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The Informed Parent

Understanding Your Teen: What Is “Normal?”

by Sandra Smith, Ph.D.
Published on Mar. 16, 2009

 Bud arrived in my office sporting short, spiked hair which had been dyed purple. His clothing was, by most standards, outlandish. His overall appearance was perhaps most noteworthy, however, for the presence of body piercings--one in his eyebrow, one in his nose. Time and patience revealed that Bud was not a "normal" adolescent. He was, in fact, significantly depressed, and struggling to find a sense of purpose and meaning in his life. What stands out most in my mind about Bud, however, is how he also struggled with many of the ordinary adjustments that "normal" teens face.

In attempting to define what is normal and abnormal behavior in teens, let's assume that "normal" teen behavior may be best defined by that which falls within a range of conduct demonstrated by most teens. As Orvin (1) notes, "average" teen behavior may not necessarily be viewed as "proper" by adults. It is important to avoid suggesting that "normal" means proper or good, however--instead, let's define normal as that which is the norm for the particular group we are considering.

Finally, we must be careful about categorizing the behaviors of teens. Perhaps it is better to view teen behaviors as "within normal limits" versus "normal". The teen's journey toward adulthood is often inconsistent and confusing--many parents tell me about their joy at unexpected acts of kindness or maturity from their teens one day, and their disapproval and consternation about irresponsible behaviors the next. In addition, what may be "normal" at age 13 or 14 may be less so at age 17 or 18.

The following questions and answers attempt to respond to some of the most common concerns that parents voice regarding their teens' behaviors, and whether or not they are indeed "normal".

(1) What about schoolwork? Is it normal for my teen to do less well than he did before?

Your teen's "job" is his performance in school. The "pay" he receives is grades, and this is the beginning of the teen's task of learning the concept of delayed gratification. Your teen must assume responsibility for his job. It is not "normal" for a teen's performance in school to suddenly drop off. Parental expectations about the "payoff" in terms of grades should be based on a realistic appraisal of his capabilities.

Parents may reasonably expect their teen to perform his job to the best of his capabilities. Parents should not assume the worrying about their teen's work, however--it is not the parent's job to cajole, plead, threaten, etc. On the other hand, parental concern, assistance when it is requested, and of course consistent support may go a long way in terms of helping your teen to function to the best of his ability.

(2) What about my teen's lack of consideration? Sometimes, the way he treats his little sister just irks us.

Normal teens are jealous and inconsiderate of their brothers and sisters, who are, after all, their lifetime competitors for their parents' love and affection. It is also normal of them to be extremely inconsiderate of their siblings at times. Physical or verbal abuse which threatens the safety or well-being of their siblings is not normal nor tolerable.

Perhaps what is most confusing to parents is how their teen may also demonstrate fierce loyalty to their peers, even when they consider their teen's choice of peers to be woefully lacking. Many parents of teens know the agony of wondering why their teen so fiercely defends a peer who is in trouble. In part, at least, this represents a value your teen has learned from you, his parents. ("But, Mom, you told me never to kick someone who is down and out, to defend the underdog. You taught me to give people another chance!"). It is normal for parents to struggle through this issue with their teen. It is also normal for teens to be considerate of the "wrong" people, i.e., the peers to whom they appear attached at the hip.

What is not normal for teens is to have no consideration for anyone other than himself. Although it is often difficult for families to accept, it may well be better for their teen to be loyal to people they dislike than to be loyal to no one.

(3) What about rules? We think we are reasonable, but all our teen does is complain, thinks there are too many rules, that they're too strict, etc.

The cardinal rule about rules is to make them reasonable. A reasonable rule is more easily obeyed. It enhances your credibility, and makes your rule more enforceable.

But expect your teen to complain! While he is not allowed to break the rule without consequence, he should be permitted and even encouraged to express the resentment he feels in an acceptable way. Again, this does not include verbal abuse. Demeaning statements about the parents or obscenities need not be tolerated. But do encourage your teen to learn how to appropriately express his resentment with those who love him. It is another, important step toward maturity--teens who do not learn to express resentment are more worrisome than those who do learn this important life task.

