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Is It Normal Teenage Behavior, or a Crisis? Signs to Watch For

Living with teenagers isn’t always easy. Teens often struggle to manage their emotions and deal with all of the issues that come with being a young adult in today’s society. Not only are they dealing with all of the hormones and physical changes that come with being a teenager, but they are trying to figure out who they are and what they want from life — all while dealing with the pressures that come from school, family, friends, and the media.

Mom and teenage son

It’s no wonder, then, that it can seem like teens are often on the brink of crisis. Most teens have difficulties at some point, which manifest themselves as arguing with their parents, “acting out,” or engaging in risky behaviors. And most teens suffer the consequences of the incidents and go on to become happy and productive adults.

But there are those teens who can’t successfully navigate all of the challenges that life throws at them, and end up turning to substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, and other destructive behaviors as a means to deal with their problems. And unfortunately, for many parents, it’s difficult to determine what is “normal” teenage behavior and a short-term problem and what is a crisis that needs intervention. When is it time to seek help, whether that is counseling or a more intensive program for troubled teens?

While every teen is different, and the warning signs for your individual child might be different, parents should be on the lookout for these common clues that your teen’s behavior is more than “just a phase” and intervention may be necessary.

1. Sudden and Dramatic Changes to Social Life

All teens go through shifts in their social circles during the high school years. Changes in interests, joining new activities, and normal changes to friendships can all lead your teen to have a new group of friends in her senior year than she did in her freshman year.

However, if your teen’s social life is sudden and dramatic — as in within a few weeks or months he or she has an entirely different set of friends and has changed his or her activities entirely — you need to investigate. There are usually clear signs that something is going on, such as a drastic change in appearance, taste in music, and relationships.

If your teen is being secretive, or the social changes come with other changes, such as a dip in performance at school or new behavioral issues, there is definitely cause for concern. Talk with your teen, and get to the bottom of the situation — and take steps to protect your child if necessary.

2. Signs of Substance Abuse

No parent wants to think about their teen struggling with addiction, but the sad fact is that many young people are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Even if you are “sure” that your child would never abuse drugs and alcohol, you must be constantly vigilant to clues that your teen is using illegal substances.

Changes in friends and social life, appearance, interests, and grades are often the most obvious signs of a problem, but parents must also be aware of some of the more subtle signs of substance abuse as well. Changes in health (such as losing weight, sleeping issues, changes in appetite, or ongoing illness) can be indicative of a problem. Mood shifts, such as sudden paranoia, anxiety, or depression are also issues that parents need to be on the lookout for and ready to tackle.

Take time to learn the language; i.e., the slang teens use to discuss drugs and alcohol, and the ways that teens try to hide their activities, so you can intervene when necessary.

Mom and teen

3. Personality Changes

Parents and teens have always argued, and always will. But when every interaction with your teen is a negative one, and it seems like every time you talk with your teen, he or she is confrontational or angry, something bigger is going on. At the same time, if your formerly open and honest teen suddenly stops talking to you and doesn’t want to let you in, something is going on.

Do not ignore ongoing outbursts or sudden secrecy as “typical teen angst” and hope that your teen outgrows it. Chances are, there is something else going on that is causing great pain, and the sooner you address the issue, the sooner your teen can get back on track.

As a parent, it’s your job to help your teens through times of crisis and be alert to the behaviors that could indicate a serious problem. Your teen may be angry with you or resent your efforts in the moment, but when you react with concern, love, and a willingness to help, eventually he or she will recognize your efforts for what they are, and you can avert a crisis.

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