There is much in the news these days about cars accelerating out of control, leaving the driver and passengers helpless to know how to slow down or stop their runaway vehicle. That’s kind of what it is like in a family with a teenager who is out of control. The whole family gets swept along for the not so joyful ride.
Typical adolescent behavior includes moodiness, hyper-sensitivity and irrational thinking — no cause for much alarm. But there are other behaviors that are warning signs of a bigger problem than you may realize. These attitudes and behaviors are often triggered by a child’s feeling of being disrespected or abandoned in some way at some point in their life, and the level at which those feelings impact their actions, relationships and decisions in the teen years becomes abnormal.
Do you understand the difference between normal and abnormal teenager behavior? If not, here’s a handy tool we’ve developed to describe the behaviors that may mean that there is more going on than the normal bumps of adolescence:
Behavioral Warning Signs
Instructions: Enter how often the behavior is experienced: 0=Never 1=Sometimes 2=Frequently 3=All the Time
[___] Your teen refuses to abide by anything you say or request. These behaviors may put your teen or your family in danger or high risk, and lead to constant fear or stress in the home.
[___] Your teen displays behavior that is a marked change from what has been normal for them in the past (slipping grades, sleeping too little or too long, forgetfulness, lack of motivation, aggression, depression, anxiety, hating what they once loved or loving what they once hated, always wanting to be with friends away from home, or avoiding friends altogether and spending too much time alone).
[___] Your teen is increasingly disrespectful and dishonest and no longer veils his or her feelings nor cares about the consequences of misbehavior. Seemingly a loss of a conscience or moral compass.
[___] There is a blatant ignorance or profound rebellion toward the boundaries and rules of your home. This can be shown in passive aggressiveness or open defiance that is unusually excessive for your teen.
[___] Outright or veiled threats of suicide; participation in self-mutilation or eating disorders or cutting (Important: Get immediate professional help!)
[___] Excessive risk-taking, running away, dangerous drug or alcohol use (confirmed by drug tests); blatant sexual promiscuity, or same-sex relationships.
[___] Threatening or out-of-control treatment against people, pets, or belongings, or your teen exhibits a vengeful spirit and destroys things to “pay back” a perceived mistreatment by others. Disrespect for all forms of authority.
[___] Your teen thinks he or she is the center of your family, while at the same time showing a growing hatred for the family, evidenced by a blatant disregard for their feelings, time and possessions. Demands for money or outright theft of money or family possessions, or using things without permission and then claiming they were lost.
[___] You cannot keep your teen away from peers who are obviously leading a lifestyle counter to your beliefs, and your teen is buying into their destructive behavior and attitudes.
SCORE: ______ (total of the numbers you entered)
If the score is 15 or more, there is probably more going on in your teen’s life than you can handle on your own or through the normal tools of parenting. Your child needs some professional help, and things have escalated to the point that it could even mean that your child needs to be treated for a time away from your home, at a therapeutic facility like our Heartlight program.
If the score is less than 15, it doesn’t mean that you are off the hook. Things can escalate quickly and the errant behaviors will expand to other areas; so if you’ve written a “2” or “3” next to any of these warning signs, you need to work hard to do to get that particular area under control before it spreads.
Keep in mind that misbehavior in teenagers is usually nothing more than a flag they are waving high in the air to tell the adults in their life that something is wrong. Their actions are likely being sparked by something in their past, like: abuse, a split in the home, a death of a loved one, a mental illness, or a chemical or hormonal imbalance. They could also be the result of hidden substance abuse, excessive feelings of guilt, or bullying by peers. Sometimes the causes are so tragic and personal that a child would never think of telling anyone about them, but they bubble or explode to the surface through their actions instead. Or, they may not even know why they are acting the way they are. In those cases, it is best to get a professional counselor involved, who can deal with these issues privately and skillfully.
Some teens act out their issues and stresses in less apparent ways, but these are warning signs as well. Those include: frequent sadness, crying for no reason, withdrawal from friends and activities, refusal to eat or over-eating, sleeping too much, feelings of hopelessness, loss of energy, talk of death, suicide or ending it all are all signs of depression. A depressed teen may not be making a fuss in the family, but the issues and outcomes can be just as serious.
Another type of warning sign is your own feelings. Pay attention to them. If you’ve caught yourself thinking: “Our family cannot live like this any longer,” or “I can’t put a finger on it, but something is wrong with that kid,” or “I can’t sit by and watch him destroy himself,” then you already know that something needs to change. And if you have the feeling that something is going on that you just can’t put your finger on, you’d be wise to put on your detective hat and get to the bottom of it, because your gut feeling is probably right. You may be able to stop the problem well before it gets out of control.
Sadly, every day, I meet good kids from great families with wonderful parents who are dismayed by their teen’s journey down the wrong road. The stress of it has torn their family and even their marriage apart in the process. I trust you will not allow things to get that far before you deal with the problem, or seek the right kind of help, if that is needed.