Navigating the world of parenting a teenager can be a rollercoaster ride, filled with mood swings, attitude shifts and intense reactions to seemingly minor events. It’s common to feel like you don’t recognize your child anymore. The good news: Most of these behaviors are part of the typical adolescent experience and will pass with time. That said, teenagers do encounter significant challenges in today’s complex society, and as parents, it’s essential to distinguish between normal teenage behavior and signs of potential maladaptive development.

At RockBridge, understanding this difference empowers us to provide the proper support and guidance to help our teens thrive during this critical stage of life. We’re here to shed light on these nuances, offering valuable insights and resources to assist parents in fostering a healthy and supportive environment for their teenagers.


Normal Teen Behavior

In the journey of adolescence, it’s important to know the difference between normal teen behavior and signs of potential trouble. Typical adolescent behavior often includes mood swings, a desire for more privacy and an increased focus on peer relationships. These characteristics are largely a result of the hormonal changes that teenagers undergo during puberty.

Additionally, teens face a myriad of common challenges such as academic pressures, social anxieties and navigating their burgeoning independence. They might also start questioning societal norms and family rules as part of their quest to establish a unique identity. This pursuit for identity and independence often manifests in experimenting with different hobbies, fashion styles and friend groups.

While these behaviors can be confusing or frustrating for parents, they are usually a healthy part of teen development. Understanding this can help parents support their teens through this critical phase of life.


Troubled Teen Behavior

Troubled Teen Behavior is an umbrella term for various issues that adolescents may face. Recognizing signs of potential behavioral issues is the first step toward helping teens navigate these challenges. These signs might include sudden changes in mood or behavior, withdrawal from friends and family, or a noticeable drop in academic performance.

Identifying red flags for mental health concerns is another crucial aspect. Symptoms like persistent sadness, frequent anger outbursts, or drastic changes in eating or sleeping habits could indicate underlying mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. Lastly, it’s essential to understand the impact of stress and trauma on teens. Stressful events or traumatic experiences can significantly affect a teenager’s behavior, leading to potential emotional and psychological distress.

The ability to recognize the signs of difficulties such as substance abuse and mental health problems can help parents manage these unique challenges. When you know the symptoms of a serious problem, you can get help for your child to recover and overcome the challenges. Effective treatments are available to help your child find a successful path to adulthood.


Substance Use versus Abuse

While no one condones the use of alcohol, tobacco, and/or drugs by teenagers, the reality is that most adolescents will try at least one of these things at some point. The best way to prevent these behaviors is to keep an open line of communication with your children on these topics. Difficult as they may be, these conversations should start long before your child reaches the teenage years. Talk about the health consequences of smoking, drinking alcohol in excess and other risky actions.

Also, discuss peer pressure, which is inevitable as your teen gets older and starts spending more time with friends — and without adult supervision. Think of ways to prepare and set your teen up for success rather than failure. Make a plan for how your children can contact you discreetly to pick them up if they find themselves in a situation where they are not comfortable.

Parents should watch for the following signs that a child is using alcohol, tobacco, or drugs regularly and habitually:

  • A sudden drop in grades and loss of interest in school
  • Abrupt changes in behavior at home that go beyond typical teenage mood swings
  • Drug paraphernalia or empty bottles or cans in the youth’s room or car
  • Missing pills from prescription drug containers
  • Keeping secrets about where he or she is going and who else will be there

If you observe any of these in your teenager, take action right away. Consult an expert in the field of a teenage addiction to determine the best course of action. Also, inform your child’s pediatrician since mental health has a direct impact on physical health. Resist the temptation to see this behavior as a failure on your part as a parent. Stay available to your child and keep talking. Though they may ignore you or resist your efforts, don’t give up. With professional help, you can get through this together.


Mental Health Diagnoses

According to the Teen Mental Health Institute, estimates indicate that as many as 20% of young people are living with some form of mental illness. Anxiety disorders, depression and eating disorders are some of the most common, along with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Part of the difficulty for parents is that the early symptoms of mental illness can closely mimic typical teen behavior. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends taking action if you observe any of the following behaviors in your adolescent:

  • Talk of suicide or suicidal ideation
  • Self-harming behaviors such as cutting or burning
  • Dieting or exercising obsessively or compulsively
  • Hurting animals or other people or destroying property
  • A lack of anger management skills
  • Isolation and loss of interest in being with friends

The best course of treatment for a child with a mental illness starts with an accurate diagnosis by a trained professional. Every child is different and possibilities for treatment range from medication and counseling to inpatient residential treatment. Educating yourself on your child’s diagnosis can help you gain an understanding of what he or she is experiencing. Below are some of the more common disorders you may encounter.


Bipolar disorder

It’s important for parents to realize that mood swings are a normal part of adolescence. However, in young people with bipolar disorder, these behaviors go far beyond what is observed in their peers. Bipolar disorder is an illness within the brain that results in extreme mood swings. Also known as manic-depressive illness or manic depression, this condition causes the person to experience “high” periods of extreme energy and activity (manic episodes) followed by very “low” or depressed periods (depressive episodes).

Every aspect of the child’s life can be affected, including sleep and the ability to think clearly. Friendships and relationships with family can be difficult to maintain for a child with bipolar disorder. Peers may not know how to deal with the extreme swings. Manic episodes can lead to risky behaviors, while depressive episodes can lead to suicide attempts. While the diagnosis is frightening, with the right professional help, young people with bipolar disorder can learn to manage their symptoms successfully.


Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is another common mental health condition among children and teenagers. Experts believe that as much as 10% of youth are impacted by ADHD. The disorder affects boys more often than girls and the cause is unknown. It is commonly characterized by an inability to sit still, pay attention and focus.

While it is usually diagnosed in childhood, the symptoms may continue into adolescence and adulthood. Difficulty focusing and paying attention can lead to low school performance, disciplinary issues and substance abuse. Just as with bipolar disorder, teenagers can experience some level of these issues as part of normal adolescent development. However, if they begin to interfere with the teen’s ability to function in daily activities, they may require clinical intervention.



Self-harming is also referred to as Non-Suicidal Self-Injury or NSSI. A child or teen who injures himself is not necessarily trying to commit suicide. Self-harm is usually an unhealthy coping mechanism that evolves as a response to mental or emotional trauma. For a self-harming youth, this is a way to control feelings or separate from painful circumstances.

Most research links self-harm to brain chemicals that bring relief from emotional pain for a short time. It may reduce anxiety, loneliness and anger, among other feelings. The most common form of self-injury is cutting the skin, but you may also observe burning, hair-pulling and piercing the body. Self-harming is always a cause for seeking professional help.


Parent-Teen Relationships

Open communication and fostering a healthy parent-teen relationship play pivotal roles in preventing teen mental health and substance abuse issues. When parents maintain a supportive and non-judgmental environment, teens feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, emotions and challenges. Strong parent-teen bonds also provide a sense of security and belonging, reducing the likelihood of teens seeking solace in risky behaviors or substance abuse. When teens know they can turn to their parents for guidance and understanding, they are more likely to make healthier choices.

Regular communication enables parents to notice warning signs of mental health struggles early on, allowing them to seek appropriate support and intervention. However, there may be instances when communication breaks down despite best efforts. In such cases, seeking professional help like family therapy or counseling can provide guidance and support, helping to rebuild and strengthen these vital relationships.


Getting Help

The adolescent phase is marked by rapid changes in both the body and the brain, inevitably leading to shifts in mood, personality and habits. As parents, it’s crucial not to take these transformations personally but rather recognize them as essential for the young individual to establish their unique identity. Amidst these changes, it becomes crucial to be vigilant, as serious issues can sometimes masquerade as typical teenage behavior.

At RockBridge, we are here to support and guide you through this journey. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help your teen navigate this crucial phase with care and understanding.


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