Is My Teen ‘Normal’ Crazy or Seriously Troubled?

Many teenagers go through a rebellious or irrational phase that is normal for their age. The difference between normal teen craziness and abnormal behavior is when the teenager falls behind his or her peers in multiple settings.

At a bare minimum, a normal teen should do the following:

  • Attend school, and do homework when they want to;
  • Have and keep a friend or friends their own age who also attend school;
  • Have a maturity level roughly the same as his or her peers;
  • Exercise self-control when he or she wants to;
  • Have basic survival instincts, avoiding harm to themselves, others, or property.

It is normal for teens to be inconsistent, irrational, insensitive, self-centered, and childish.

Yes it is. Don’t fret this too much. Screaming and defiance is normal; it’s like a toddler temper tantrum. Most teens grow out of this phase unless something else is holding them back.

This is your challenge:  troubled teens have the same difficult behaviors as normal ones. How do you tell which is which? When is mental health treatment necessary? Look for pervasive patterns of behavior that are serious in multiple settings. The patterns repeat and consequences worsen.

Signs of abnormal unsafe behavior
“Unsafe” means there’s a danger of harm to themselves or others, property loss or damage, running away, seeking high risk experiences (or easily lured into them), abusing substances, and being a victim or perpetrator of physical or emotional abuse.

  • If a troubled teenager does something unsafe, it is not on impulse or an experiment, but intentional and planned.
  • They have a history of intentional unsafe activities.
  • They have or seek the means to do unsafe activities.
  • They talk about or threaten unsafe activities.
  • Others notice there is something unsafe–your child’s friend comes forward; their teacher calls; other parents keep their children from your child; or someone checks to see if you’re aware of his or her behaviors. 

How psychologists measure behavioral severity
Behavioral severity is illustrated in textual descriptions and put on a spectrum of normal to abnormal. These are some examples of a range of behaviors in school, though behavior at home and in relationships are also measured. These are generalizations, but provide insight into severity and the need for mental health treatment.

School behaviors

Not serious
This child has occasional problems with a teacher or classmates that are eventually worked out, and usually don’t happen again.

Mildly serious
This child often disobeys school rules but doesn’t harm anyone or property. Compared with classmates, they are troublesome but not unusually badly behaved. They are intelligent, but don’t work hard enough to have better grades.

This child disobeys rules repeatedly, or skips school, or is known to disobey rules outside of school. They stand out as having chronic behavior problems compared to other students and their grades are always poor.

Very serious
This child cannot be in school or they are dangerous in school. They cannot follow rules or function in any class or gym. They threaten or hurt others or damage property. It is believed they will have a difficult future and end up in jail.

If your child’s behavior falls along the spectrum encompassing Serious to Very Serious, get good mental health treatment for them and spare them a difficult future. 

Trust your intuition.
If you’ve been searching for answers and selected this article to read, your suspicions are probably true. Most parents have good intuition about their child. If you’re looking for ways to “fix” or change your child… don’t waste your time. Frankly, think about changing how you relate to your child and changing your expectations. Admit you may need help for yourself.

Early treatment while your troubled teenager is young can prevent a lifetime of problems. Choose professionals who take the time to listen and understand your situation without judgment–a school counselor, doctor, therapist, or psychiatrist.

Margaret Puckette is a compassionate and experienced coach for parents of a child, teen, or young adult with a serious behavioral problem or addiction. She draws on years of personal experience as a parent, social worker, and support group leader. Her book and blog of the same title, “Raising troubled Kids,” offer practical and sound information on how to reduce stress at home and holistically improve family wellbeing.



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