It is not uncommon for parents to wonder whether their child is acting like a normal teenager or behaving differently due to mental illness, drug use or behavioural difficulties. Normal teenagers are often moody due to hormonal and physical changes that happen during puberty. However, when mental illness is involved, it may be difficult to differentiate “normal teenage behaviour” from the symptoms of depression, anxiety and other emotional difficulties.
Teenagers may be short-tempered and get angry easily, especially when they begin to naturally separate from the family and feel they do not have enough distance or privacy. The natural process of separation begins in early adolescence; this is when parents see that their child begins to be embarrassed by them and spends increasing amounts of time with friends and very little time with the family. You may be worried that your teenager spends hours on end on the computer or locked in his or her room chatting on the phone and gets defensive when asked what he or she is doing or who he or she is talking to. This type of behaviour is normal. Teenagers need to naturally separate in order to gain their independence in early adulthood and often react defensively in order to attain this goal. During this time, you should be able to see that even though your teenager may cringe at spending quality time with the family, he or she is still able to enjoy time with friends and engage in healthy social and extracurricular activities outside of the home. If you see that your teen is not engaging in other activities or with friends and is chronically disconnected, angry and sad, this is when the behaviour becomes abnormal and requires intervention.
Along with the teenage years comes drama. This is a phase of new experiences, and what may seem like a small affair to an adult may be a big deal for a teenager experiencing it for the first time. Teens may be distraught when they are having difficulty with girlfriends/boyfriends or when fighting with a friend, when they do not do well on a test or even for not having the right thing to wear to school one day. Teenagers are often oversensitive and self-conscious and have not developed adequate coping tools to appropriately deal with events such as these. Therefore you may notice that your teenager experiences episodes of sadness, anxiety, frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed. These episodes should not last more than a few days at most; if these feelings are continual and your teen is chronically anxious or sad, then you should speak to him or her about your concerns and consult your family doctor to see if there may be a more serious problem than normal teenage issues.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between symptoms of mental illness and normal problems that all teenagers experience from time to time. If you begin to worry that your teenager may be suffering in silence or acting in a way that is concerning, but not enough to call the doctor, you may want to talk to other parents or organizations to compare your teen’s behaviour to those of his or her peers.
Often as adults we compare our teen’s behaviour to that of our own at that age. This can be anxiety provoking for many parents due to the changes in today’s social norms. Teens these days are engaging in sex, drugs and alcohol at a much earlier age. If you find that your son or daughter is out of the norm, then you may have reason for concern and should contact your family doctor. Here are some things that you may observe in your teen that will help to decipher the difference between mental illness and normal teenage behaviour.
Some concerning behaviours
• Decrease in enjoyment and time spent with friends and family
• Significant decrease in school performance
• Strong resistance to attending school or absenteeism
• Problems with memory, attention or concentration
• Big changes in energy levels, eating or sleeping patterns
• Physical symptoms (stomach aches, headaches, backaches)
• Feelings of hopelessness, sadness, anxiety, crying often
• Frequent aggression, disobedience or lashing out verbally
• Excessive neglect of personal appearance or hygiene
• Substance abuse
• Dangerous or illegal thrill-seeking behaviour
• Is overly suspicious of others
• Sees or hears things that others do not