Worried You’re Raising A Troubled Teen? Here’s How To Tell What’s A Normal Vs. A Serious Issue

troubled teen

Parenting a teenager is far from easy. Whether it’s physically, behaviorally, emotionally or intellectually, change is part of this exciting stage of development. With their rapidly updating physiology, teenagers change before our eyes every day – sometimes even multiple times during the same day – marking a period of dramatic opportunities as well as vulnerabilities, that can leave parents to wonder if everything is ok. Worse, parents might begin to worry they might be raising a troubled teen.

The concern is understandable. Teens do behave very differently from the children they were and the adults they will become. And their behavior and emotions can be extreme, owing largely to the  dramatic changes occurring in their maturing brains.

The adolescent brain busily multiplies neural connections at a rate comparable to those of an infant.

When we observed our infants’ understanding of and interaction with the world rapidly changing, it was adorable and precious – perhaps in part because they were so dependent upon us. Yet when we observe our teens changing the way they understand and interact with the world and with us, we often find it confusing – if not troubling.

Worrisome behaviors don’t necessarily equate to a troubled teen, however.  In carefully considering our teen’s rapid development, it can help to first decide if our worry is appropriate or not.

One way to think of the worrisome behaviors is in terms of their ability to get our attention. I like to think of them in terms of volume, often describing them as yelling, chattering, or whispering.

“Yelling” behaviors are those that immediately grab our attention. These include things like:

  • Prolonged temper outbursts (including violence at home and trouble with the law)
  • Persistent tearfulness
  • Acute anxiety and panic
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Drug/alcohol abuse (including marijuana)
  • Truancy
  • Evidence of self-harm
  • Extreme weight loss or gain

These types of yelling behaviors are serious. We instantly know that if our child exhibits any of these, it is time for us to take action. Asking for assistance and support is one of the most powerful things we can do to help a troubled teen navigate the acute challenges s/he is facing.

If the worrisome behaviors aren’t quite as loud, but still bothersome to our teen, we might be dealing with a more moderate range of worries that are more of the “chatter” or “whisper” type: loud enough to keep our attention, but quiet enough to risk dismissal as normal.

Unfortunately, just because the worrisome behaviors an adolescent exhibits are quieter, it does not mean that s/he is just experiencing teenage angst

Some of the quieter behaviors that we need to be especially aware of as parents include:

  • Subtle avoidance of activities and people s/he used to like
  • Poor social relationships
  • Lying
  • Complaints of anxiety

These less obtrusive behaviors that fly under the radar can indicate deeper challenges your teen might be struggling with, and complicate the landscape of understanding what is going on. Subtly avoiding activities and people s/he previously enjoyed, for example, could be a sign of normal anxiety or an indicator of emerging social anxiety.

Peer relationships often suffer from the intensity and variance of of growth rates in teens. Additionally, feelings of loneliness can increase vulnerability to bullying, and the abuse of alcohol or drugs to help access companionship as well as mitigate discomfort.

Lying, when parents are able to catch it, can be a concerning symptom of underdeveloped coping strategies in general. Teens who lie don’t know how to deal with or don’t want to deal with the consequences of telling the truth. If an adolescent lies, they are troubled. They are crying out for help in dealing with something that they are simply not yet equipped to cope with.

Because teens’ emotional reactions can be exaggerated, it is easy to underestimate the severity of our teen’s anxiety and worry at first. Yet, the more often and severely our teen feels anxiety, the more we should take note.

Whether blatant, or subtle, signs of consistent struggle in your teen almost always signal a need for further investigation and perhaps the need for a parent to step in. Understanding what is normal and what is a more serious issue can be a difficult distinction for parents to make, but allowing our worry to fuel closer attention to and conversation with our teen can help. Rationally investigating our worries will help us reach sensible conclusions about our teen we can trust.

Maintaining an open relationship with your teen and keeping tabs on their behavior not only helps you determine whether you’re raising a troubled teen, but also sends the powerful ongoing message you are there for them. Kids need to know we stand beside them every step of this steep developmental climb, and we have their backs no matter what.


Looking for more help in understanding adolescent anxiety? Check out my book Hack Your Anxiety full of strategies to take control of anxiety, along with two chapters dedicated to support and parenting as well as a Summary Toolkit. 

Photo by Rob on Unsplash

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD