The transition from childhood to adolescence can be a challenging time for teens and parents alike. Teenagers’ brains are growing, and their bodies are transforming. Hormones are surging. At the same time, teens’ identities are forming, maybe even crystallizing. Because they’re undergoing massive change, it’s not surprising that teens can sometimes be moody, distant, and defiant.
Most young adults resist parental oversight to some degree and engage in occasional inappropriate behavior. But what do you do if—seemingly overnight—your sweet-hearted child is slamming doors or staying in their room all day? Is it just a phase or does not acting like themselves mean something more serious is going on? What’s the difference between abnormal and normal teenage behavior?
- It’s normal for teens to be somewhat moody, rebellious, and distant at times.
- Teenagers’ moods and behavior can be erratic because their hormones are fluctuating, and their brains are not fully formed.
- Eating disorders and substance abuse can be signs of underlying mental health issues.
- One of the best ways to handle a teen who’s not acting like themselves is to listen closely and resist the urge to lecture.
‘Normal’ Teenage Behavior vs. ‘Abnormal’
There isn’t one single way to pass through adolescence. Some teens breeze through it; others struggle. And the range of struggles is wide: self-esteem, body images issues, drug and alcohol use, impulse control, academics, making friends, and more. The average teen won’t emerge from adolescence without having experienced some insecurity and emotional upset. But while there’s no such thing as normal, some adolescent behaviors are more typical, whereas others are cause for concern.
What’s normal? Expect your teen to stay up late and sleep in, obsess over their appearance, and find fault with you. It’s also normal for them to push back against rules, experiment with marijuana and alcohol, and withhold information.
While your teen’s behavior may be quite different from when they were little, it isn’t necessarily abnormal or unhealthy. In fact, most teen behavior can be chalked up to individuation and the inevitable process of growing up.
There are behaviors, however, that parents should take note of because they’re not typical. If your teen sleeps more than 11 hours a night, has drastically changed their eating habits, isolates from family and friends, and explodes with uncontrollable fury over small things, pay attention.
Likewise, if your teen is becoming physically or verbally abusive, binge drinking, breaking laws, or lying to hide other risky behaviors, seek support from a mental health professional. These could be signs of a more serious problem.
What Does It Mean If My Teen Isn’t Acting Like Themselves?
It’s not unusual for parents to find their teen’s behavior perplexing. On the surface, it may seem as if your child has become someone you don’t know. Before you pull your hair all the way out, keep in mind that there are physiological, developmental, and environmental reasons that help explain why your teen isn’t acting like themselves.
Teenage hormones kick into gear in adolescence, spurring physical growth. Fluctuations in estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone—the sex hormones—initiate puberty. And they can also affect teenagers’ moods, emotions, impulses, and interest in sex. Hormonal imbalances can cause adolescent boys and girls to be more nervous, irritable, anxious, and depressed, though normal teenage hormone levels can produce these emotions as well.
One study found evidence of an association between hormonal surges during puberty and lower levels of adolescent conscientiousness and agreeableness. The study also noted that other factors can predict these decreases, such as the stress of transitioning to secondary school and needing to make new friends.
An Immature Brain
Surging hormones aren’t the only explanation for teenagers’ reactivity and impulsivity. The fact of the matter is that teenage brains are still growing. Neuroscientists used to think the teenage brain was fully developed, but they now understand that human brain development stretches into the early 20s. During preadolescence (around 11 for girls and 12½ for boys), the brain undergoes more change than at any other time except just after birth.
The prefrontal cortex, which governs the use of logic and the ability to gauge risk, is still maturing in teenagers. That’s why teens can struggle with planning, complex decision-making, impulse control, and concentration. While the prefrontal cortex is under construction, the limbic system, which controls impulsivity, sexual behavior, and emotion, is fully active. It’s not unusual, therefore, for teens to exhibit poor judgment or struggle with making sound decisions.
The Need for Independence
The teen years usher young people into adulthood. While your little one may have craved the comfort of your embrace, your teen will naturally require more space. The average teen seeks independence and wants their own identity, separate from the family unit. As teens begin carving out their own lives, it’s natural for them to keep secrets from their parents. Extreme secrecy is a red flag, but it’s normal for teens to crave more privacy as they mature. If your teen is reluctant to tell you everything that happened at the latest party, it doesn’t necessarily mean your child is engaging in risky behavior. Withholding information from parents is an example of typical teen behavior and is often a healthy part of adolescent development.
When Does a Teen’s Weird Behavior Indicate Mental Health Issues?
Most teens who act up or act out are just being normal kids. Some rebellious, irritable, or anxious behavior is to be expected during adolescence. When the shifts in a teen’s behavior are more extreme, however, take note. Your teen may be dealing with possible mental health issues, which are increasingly common in adolescents.
Some teens suffer from eating disorders, which can lead to disordered thinking, difficulty focusing, emotional dysregulation, anxiety, and depression. Those who refuse to follow rules and constantly argue with parents and other authority figures may have Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which often results from an anxiety disorder, prior trauma, or an insecure attachment bond between children and their primary caregivers. Others are victims of bullying, which can also cause anxiety and depression as well as PTSD and even suicidal behavior.