(4) Why does my teen keep making the same mistake(s)? He just doesn't seem to learn!

Sometimes, a picture tells a thousand words:
A 14-year-old girl was brought to my office by her mother, deeply depressed. She had been caught smoking marijuana and sneaking out of her home at night. Her grades had plummeted and she was in danger of failing the 9th grade. She was verbally abusive to both parents, who felt but refused to acknowledge a sinking sense of lost control. Her parents had "grounded" Jessica several times, but on each occasion, relented when her behavior toward them improved. She wondered why her parents kept allowing her freedoms she had clearly not earned. So did I.

Admittedly, this is an extreme example. It does, however, illustrate how not allowing the teen to learn from his mistakes robs him of the opportunity to mature. Another of the important rungs in the ladder of maturity is that of learning from mistakes. The teen must learn to confront problems in his life, attempt to solve them, and develop coping strategies when similar problems occur in the future. Parents aid in this process by providing appropriate boundaries, expectations and consequences. When this system has broken down, as in the example provided above, professional intervention is indicated.

(5) What about his room? It looks like a hurricane hit it! We're embarrassed when friends come over.

Untidiness in teens is normal. Perhaps some of it is an attempt to be like their peers. Some of it may be a way to show their nonchalance or lack of conformity. Finally, some of it may be an expression of some defiance toward parents.

I think the rule of thumb here is health: if your teen's room does not represent a health hazard (as suggested by the presence, for example, of unwanted plant or animal life) perhaps this is a battle best left deferred, an instance in which the teen learns that, at least sometimes, persuasion and persistence win out. In addition, while I would not suggest that neatness is "abnormal" or unhealthy, an excessively neat teen may actually be more worrisome than the "typical" teen described by most parents.

(6) Why doesn't my teen want to spend time with his family any more? Are we so terrible? Are we doing something wrong?

It is normal for teens to want to spend less time with family, more with friends. It is more worrisome if the teen has no friends, and clings unduly to the family.

(7) Okay, but how do I really know that my teen is "okay?" How can I determine if my teen needs help or not?

Ask yourself three questions:

(a) How well is my teen getting along with his family?

When a teen comes into the office and he is not getting along with his family, I worry. I do not mean natural disagreements with parents or siblings. I mean that family relationships are seriously disrupted and that the teen, and other members of his family, are in pain. The normal teen gets along with his family members over prolonged periods of time. If the teen is not relating well to those who love him most, counseling may well be indicated.

(b) How well is my teen doing in his job (school)?

Orvin notes that there is a significant correlation between how well a teen does at school and how well he performs later in an occupation. The teen who is not getting along well at home., but is doing well in school, is less worrisome than the teen who is having trouble in both areas. Professional evaluation should at least be considered when a teen is not functioning in both of these areas, however.

(c) How well is my teen doing in his peer relationships?

The ability to relate well to peers, even in the face of difficulties at home and at school, suggests an ability to make a connection with other human beings. The teen's ability to make and maintain friendships says much about his ability to survive in a world of other people, and should always be included in your assessment of his functioning.

Summary

Most parents have an excellent grasp of what is right and what is wrong, but often lack faith in their own judgment. Trying to decide what is normal (acceptable) and what is abnormal (unacceptable) behavior in your teen is a difficult task. Clear communication, particularly when the view of one parent conflicts with those of the other, or with the views of other important family members or friends, is critical for maintaining a clear grasp of what constitutes normalcy in a teen. The above is intended as a guideline for helping parents make an informed decision regarding whether professional intervention is warranted or necessary. The teen who is not getting along a home, failing at school, and seemingly friendless requires professional intervention without delay.


Bibliography:

Orvin, G.H., M.D. Understanding the Adolescent. Washington, D.C., American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1995




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