Many teenagers go through a rebellious or ‘crazy’ phase that is typical for their age. It is a result of normal adolescent brain development. The difference between ‘normal’ teen-crazy and abnormal troubled behavior is when the teenager starts falling behind his or her peers in multiple life situations: school, social life, emotional maturity, self-control or self discipline, risk awareness, and self-esteem.
At a bare minimum, a normal teen will be able to do the following no matter how troublesome:
- Attend school and do some school work if they want to;
- Have and keep a friend or friends their own age who also attend school;
- Develop a maturity level roughly the same as his or her peers;
- Exercise self-control if he or she wants to;
- Demonstrate basic survival instincts, avoid serious risks, and avoid harming themselves, others, or property.
- Seek out and enjoy several activities that interest them.
It is normal for teens to be inconsistent, irrational, insensitive to others, self-centered, and childish. Screaming or swearing is normal. These are basically toddler temper tantrums. Also normal: outlandish imagination; rebelliousness and threats; and acting without thinking of the consequences. Unless something else is holding them back, normal crazy teens grow out of these behaviors. If you occasionally see glimpses of growth and change, they may likely be OK. If you don’t, and if it’s happened for a long time, they may not grow out of it and need extra help.
So how do you tell the difference?
Look for pervasive patterns of social and behavioral problems that stand out against their peers. How long have troubling patterns been occurring? When did they start? Were their hints of problems in early childhood or did they emerge recently? Are their ‘crazy’ patterns repeating themselves in multiple settings? Has everything you’ve tried failed?
Signs of abnormal behavior
A sudden change in their behavior and demeanor.
- An abrupt change in friends and interests, or a loss of interest in things your teenager used to enjoy. This might indicate the onset of a serious mental illness or drug use or both.
- Unusual ideas, or obsessive beliefs, or unrealistic plans. This might be a disconnect from reality like in psychosis: “Unsettling: what psychosis looks like in children and young people.” It might be “magical thinking” brought on by extreme self-absorption or an obsession. It might be due to drug use, especially marijuana with high TNC content.
- Other people have concerns about your child. Maybe 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.
Unsafe behaviors (“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, or physical or emotional abuse of themselves or others.)
- When a troubled teenager does something unsafe to themselves or others it is not an accident but something intentional and planned. It may also be a result of “magical thinking,” psychosis, or difficulty coping with reality.
- 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.
How psychologists measure the severity of a child’s behavior
“Normal” is defined with textual descriptions of behaviors which are arranged on a spectrum from normal to abnormal. Below are a few common examples of a range of behaviors in different settings. Perhaps they offer insight into what level your child is functioning and the intensity of mental health treatment they’ll need.
Not serious – This child has occasional problems with a teacher or classmate that are eventually worked out, and usually don’t happen again. They seem typical compared to other students.
Mildly serious – This child disobeys school rules but doesn’t harm anyone or property. Compared to their classmates, they are troublesome or concerning, but not seriously difficult. They may not work hard enough or focus, and might benefit from a school counselor, mentor, or therapist.
Serious – This child disobeys rules repeatedly, or skips school, or is known to disobey rules outside of school. Compared to other students, they stand out in the crowd as having chronic behavior problems. Their grades are poor even if they’re capable of better. This child needs mental health or substance abuse treatment.
Very serious – This child cannot be in school due to disruption affecting others. They cannot follow rules, and they threaten or hurt others or property. It is feared they may end up in jail. This child requires intensive mental health and/or substance abuse treatment but likely won’t cooperate.
Not serious – Most of the time, this child is well-behaved but has occasional problems which are usually worked out. They are fairly typical compared to others of their age.
Mildly serious – This child has to be watched and reminded often and needs pushing to follow rules or do chores or homework. They are endlessly frustrating, or defiant and manipulative, but their actions aren’t serious enough to merit intensive treatment. This is when a school or private counselor would be very beneficial.
Serious – This child cannot follow rules, even reasonable ones. They can’t explain their behavior nor take responsibility for it. Your child may damage property; become paralyzed by anxiety and depression, or do harm to themselves or others. Mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment is paramount.
Very serious – The stress caused by this child means the family cannot manage normally even if they get help and work together. Threats of suicide, violence, or drug use are common. Their behaviors require daily sacrifices from all. Emergency responders are commonly called. This child needs intense psychiatric treatment and/or substance abuse treatment, and likely residential treatment.
Not serious – The child has and keeps a friend or friends their own age. They have healthy friendships with people of different ages, such as with a grandparent or younger neighbor.
Mildly serious – This child is immature and often loses friends because they argue, tease, or bully, and schoolmates keep their distance. The friends they have are often short term or troublesome themselves and negatively affect your child’s mental health. This child would benefit from a strong mentor and a therapist.
Serious – The child has no friends or very risky friends who are often not their age. They sway your child into high risk behavior, negative treatment towards others and themselves, and drug use. They don’t care about how they affect others. This child needs therapy and psychiatric mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment.
Very serious – The child’s behavior is so aggressive physically or psychologically, families take radical steps to protect themselves or they become traumatized by the abuse. Negative behaviors are repeated and may be deliberate, and result in the loss of family mental health and parental PTSD. This child needs intensive psychiatric and/or substance abuse treatment, and may only get it while incarcerated.
Pay attention to your gut feelings.
If you’ve been searching for answers and selected this article to read, your suspicions are probably correct. Trust your intuition. Most parents have excellent insight but may doubt themselves. If you’re looking for ways to quickly get your child on track, these probably don’t exist. There just aren’t any incentives/consequences, boundaries, medications, or therapies that guarantee your child keeps up with peers. Brain change is slow to nonexistent. What you can do for yourself is lower expectations, change how you set boundaries and structure, ensure adequate sleep for everyone, improve diet, and possibly get mental health treatment for family members too.
Move milestones way back, or possibly forget about them for this year, or 5 years
Prepare yourself for a parenting marathon. Mental disorders are serious and it’s difficult stop them getting worse. Expect setbacks. Address very few issues at a time. Put concerted effort into your wellbeing and that of other important relationships.
Act now while your troubled teenager is young. Early treatment can prevent a lifetime of problems. Find good people and professionals who take time to get to know you as much as your child and who will listen to what you have to say.
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