Though many parents don’t realize it, teens who engage in alcohol and drug abuse may suffer from mental health problems. Teens often self-medicate to mask underlying emotional pain. The pain may be due to loneliness or low self-esteem. Other times it’s related to anxiety, depression, PTSD, or other mental health conditions. Ultimately, what parents need to keep in mind is that evaluating the difference between normal teen behaviors and troubled ones comes down to whether the behaviors negatively affect your teen’s life.
Teen Mental Health Red Flags to Watch For
It’s important for parents to be aware of mental health red flags that signal your teen may be dealing with a mental health disorder. If your teen routinely exhibits any of these warning signs, it may be time to seek professional help:
- Extreme anxiety
- Difficulty managing anger
- Marked impulsivity
- Strong refusal to follow rules
- Dramatic decline in grades
- Problems maintaining friendships
- Excessive sleeping (or difficulty sleeping)
- Noticeable changes in eating habits
- Intense moodiness
- Withdrawal from others and from activities they used to enjoy
- Substance abuse
- Poor self-care
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Repeated instances of shoplifting
How to Cope with a Teen Who’s Not Acting Like Themselves
The teenage years are tricky for most parents. They often walk a tightrope between tolerating typical teenage behavior and trying to prevent their kids from engaging in serious risk-taking with dangerous consequences. You want to be mindful of signs that could mean your child is struggling. But you also want to give your teen the freedom to develop a unique identity. It’s a delicate balance. If your teen isn’t acting like themselves, try incorporating these strategies into your parenting.
Little is more powerful than giving your teen the gift of your undivided attention. Active listening involves demonstrating interest with sustained eye contact, lack of judgment, and inquiries that provoke deeper sharing. Concerned for their adolescent’s well-being, many parents want to jump in and fix their problems or lecture them on solutions. This often has the opposite effect of pushing young people away. If you want to build a healthy relationship with your teen or repair a ruptured one, don’t interrupt. Listen closely instead and parent later.
As part of disciplining your teen, it’s important to clarify what sort of behavior is acceptable in your household. Make sure your teen understands that aggressive and dangerous behaviors are not allowed. Establishing household rules and consequences for breaking those rules is a form of setting healthy boundaries. Don’t just set the boundaries, though. Hold to them when your teen crosses the line. Otherwise, you’ll be giving teens the message that while you establish rules, you don’t enforce them.
Give Them Space
You may feel like you’re being a poor parent when you step back and allow your teen alone time, but sometimes it’s the best thing you can do. Teens are figuring themselves out. Don’t make them feel guilty if they want to spend time in their room. They need that space to think, imagine, and connect with friends. If they’re spending endless hours locked in their bedroom, though, you’ll obviously want to investigate. Otherwise, give them the space to individuate. Be attentive and available, but don’t pepper them with endless mundane questions every day. Allow them to breathe and grow at their own pace.
Help Them Manage Stress
Adolescence is a stressful time for many teenagers. They’re learning how to juggle schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and relationships, all while their bodies are changing in significant ways. They may feel overwhelmed at times. If they’re struggling academically or experiencing bullying, they may feel especially distraught. One study of adolescents between 15 and 17 found a strong correlation between school stress and a less positive attitude in teens. Helping your teen find constructive ways to manage stress will not only benefit them (and you), but will serve them throughout their lives. Encourage exercise, yoga and meditation, getting adequate sleep, and deep breathing.
Seek Professional Mental Health Support
If your teen is binge drinking or engaging in other dangerous behaviors, consider it a warning sign. Don’t wait until something terrible happens to reach out for help. There’s no shame in seeking out a mental health professional. Troubled teens know they’re struggling. Most would like to get out of pain. Mental health counselors can help teens understand the source of their distress. They can also help them process past trauma and build their self-esteem. By participating in family therapy, you can support your teen as they begin the healing process.
Mental Health Treatment for Teens and Families at Newport Academy
At Newport Academy, we don’t just communicate with families about their teen’s mental health treatment. We involve them in the process. We know that as that parents and teens heal their relationships, teen mental health improves. The foundation of our approach is Attachment-Based Family Therapy, which is designed to repair ruptures in the parent-child relationship and restore trust.
Our integrated model of care views trauma as the root cause of mental health disorders and behavioral issues. Therefore, we assist teens in addressing the underlying issues that cause them to act out in unhealthy ways. We also offer teens safe and effective ways to process their emotions, release past experiences, and develop healthy coping skills. In addition, we provide psychiatric care, medication management, and nutritional assessments.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are some behaviors more typical during adolescence?
Yes. It’s normal for adolescents to have mood swings, sleep late, push back against rules, and withhold certain information from their parents.
Why is my 14-year-old acting weird?
During adolescence, teenagers’ surging hormones can cause them to be moody, impulsive, and irritable.
Why does my 15-year-old spend so much time in her room?
Teens naturally want greater independence. They need time to think and develop a separate identity from their parents. Unless they almost never come out, spending time alone is not unusual.
How do I know if my teen might have a mental health disorder?
If your teen’s behavior is interfering with their life in a destructive way, it may be a sign of a mental health issue.
What do I do if I feel like my teenager isn’t acting like themselves?
Ask how they’re feeling. Listen closely. Don’t try to fix their problems before listening to what they’re saying. If you’re concerned for their mental health, seek out professional help.
Dev Psychol. 2021 Jan; 57(1): 60–72.
Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Nov; 16 (22): 4404.