Warning Signs of Teenage Behavior Problems

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

At times it can be difficult to differentiate between typical and atypical teenage behavior. This lesson will discuss the warning signs of teenage behavior problems, and what can be done to help manage them.

What's Wrong With Sarah?

Sarah is 16-year-old high school junior. Up until about a year ago, she was a happy-go-lucky teen and a valued player on her high school tennis team. One day she came home and announced she was no longer playing tennis. It was at this point that Sarah's parents started to notice some drastic changes.

Sarah's circle of friends changed rapidly. She was no longer hanging out with the tennis team, and instead spent time with kids who were known to get in trouble. She started wearing dark clothing, isolating herself in her room, and rarely spoke to her parents about anything. Last weekend, her mom caught her coming back into the house at 2 a.m.. Sarah's parents wonder whether this is typical teenage behavior or if they should be concerned something more troubling is going on?


The teenage years are a tumultuous time for adolescents and their parents alike. Between the ages of 10 and 20, many changes take place. Hormones churn out of control and parents are left to wonder what happened to the sweet, innocent children they were raising in elementary school. Teenagers are also struggling with finding balance between becoming independent and relying on parental support.

Normal Teenage Behavior

It is sometimes difficult for parents like Sarah's to differentiate between typical teenage behavior and the signs of teenage behavior problems. The following are examples of normal behaviors during the teenage years:

  • challenging rules and directions
  • talking back
  • moodiness
  • seeking independence
  • staying up late and sleeping even later
  • taking occasional risks
  • identity confusion
  • experimentation with clothing and hair styles
  • being argumentative

Although these behaviors can be difficult for parents, caregivers, and educators to manage, they are considered normal behaviors for teenagers.

Abnormal Teenage Behavior

Because normal teenage behavior can quickly turn into abnormal teenage behavior, or behavior that can signal cause for concern, it is important to understand how to recognize that something more problematic might be going on. Some warning signs of teenage behavior problems include:

  • always blaming others for one's own actions - for example, refusing to take responsibility for poor school performance and blaming it on teachers
  • abusing alcohol and/or drugs
  • engaging in unlawful behavior
  • threatening others or oneself with harm
  • inability to sleep
  • persistent sadness for no apparent reason
  • excessive anxiety that prevents normal day-to-day functioning
  • abusive behavior towards others
  • sudden and complete withdrawal from previously liked activities and/or friends
  • extreme argumentativeness and defiance
  • running away
  • sudden changes in eating habits
  • sudden changes in academic performance

Mental Illnesses and Teens

There are a number of psychological conditions, or mental illnesses, that can affect teenagers, and any of the abnormal behaviors described above can be potential symptoms. Common mental conditions frequently seen in teenagers include:

  • Eating disorders - teenagers are under tremendous pressure to be thin. For some teens this can lead to the development of bulimia or anorexia, two common eating disorders.
  • Attention disorders - ADD and ADHD are two attention deficit disorders that can impact functioning and school performance.
  • Behavior disorders - extreme behavior and aggressiveness can be indicative of oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, or intermittent explosive disorder.
  • Substance abuse - the abuse of drugs and alcohol can of itself be a mental health condition or can occur when someone is trying to self-medicate.
  • Mood disorders - bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety are all examples of mood disorders.

If mental illness is suspected, it is best to seek medical attention promptly from licensed mental healthcare professionals.

Managing Teenage Behavior Problems

It is important to know how to recognize the warning signs of teenage behavior problems in order to determine how best to manage them. As mentioned previously, whenever a mental health issue is suspected, professional help should be enlisted. There are additional strategies that parents and caregivers can try to prevent behavior problems from escalating. Some suggested strategies to address problematic teenage behavior include:

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