Turn on any TV show or movie showing teenagers, and you’re likely to see a moody, irritable, or argumentative teen trying to carve out his place in the world. But how do you know if your teenager is “just being a teen” or if their behavior is something you should worry about?
Normal vs. Worrisome Teenage Behaviors
1. Moodiness and Irritability
Typical Teenage Behavior
Increased moodiness and irritability in the teenage years can be normal because teens are going through a lot of transitions – both physical and emotional. Navigating these changes can lead to moodiness and irritability from time to time and should not be a cause of concern.
For example, your teen may be expressing irritation at their siblings, or asking their siblings to leave them alone. This is usually not a cause for concern since teenagers desire more independence and autonomy. They may also seem to have more disagreements with their friends and peers than before. These are also usually normal because teens may be expressing their ideas and beliefs more often, which can lead to disagreements with others.
Intense, painful, long-lasting low mood, that seem unrelenting for two weeks or more are a potential cause for concern. Teens who may need help with low mood and depression often appear very down, and may express negative ideas about almost everything - for example you may notice that your usually upbeat teenage son has been perceiving almost everything negatively - “what’s the point, I’m going to fail anyway”, or “they’re not going to like me”, or “I’ll never get better.” The key thing to notice here is a pattern of negative thinking that is long-lasting and applied to a wide range of topics in their life.
Another red flag is if you notice that your child has lost interest in previously enjoyed activities, for example, they used to like hanging with friends on the weekends but have been spending a lot of time in their bedroom and not engaging in enjoyable activities. A red flag to pay attention to is when teens withdraw from others, especially their peers, abruptly.
Some teens exhibit fear and anxiety more than low mood, a red flag behavior for these teens are frequent panic attacks. Panic attacks are intense moments (lasting up to 10-minutes) of intense fear that often seem to arise out of nowhere when there is no real danger in the environment. Panic attacks are usually accompanied by physical sensations such as heart palpitations, sweating, or choking sensations. Your teenager may look like they have just seen a ghost (like all the blood has gone out their face), or tell you they feel they’re feeling like they are having a heart attack. In extreme moments, your teen may even ask to be taken to the emergency room. In this situation, if you are concerned about your child’s physical health, you can take them to the emergency room/urgent care center where physicians will perform tests to rule out physical causes.
If your teenager is expressing fear of going to certain places or avoiding certain activities and has had frequent panic attacks, it could also be worth having them assessed for an anxiety disorder.
2. Conflict with parents and family members
Typical Teenage Behavior
Teenagers often have more frequent conflict with their parents and family members due to differing views – after all, teenagers are exploring their place in the world, their identity, and their stance on things! Teens are also figuring out new responsibilities and asserting autonomy and independence, so parents may notice that their teens challenge their views or ask for compromises when it comes to rules in the home (e.g. curfew time, bedtime).
Verbal aggression is considered typical teen behavior, for example some teens may lash out in anger by saying, “you’re stupid” or “ I hate you!” However, when it becomes abusive or turns into physical aggression, it may be time to get help.
Verbal abuse is frequent (almost every day) and aimed at deliberately attacking the character of the other person (eg., “it’s no wonder you have failed as a mother.”) They often use absolutes, such as can’t you do anything right?” Oftentimes, verbal abusers people try to make you feel guilty and position themselves as the victim. The arguments often devolve into dragging up unrelated issues to put you on the defense. Let’s take a look at this argument:
“Liam, I’d like you to clean your room, we have guests coming over.”
“Well maybe if you were a better mother, the house wouldn’t be in such a mess.”
“Your room is the only one in a mess. Please clean it up before dinner.”
“No. I want your fake friends to see the real you, a messed-up failure of a mother!”
In this example, Liam does not focus on the issue of the argument, but brings up unrelated issues in an attempt to put his mother on the defense. He also attacks his mother’s character, and degrades her value as a mother.
Physical aggression/abuse is another red flag. If your teenager is exhibiting behaviors such as: hitting others, throwing or breaking objects during arguments, setting fires to objects, hurting animals/pets (e.g. kicking the dog in anger), these are major signs of anger management issues that need to be addressed.
3. Risk-taking behavior
Typical Teenage Behavior
Teenage brains are naturally wired for more risk-taking. They have less long term planning ability, and a high interest in exploring the world around them! These occasional risky behaviors are a way for teenagers to explore their bodies and identities. Some examples are experimenting with alcohol or marijuana at parties, or skipping the occasional class. Peer pressure and a desire to fit in with their peers may lead teens to not think through consequences before making some decisions.
Teenagers may often push boundaries, such as rebelling against rules, or not wanting to do homework assignments because they do not see the value in some of them. A red flag though, is if your teen often gets in trouble in school (you’re receiving frequent phone calls from teachers/principals) and gets in trouble with the law. These are signs that your teen may need help.
Excessive risk-taking behaviors that endanger your teen or others are also red flags. This includes driving under the influence, selling drugs, picking fights, stealing, and constantly attempting physically dangerous stunts (like jumping off high places).
Another red flag is if your teenager seems to be dependent on any type of substance (even over the counter medication), as the teenage brain is particularly susceptible to addiction. Read more here.
4. Sexual Experimentation
Typical Teenage Behavior
As your child’s body matures, hormones come into play. With puberty happening sooner for many teens, children as young as 8-10 could already be curious about sex. It’s normal for teenagers to want to use sexually explicit language and to be curious about experimenting with sex and their bodies. Initially, a lot of that experimentation would be with their own bodies, but as they grow into older adolescents, it may involve sex with others. It is important to keep an open line of communication about sex with your teen to help them learn about this new facet of their life without shaming them for their curiosity. Check out this past newsletter issue for tips on talking about sex.
Some behaviors may be causes for concern, however. Sexual promiscuity or being victims of sextortion (e.g. sending intimate pictures to strangers online) is a red flag since these types of behavior puts themselves or others in danger.
Promiscuity is often the symptom of other underlying challenges like being under informed, feeling a lack of connection, dealing with unresolved trauma, and rebelling against overly rigid rules. Sex and porn addiction could also be a factor in promiscuious behavior.
These underlying issues as well as past history of sexual or physical abuse can also make teens more susceptible to sextortion. Abused teens are more at risk of sexual victimization because they may have emotional needs or developmental distortions that make them unable to assess and respond to inappropriate sexual advances.
So if you’re noticing your teen is engaging in sexual behavior with many partners, if they’re viewing illegal pornography (eg., violent, underage), sending and receiving nude photos from strangers, or being particularly withdrawn from their peers after starting to date, these are all red flags to be concerned about.
5. Body Image Concerns
Typical Teenage Behavior
Growth spurts, acne, and hair growing in places they never had before are all common hallmarks of puberty! With all these changes, it is normal for teens to be concerned about their body-image, especially when it comes to how their peers see them. You may hear your teen say, “I look so ugly!” in response to their acne, or “I’m too fat!”. At this age, they are often particularly worried about height and weight because there’s a wide range among their peers depending on the teen’s pace of puberty development. You may notice your teen spending a lot mores time in the bathroom preparing for school, playing around with different hairstyles, or wanting to try new products for their skin. These are all considered normal behavior.
When body-image concerns become the center of a teenager’s attention, that may be a cause for concern. For example, if their weight drops suddenly, or their eating habits change drastically - cutting out certain types of foods that have not been prescribed by a physician - or they stop eating altogether, seeking the help of a physician is recommended. Obsessively counting calories, bingeing, purging, and obsessive exercising (e.g. jumping jacks or going for a run after every meal) are also major warning signs of disordered eating. Read more here about helping your teen develop a positive relationship with their body.
So, What Should You Do If You See Red Flags?
Talk to your teenager about some of these behaviors you have seen. It may feel awkward at first, but start with creating an open and safe environment to talk to your teen. Be empathetic, non-judgmental, and non-critical! Let your teen know they won’t get in trouble or be punished for their struggles. For example, “Grant, I’ve noticed that you’ve been feeling really down the past month, I care for you and want to help, can you tell me more about what’s been going on?”
Try to imagine how a close friend would talk to you about a problem you are having and channel that same energy towards your child. For example, “I know it’s hard to talk about things like this, but I’m here to listen whenever you’re ready.”
Praise your teen for sharing his feelings and struggles with you. For example, “That must have been really difficult to express, and I’m so glad you felt safe enough to share this with me. You really helped me understand how you’re feeling!” It will also be helpful to ask your child what type of help and support they need the most now. You can also speak to a psychologist or counselor about the specific red flags you have been seeing to check if they are causes for concern.
Want expert input on how you can support your teen’s specific situation? Check in with a Cherish 1:1 Coach for free.
Check out the next article in this series for tips on working through your teen's objections to therapy.
Sharyl Wee, MA is working towards a PhD in Clinical Psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. She is passionate about fostering healthy family environments and parent-child relationships that help children grow-up into emotionally healthy adults! She specializes in working with children and families and is currently completing her clinical training at Dallas ISD Youth and Family Center.