Teenagers come in all shapes and sizes and so does their behavior. Some teens never seem to get in trouble and are always the go-to person when an example of good behavior needs to be set. Other teens seem to the ones who push the behavior envelope to the point of being unruly and rebellious. Still, others fall somewhere along the curve. Some rebellious, irritable, or anxious behavior is a normal and healthy part of the growth experienced as a teenager. There are also differences in what parents view as rebellious and what teens view as trying to “exert a little independence”. It is when the behavior crosses the line of what we perceive to be “normal” that questions begin to circulate. Is this normal? Is your rebellious teen going to be like this forever? Is there a mental health concern that could be causing this?
These are all good questions. When the shift in your teen’s personality is very dramatic there is a chance a mental health issue could be to blame. Anyone who has been the parent of or spent a lot of time around a teenager knows they can be moody, distant and at times defiant, however, this behavior is usually temporary in nature. It can be frustrating for families but is considered normal.
Laura Grubb, a spokesperson from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the director of adolescent medicine at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medicine Center states that roughly eighty-five percent of teens get through with minimal challenge. But what about the other fifteen percent of teens who seem to have a harder time getting through those challenging years. What are some of the indicators that these teens may be struggling with something outside of general teen angst? Below we discuss some of the things that parents can look for in their rebellious teen to help discern what may be normal teen behavior versus something that may be potentially concerning and an indicator of a bigger mental health issue.
Teenagers sleep. Some can sleep so well they make their parents jealous. It seems as though they go to bed and can successfully get ten, eleven even twelve hours of shut eye in and have virtually no idea what is going on in the world around them.
Aside from their innate ability to sleep through virtually anything, “normal” teen sleeping hours differ from those of adults and their younger siblings. Where adults and young children often go to bed in the late evening and wake up in the morning for work or school, a teen’s biological clock is more in tuned with staying up late and waking up later in the morning. This is why it seems as though they are always up after midnight but sleeping until noon. It is what their body incites to them is natural.
A potential problem comes when the need or want for sleep outweighs normal daily activities. If your teen is routinely sleeping the day away causing isolation from friends and family this could be an indicator of a larger issue pertaining to mental health. Additionally, if your rebellious teen is also repeatedly missing the start of the school day or struggling with sleep in general (not being able to sleep or consistently needing more than eleven hours per night) this could also be a sign of a larger problem.
Moodiness and Irritability
There is a lot going on in the world of your average teen. The school day alone brings about stress and anxiety related to friendships, social obligations, schoolwork obligations, tests, sports, romantic interests and anything else that may come about. It stands to reason that it would be considered completely normal for teens to get moody, frustrated and irritable on occasion. Just as adults do, teens can face challenges processing emotions and stress and it can come out in the form of frustration or anger. There are a great many changes and transitions going on during high school and some of those changes can be challenging for teens to talk about. However, these moods are not typically constant or abnormally frequent.
If your teen’s moodiness is escalating or becoming abnormally frequent this may be an indicator of an underlying mental health condition. If they appear unable to cope with what would be considered a normal situation without their anger taking control or their responses to situations are violent in nature this could be a red flag.
It is not abnormal for many teens to be less than interested in schoolwork. The idea of reading “Gone with the Wind” and having to write a paper as opposed to going out to a movie with friends is understandable unpleasant. It is also normal for teens to express worry about grades and exams and how those things may impact their future aspirations such as college and career goals.
If your teens anxiety about grades and schoolwork is negatively impacting their functioning and causing other mood-related problems, this may be a cause for concern. If they know they need to study and become angry and frustrated and can’t bring themselves to accomplish what they need to there may be an underlying issue that is making learning challenging. Similarly, if your teen goes from honor roll to barely passing or not caring about their grades at all, this could be concerning as well.
Defiance or Rebellion
To some extent, defiance is a normal, healthy aspect of teen behavior. Part of growing is wanting to determine their place in society. To do this, teens will often tread a little outside the rules and push back against parental (and adult) authority. Sometimes these phases of rebellion lead to getting in trouble in school or in the community. Despite the frustration this may bring for their parents, these are all a rather normal part of the growth and development process.
Teenage rebellion becomes a concern when the behavior becomes extreme. To clarify, extreme in this case means behavior such as breaking laws, getting detention or suspensions from school. Extremely defiant or rebellious behavior can threaten their ability to achieve previously sought after hopes and dreams for their future. This behavior may also seem out of control and sometimes violent in nature. When these types of behavior become more of the norm as opposed to occasional, it may be beneficial to speak with a mental health counselor or school social worker about how this behavior is impacting your child at home, in school and out in the community.
