How to Know When it’s Time to Worry about your Teen


As a parent of a teenager, it can be extremely difficult to differentiate between typical teen behavior and atypical, problematic behavior. You may not know what is just a phase and what you should really be concerned about. Don’t panic—instead, use these simple techniques to figure it out.

            Remember that “development” can vary greatly from one teen to the next. Teenagers are grappling with a number of difficult developmental tasks. They’re trying to develop their own identity, figure out how they fit into this world, make sense of their own opinions, values, and belief systems, and develop their own independence. It can be helpful for parents to remember that, given their developmental stage, these goals are expected. Unfortunately, many undesirable or difficult behaviors are produced as a result of teens’ development.

            Understand what typical behaviors are: These behaviors are common and expected, yet they are still challenging for parents to grapple with. Some examples of these behaviors include frequent arguments with parents, “talking back” to parents, minor rules violations (such as being late for a curfew), and withdrawing from parents by refusing to talk about emotions, school, or friends. These behaviors can typically be dealt with within the family and with minor consequences, or simply by “riding it out” until the phase passes.

            Identify atypical behaviors: Atypical or problematic behaviors stem from developmentally typical behaviors, however they have reached an extreme. These types of behaviors are more concerning and serious, often times creating large or long-term consequences, physical or emotional harm, and a reduction in the quality of life for an adolescent and his or her family. Some common examples include self-injury, suicide attempts, using drugs or alcohol beyond experimentation, addiction, eating disordered behaviors (binge eating, restricting, purging), promiscuity, refusal to attend school, complete disengagement from parents, and running away from home.

            By knowing and understanding what constitutes atypical behavior, parents can better formulate a plan of how to deal with them as they arise. Problematic behaviors are best deal with quickly, and with much less flexibility than typical behaviors. You may want to consider seeking help with a third party, such as a therapist or school counselor. A therapist or counselor can act as a mediator to help address your teen’s behavior issues. If you feel that you need further help with parenting your teen, consider enrolling in our upcoming 8-week DBT Skills Group for Parents!