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What’s “Normal” Behavior? A Checklist for Parents

By Robin Moss

Director of Therapeutic Programs

Robin Moss is a Tennessee state Licensed Clinical Social Worker with more than 25 years experience working with children, youth, and families. Robin completed her graduate studies at Washington University’s top ranked George Warren Brown School of Social Work in St. Louis in 1998. Robin has many years of experience providing therapeutic services, along with advocacy, program development, and supervision in nonprofit settings. Robin began her work at Bethel Bible Village in February 2008 and was promoted to her position as Director of Therapeutic Programs in June of 2012. She and her husband, Jon, have two daughters.

“Is my teen normal?” It’s a question we often hear from parents.

Many parents struggle to understand which behaviors are “typical,” and which ones are cause for concern. While there is no real “normal,” there are some behaviors that are fairly typical and some that are red flags that may signal a need for help.

This check-list can help you figure out if you have reason to be concerned.

1. Sense of Self

All teens may struggle to figure out who they are and ultimately develop a sense of self. They can at times feel intensely inadequate and their self-esteem may suffer. You may wonder what happened to your confident, self-assured child.  If you answer “yes” to these questions, your teen may be dealing with a more serious problem:

  • Is your teen excessively withdrawn, seeking isolation, or not interacting with family and friends?
  • Does he/she not enjoy activities anymore?
  • Does it seem like social situations create a great deal of anxiety or negative emotions for your teen?
  • Does your teen often seem down or depressed?

2. Mood

All teens display some level moodiness, irritability and frustration. It can be hard to determine what moods and behaviors are cause for concern.

If you answer “yes” to these questions, your teen’s behavior is beyond what’s considered typical:

  • Does your teen’s mood swing rapidly without apparent reason?
  • Does your teen’s mood interfere with life functioning?
  • Has there been a sudden decline in grades or withdrawal from activities or peer group?
  • Does it endanger other people?
  • Any threats of self-harm or suicidal thoughts?

3. Boundary Testing

This is a time when teens start to understand that you, as a parent, are not perfect. This may also be a time of testing boundaries, rudeness, anger, disrespect, and even defiance. Ultimately, this does not have to be a bad thing, but they do need to find that balance of understanding your imperfections and respecting your authority.

If you answer “yes” to these questions, your teen’s behavior is beyond what’s considered typical:

  • Do you and your teen engage in loud and aggressive arguments?
  • Does your teen become physically aggressive toward people or property, causing harm or property destruction?
  • Do they have disregard for other’s needs and household rules that upset the household?

4. Response to Stress

Teenagers tend to regress emotionally and struggle to “use their words”, rather than reverting to seemingly childish responses to life stresses. And yes, teenagers do sometimes have temper tantrums.

If you answer “yes” to these questions, your teen’s behavior is beyond what’s considered typical:

  • Does this behavior exceed occasional door slamming or verbal aggression?
  •  Does it take a long time to settle when frustrated? Do these responses interfere with peer and family relationships and life activities?

5. Impulsivity

While the ability to reason and think abstractly does develop during this time, teenagers often think in the moment, want immediate gratification, and make impulsive decisions, which may not be in their best interest.

This is typical and happens because the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that deals with impulse control and decision making, is not yet fully developed in the teen years. This is also a time when teenagers do not always display insight into how their behaviors impact others, also due to the not-yet fully developed frontal lobe. If you answer “yes” to these questions, your teen’s behavior is beyond what’s considered typical:

  • Is your teen making decisions that are unsafe and detrimental to health or life?
  • Are you concerned about drugs, alcohol, or overly sexualized behavior?
  • Do negative decisions your teen makes seem more extreme than other teens and detrimental to daily functioning?
  • Does there seem to be a lack of regard that impacts others negatively?

6. Conformity and Autonomy

Teenagers push back against rules and conformity to those rules, while also trying desperately to fit in with peers. They may reject traditional institutions and seek to protest “unfair” ideas or rules, but not fully understand what the long term goal of these protests are. They may also find a group or clique, develop a whole new group of friends, or even struggle to find their place with peers.

If you answer “yes” to these questions, your teen’s behavior is beyond what’s considered typical:

  • Are you concerned about the friends your teen chooses?
  • Are you concerned about the influence others have on your teen?
  • Are you concerned that your teen may be harming others?
  • Is it possible that your teen is being bullied and struggling to work through it?
  • Does your teen rebel against authority even if it is just and fair, just because they think all authority is problematic?

7. Relationships and Sex

As they develop in so many other ways, teens also develop sexually. Physically, they are transitioning from childhood to adulthood, but like every other area it is a time of transition, and they are not comfortable with the changes yet. This can be a time of poor decision making relationally and sexually. It can be uncomfortable, but they really need trusted adults to speak truth and love into this area of their lives.

If you answer “yes” to this question, your teen’s behavior is beyond what’s considered typical:

  • Is your teen making poor decisions relationally and sexually that you fear will have lasting detrimental effects?

Finding Help

If you’ve answered “yes” to any section, start by talking to your teen’s doctor, who can help you determine the right actions.  It may be prayer and bible study, a parenting class, biblical family or individual counseling, medication management, or even seeking a residential program.

Finally, no matter the struggle, our children need to know that we love them, and Jesus loves them. It is important to practice grace while providing structure and safety in raising children and teens.

Would you like more information Bethel’s help for teens in crisis?  Send us an email or call 423.842-5757.


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