Alcohol use and substance experimentation
While parents may not like it and view the behavior as defiant and rebellious many teens will be in the position at least once during their high school years (some earlier, some later) to experiment with alcohol. This is also true of marijuana use although this is becoming a little more common today with the legalization of marijuana in many states.
Despite parental disapproval, some experimentation is normal and unfortunately, expected as teens begin to spread their wings and socialize outside of their family network. Concern should arise if you notice (or are informed) that your teen is binge drinking or turning to alcohol and drugs with frequency. This form of partying or, in some cases self-medicating for anxiety and depression can lead to much bigger issues down the road. Excessive or frequent use of alcohol and drugs can lead to legal issues as well as problems socially and at school. It can also lead to mental health concerns around addiction, depression, and anxiety. Sometimes these mental health issues will manifest in violent and rebellious ways should the teen adopt an “I don’t care anymore” attitude.
Lying and withholding information
Teens often want privacy from their parents and family when it comes to certain aspects of their lives-especially the romantic ones. It is also normal for teens to want to start to make their own decisions about their day to day life events without parental input. This is likely why teens choose to selectively keep some information from their parents occasionally.
This behavior can become concerning when occasional secretive independence develops into pathological lying or when lying becomes the teens way of hiding their participation in risky or dangerous behaviors. It should also be a red flag when your teen reacts with aggression or anger when asked about a particular event or statement they made.
Changes in appearance
For most teens, keeping up with the latest trends and fashion are important. This used to be true more for girls than boys but as times change and progress, the ability to maintain a similar fashion status as that of their circle of friends has become important to both genders. Unfortunately, maintaining equal footing with their social circle may mean wearing provocative or attention-seeking clothing or dying their hair loud and bright colors. Again, these are not abnormal occurrences. In many cases, the desire to do most of the above will wane with time.
If the changes in appearance are drastic such as piercings they have never wanted before or tattoos that you didn’t approve of then it may be a red flag. Other red flags to consider are when the changes in appearance come along with increased or new challenges at school such as skipping school, getting into fights or other negative behaviors. Other concerns associated with sudden changes in appearance could be evidence of cutting, self-harm or extreme fluctuations in weight.
What to do and when to get help
If as a parent, you are noticing concerning or rebellious behavior in your teen there are a few different steps you can take. If they are willing, sit down and talk to them about your concerns. It is important to just talk; don’t accuse or use language that is confrontational such as “you’re making bad decisions” or “you are getting bad grades.” Simply let them know you have noticed they are unhappy or upset and that you are concerned and want to help. It can be difficult to keep your wits about you when having these conversations but that is very important. Don’t let your own anxiety about the situation and potential results of your teens behavior take over and negate the chances of a calm and successful conversation.
If you have reached the point where you feel like you have no idea what to do or conversation has stopped working, that is when it is a good idea to seek help from a mental health counselor. This is especially true if there are safety concerns for your teen (or those around them) or if your teens rebellious behavior has become violent or out of control. In reality, even if you aren’t sure if your teens behavior is a perfectly normal part of growing up or something otherwise, a mental health counselor could help you to answer those questions.
There are various different treatment options to consider for teens who are experiencing increases in rebellious or difficult behavior. It is often challenging to know which one is the right one to choose. If you are unsure, speak to your child’s counselor or doctor to help gain insight on the pros and cons of each program.
Outpatient programs provide treatment during the day allowing your teen to live at home at night. These programs may be best when it is believed your teen poses no risk to themselves or others when not in a monitored setting. It is also important to consider the family dynamic at home and how that may impact the teens treatment. Outpatient programs may include individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy or a combination of multiple kinds.
Residential Treatment Programs
For some teens, the outpatient setting may not be enough or effective. This is where a residential treatment program such as Hillcrest can be the most successful. Residential treatment is suggested when a teen has dangerous behaviors, when there is a risk of harm to the teen or someone else or when outpatient treatment has been tried and failed. A residential treatment program offers a controlled and supervised environment where your teen can address their concerns and the triggers that are leading to their rebellious or destructive behavior. Each of the treatment programs at Hillcrest are designed around the specific needs of your teen to assure the best chances for success.
At Hillcrest, we know that making the choice to put your teen in a residential program may be one of the hardest and most painful decisions a parent can be faced with. With this knowledge, we work with you and your teen to create a program to meet both their needs and yours. If you are concerned about your rebellious teen and their behavior, contact us at Hillcrest.