Distinguishing Between Normal & Abnormal Adolescent Behavior

Just what qualifies as “troubled” when it comes to teens? After all, the teenage years can be full of turmoil, and teens in America have always given their parents grief. Since a certain degree of turmoil is par for the course during this developmental stage, how can you distinguish between normal teen angst and the more serious problems that befall troubled youth?

It’s a question that doesn’t lend itself to easy answers. Some teens will appear to be headed down a dark and dangerous path, only to suddenly and rather inexplicably pull themselves back from the brink. Some will attempt suicide and then carryon without a reoccurrence as if nothing had happened. And not all behavior that troubles adults is actually a sign that a teen is troubled.

There isn’t a clear and definitive boundary that separates the behavior of normal teens from that of troubled youth. It’s more of a gradient with a great deal of blending between the two. Each child’s struggles are unique, and so is the way they express them. That said, here are some guidelines to help you better discern where your own teen falls along this spectrum.

– General Behavior –

What’s normal for teens:

  • Suddenly loosing interest in certain “uncool” activities they used to enjoy
  • Experimenting with different identities or identity markers (Goth dress, purple hair, etc.)
  • Becoming more private and withdrawn from their family
  • Engaging in behavior that worries you but doesn’t worry others who know your teen
  • Occasionally breaking the rules or engaging in minor delinquent behavior
  • Engaging in behavior parents or other adults find irksome or unbecoming.

Signs of something more serious:

  • Losing all interest in activities or hobbies they previously enjoyed
  • Aggressive or violent behavior
  • Running away
  • Staying out overnight without notice or explanation
  • Partying or staying out late on school nights
  • Regularly skipping school/frequent unexcused absences
  • Getting into frequent problems at school
  • A sudden and dramatic slip in grades
  • Concerns from other adults outside the home (teachers, counselors, friends of family, etc.).


– Family Conflict –

Normal teen behavior:

  • Talks back more and fights with their parents at greater frequency
  • Wants little to do with siblings or family
  • Argues as a means of achieving their goals or pushing boundaries
  • May say “I hate you” during a moment of anger
  • Conflict is followed by some sort of reconciliation later.

Signs of something more serious:

  • Family conflict erupts into violence or physical aggression (coming to blows, throwing things, etc.)
  • Frequent arguments that seem to erupt over nothing
  • Conflict remains unresolved and the parties involved remain bitter towards one another
  • Arguments seeped in anger and which don’t seem concerned with advancing a teen’s interests.


– Drug & Alcohol Use –

Normal teen behavior:

  • Will experiment with drugs or alcohol
  • When teens do drink or get high, it’s typically with friends or while attending parties
  • Substance use is sporadic and infrequent.

Signs of something more serious:

  • Regular drug or alcohol use (weekly or more frequent)
  • Acts especially irresponsibly when using substances (meaning it seems as though they always manage to get themselves into trouble while drinking or using)
  • Using substances alone or as a means to dull pain
  • Drug or alcohol use that is escalating in frequency or amount consumed
  • Showing signs of drug or alcohol dependency (see our information on kids & drugs for signs & symptoms of addiction in teens)
  • Use of “heavy” substances such as heroin or cocaine.


– Moods & Emotions –

Normal teen behavior:

  • More frequent and severe mood swings
  • Acting more dramatic/treating seemingly minor setbacks as issues of life or death importance.

Signs of something more serious:

  • Seems to be “always angry” or “angry at the world”
  • Struggles to control their emotional responses
  • Extended stretches where their mood is in the gutter
  • Emotional outbursts are creating trouble (conflict with friends or family, etc.)


– Friends & Peers –

It’s normal for teens…

  • To have friends you disapprove of (and the more you disapprove, the more appealing these friends will seem)
  • To bully or gang up on another teen (though you should intervene is if you know this is happening)
  • To keep secrets and discuss taboo subjects.

Signs of something more serious:

  • Suddenly abandons all their old friends
  • Hanging out with a highly delinquent peer group
  • Has few or no friends that you know of
  • Is the target of consistent bullying
  • Displays antisocial behavior toward peers.

– Sex –

It’s normal for teens…

  • To view pornography (the average age of 1st viewing is now 8-years-old)
  • To discuss sex with friends
  • To have boyfriends or girlfriends
  • To experiment with sexual behavior with other people or while alone (the latter of which sometimes occurs in rather creative ways)
  • To be sexually active in a committed relationship
  • To engage in sexual attention-seeking behaviors
  • Dressing provocatively
  • Experiencing frequent crushes
  • Flirting with others, including adults.

Abnormal sexual behavior that could be signs of something more serious:

  • Promiscuity, which is defined as the frequent changing of partners and/or engaging in sex with little or no emotional connection. (As a case example, a 13-year-old girl who had the habit of sleeping with around a dozen different boys and men in any given month could be said to be sexually promiscuous.)
  • Excessive or obsessive pornography use (to the point that it disrupts normal functioning)
  • Sexual behavior that peers find out-of-bounds or disturbing
  • Animosity towards the opposite sex.


Each teen is unique, and so there is no specific formula or test that will help you definitively whether a teen has entered the danger zone. But the more a child’s behavior bends toward these concerning categories, the more likely you are to have a more serious problem on your hands.