Distinguishing Between Normal Teenage Behavior And Mental Illness

Posted on November 3rd, 2016


As we all know, the typical teen years are rife with instability and struggle. Parents who worry aloud to others about their teens during this time period usually get the response, “don’t worry” or “it’s just a phase.” Yet it can be difficult to distinguish between “normal” teenage behavior and what goes beyond the norm into the realm of mental illness. I hope this article is helpful to parents who find themselves unsure of whether to be seriously concerned or not by their adolescents’ behaviors.
If your teen is showing the following behaviors, then you can be assured that these are common during adolescence: occasional mood swings, friend drama, mild rebelliousness, thrill-seeking behaviors that toe the line of safety, movement away from family beliefs/culture into their individual preference, difficulty accurately interpreting social cues, and phases of experimenting with new ideas and personas. What an adolescent with these typical concerns needs from his/her parents is guidance in good decision making, encouragement towards positive outlets, awareness of how to manage peer and societal pressures, and open communication with acceptance of the teen’s unique personality and identity.
The psychosocial goal of all teenagers is to develop their unique identity. In order to accomplish this, a teen has to practice trying out different identities before finding what works for him/her. Don’t be surprised if your teen tells you one opinion one week and then promotes the opposing opinion the next week. It is also normal for teens to try out varying beliefs, value systems and self-images that are different from that which their families raised them to believe.
The cognitive development of the teenage brain is geared towards launching into adulthood. This means that teens are hardwired to seek independence from their families, to find enjoyment in risk-taking, to prioritize friendships and communities external of the family, and to strongly feel the anguish of social embarrassment. Effective parenting during this coming of age phase is focused on finding balance between time spent outside of the home and quality time with the family. If your teen is resistant to spending time with the family, it is more productive to focus on creating quality time with your teen than prioritizing quantity of family time. 
One important detail to keep in mind when it comes to teens and mental illness is that oftentimes with the onset of puberty and the more sophisticated cognitive development taking place, adolescents and young adults are at much higher risk for the activation of genetically predisposed mental illness. If there is a family history of mental illness, then times of extreme stress, as well as experimentation with illicit drugs, are risk factors for triggering a genetic tendency for mental illness. Additionally, due to the changes in dopamine levels in the brain during adolescence, teens are at higher risk of developing addictions, such as to technology and to drugs and alcohol.
When a teenager starts to show behaviors that are more frequent or more intense than the behaviors of their peers, it may be time to be concerned and evaluate further. If your teen has you or an adult in his/her life who your teen feels is a safe place to turn to, then that adult can explore with your teen what might be going on below the surface. In cases were the teen does not have a strong relationship with an adult, then an assessment with a mental health professional is a crucial next step. Mental illness in adolescents can manifest itself differently than in childhood or adulthood. For example, depression in teens is often expressed as irritability and anger. If your teen is showing any of the following behaviors, then be sure to provide them with extra support and help: frequent angry outbursts, frequent crying spells, a sudden dip in school performance or daily functioning, self-injurious behaviors, thrill-seeking that is a serious safety concern, frequent nightmares, friendships solely with peers who struggle with mental illness, and/or panic attacks.
Parenting a teen is a challenge in and of itself, but parenting a teen with a mental illness requires more understanding, patience and thoughtfulness. If your teen is diagnosed with a mental illness by a professional, then one of the best things parents can do is to become more educated about the specific mental health issue and consult with a specialist about what parenting techniques will be the best fit for their teen. Additionally, having a family member with mental illness can oftentimes cause families to withdraw and disconnect from their community. It is vital for everyone in the family to have positive support in and outside of the home. 

It’s not uncommon for parents to be concerned about what teenage behavior is normal and what behaviors are signs of a potential mental illness. There are many changes, both physical and psychological, that can make it difficult to know when or how to intervene. Listen to your instincts and ask questions when needed. You can seek help from your family doctor or a mental health professional. Whether the behavior is the result of normal teenage behavior or a mental illness, it is helpful for your teen to regularly hear that you love him/her unconditionally and that you will always be available to talk with and support your teen.

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Teen Therapy Center provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.