, that his daughter will still love him and show it someday, that it’s no one’s fault, that he’s not alone.

      Last, he will need a support network that will be with him for several more years, at least until she’s 24-25. That’s how long it takes before a troubled child can start to be functional again.

      Good luck, and good sister for asking on your brother’s behalf.

      Margaret

      • Dear Margaret

        We have been telling my brother this for over 5 years now. Unfortunately his wife who was ill and dying could not cope with this child and that child even beat up on her mother and my brother did NOTHING!!!!All of his friends and Family have been Standing by him now for all this time and whatever we tell him to do or suggest he ignores, because he fells he might upset this Monster!!! And you are right- MY BROTHER Needs the Boot camp too to wash his head of this nonsense!! My niece has threatened my Family in Canada where they reside with homicide…Do you realise now why I am worried. I live in Germany and am looking on from so far away!! She stand s to inherit a very very large amount of Money and my brother hasnt changed his will!!She as a drug addict steals from his Company(Loads of Money) which he just excuses. She steals clothing and goes to Restaurants and then runs out wihtout paying to get a thrill- the adrenaline rush. She steals Money from the visa Card from my mother an old woman.She steals from her friends. She lies through her teeth. She stabs bedroom doors of the Family and then lays knives on their beds threatening them…and no one does anything even NOT my brother whom I thought being a medical doctor would see how explosive this Situation is. She has no Intention of killing herself..she is too selfish for that!! She has absolutely NO concience!!She has told us she hates my mother and her sister and would like to murder my mother. Shes told her father shes not kissing his f…..g feet any more. If this was my daughter I would surely Show her true love!!!And it wouldnt be nice!! I am very very worried about this Situation .This Monster also is an alcoholic since 14 but my brother has turned a blind eye- his poor wife couldnt cope. My brother is in total denial of everything and Im getting pretty aggressive and have NO understanding whatsoever for him or this creature-most despicable specimen of humanity.

        I know this will take a Long time to fix- but how do we convince this stupid man!!!I would be very greatful for all the help I can get. And thank you very much from the heart for your quick Response.

        Regards

        Sally-ann Mcclelland

        • You clearly have disdain and abundant judgement toward your brother “the medical doctor” and your niece “the monster”. Surely your negativity and the way you view your family makes then less receptive to any concerns, advice or input you may have offered up to them. The judgemental, righteous tone you write this comment with makes it clear that you refuse to play any supportive rule in improving the daily situation. Your time comes off as one of jealousy (constantly referring to him as the medical doctor when his job is irrelevant…. he’s simply a parent in this situation, nothing more) and cuteness (no human especially a child should be referred to as a monster – it lacks dignity). And while it’s true that your fault needs help I think attitudes like yours only hinder an already difficult situation. Try showing actual support and treating your fault with dignity and respect rather than snarky remarks and you may find they respond better. Just a thought.

          • Omg!!! Just New read the last paragraph wherein you called your brother a STUPID MAN and your niece a CREATURE! YOU clearly need help. Your daily is undoubtedly better without your input. You disgust me.

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  6. What do you do about a child who is mildly serious? How do you keep them from becoming a serious threat to himself and others?

    • This is a fantastic question! With any child that is showing signs of serious troubles, even little signs, first check the facts. What does a teacher observe? What does another family member or close friend observe?

      Then ask the child very considerately how they feel, and be very frank if necessary: “Have you ever thought about hurting yourself? Have you ever thought about hurting someone else? Or, are you afraid you might do something crazy? Or just too afraid of something (anything) that it’s getting too hard to cope?

      Reassure the child that they are not in trouble, and their feelings don’t make them a bad person. Let them know clearly that you care how they’re doing. Let them know that others care how they’re doing.

      Listen to what they say without judgment or advice or warnings until you are clear yourself about what they’re experiencing. Ask them what they need from you/others when they experience problems. A troubled child might come up with something that makes little sense to you, but if it’s safe, try it. Whatever it takes to REDUCE STRESS and BUILD TRUST.

      Keep them talking with you or someone they trust. Keep a communication bridge open. This is extremely important. The whole point is to have the child trust you enough to cooperate with mental health treatment if needed. AND as important, to make they’re problems ‘acceptable’ or ‘OK’ with the rest of the family. They can’t be stigmatized; they must be tolerated or supported if they have problems.

      Hope this helps. Good luck. Things work out.

      Margaret

  7. I have been trying to obtain help for years. My daughter threatens harm to herself and now has a well thought out plan to kill my family. The police won’t do anything, her counselor wants to work on a safety plan, hospitals can’t put her on a 72hr hold. I’m lost and scared. Not to mention i found out she is trying to get pregnant at age 15. Does anyone have any ideas? I have 2 other daughters that she has harmed and scared them not to tell. Please please any info to help we are in Federal Way Washington.
    Thank you,
    Scared Mom

    • Hello Charlene,

      I’ve not been able to respond quickly because I have a new job with lots of demands, but your plea is hard to ignore. From the few details you provided, it seems your daughter may have a mood disorder, and to me, she has some similar behaviors to my own daughter at that age. The very first thing you must do is what the school counselor suggested–work on a safety plan… It is also called a crisis plan. You are in a crisis but you CAN turn this around.

      You may need to go to some extremes because you have not one person (your troubled daughter) but 4 people who must be shielded from harm counting you and the younger girls. I encourage you to read two other articles on this these subjects that may help:
      The authorities you need help from aren’t helping, a sadly common situation in families like ours and so unfair. It victimizes the victims, but you are not helpless. Take a deep breath and think of every possible way to lessen the risks you daughter has placed on your family. These are some ideas of things other parents have had to do.

      Pregnancy prevention: get a Depo Provera shot for your daughter or a birth control implant ASAP. You have the right to follow her if you think she will seek out sex.

      Search your daughter’s room when she is not there and look for things that are dangerous and remove them–this is perfectly legal. You even have the right to search a computer or laptop or cell phone for names and contacts of people who negatively influence her or provide drugs. She has most likely used alcohol and street drugs. Marijuana can cause angry, agitated, and assaultive behavior in adolescents with psychiatric disorders.

      Tell everyone you need help, everyone who has any contact with her at all, neighbors, teachers, parents of friends, even risky friends, businesses where she may hang out, etc. Let everyone know you are watching out for her and want information on her associates or any risky behavior. This will frighten inappropriate adults away if they find out you’re watching.

      She will hate you for this, but there’s one important thing about teenagers, even troubled ones, they secretly appreciate that someone cares enough to go to these lengths. It’s scary out there and they don’t trust themselves one some level. Really!

      Consider therapy for you and your younger daughters together, without your 15 year old. You all need to speak openly about this. They need to feel secure and safe and probably don’t. They need to hear that you love them very much and will look out for them. These girls need advice on what to do for you, themselves, and each other when there’s another crisis. A therapist can lovingly guide you all. They are being forced to grow up too fast, but you can give them strength to endure and enjoy childhood.
      Take a deep breath, encircle yourself with good people, lean on them, take breaks. Something will happen, your daughter will get into enough trouble that help will come. Please hang in there.

      Margaret