The transition from childhood to adulthood can be challenging, and young people today face unprecedented obstacles from academic pressures to social media complexities. A CDC report notes that depression, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts rose 40% among preteens and teens between 2010 and 2020.

When caring for teens, it can be difficult to distinguish between normal teenage behavior and signs of trouble. How do we differentiate between the two, and more importantly, how can we support troubled teens during these formative years?

In this article, we explore typical versus troubled teen behaviors and strategies to help troubled teens. With knowledge and understanding, parents and guardians can support their teens during these critical years.

Understanding Teen Behavior

During adolescence, significant changes occur in the brain. The prefrontal cortex, the rational part, is responsible for decision-making and controlling emotions and isn’t fully mature until their mid-20s. Instead, teens often rely on the amygdala— linked to emotions and impulses that can lead to emotional decision-making.

Hormonal shifts during adolescence can also amplify feelings of impulsiveness and rebelliousness. During this hormonal surge, teenagers might misinterpret emotions or act out, even though they crave parental understanding and support.

Recognizing these impactful brain and body changes can help parents navigate these challenging years with empathy and patience. Understanding what is occurring in your teen’s life may help you better understand them—and recognize when something more troubling is happening.

Differences Between Teen and Troubled Teen Behavior

Common teenage behavior can include mood swings, defiance, and other undesirable behaviors. Although less than pleasant, these actions are often normal as teens explore their independence and test boundaries.

However, if these behaviors become more extreme, it might indicate a deeper issue. Here are a few typical behaviors that can become more serious.

Mood swings

Mood swings are common during adolescence as teens navigate emotional and physical changes. It’s common for teens to feel happy one moment and angry the next. But if these mood swings become more frequent and intense, it could signify something more. If your teen expresses extreme sadness, hopelessness, or irritability, it could be a sign of depression.

Social withdrawal

Teenagers often need more alone time than younger children, and it’s common for teens to withdraw periodically as they process life changes. But if your teen isolates from family and friends over a long period or avoids activities they used to love, it could be a sign of depression or anxiety.

Changes in appearance

Teenagers normally experiment with their appearance as they explore their identity or fit in with friends. However, sudden changes in appearance, such as poor hygiene, drastic changes in weight or hairstyle, or wearing inappropriate clothes for the season, may be signs of eating disorders or depression.

Increased conflict or rebelliousness

It’s common for teens to have moments of rebellious feelings or defiant behaviors as they assert their independence. But dramatic changes in behavior, such as extreme defiance, aggression, or anger, could be a sign of a deeper issue.

Peer group changes

Teenagers often want to spend time with friends, and it’s not uncommon for friend groups to change over time. However, if your teen suddenly hangs out with a new group or spends less time with long-term friends, they might be experiencing unhealthy peer pressure. It may indicate depression, anxiety, or even substance abuse.

Experimenting with drugs or alcohol

Risk-taking is a normal part of adolescent development, but if your teen is engaging in behaviors such as drinking, drug use, or unsafe sex, it could be a sign of a deeper issue. These red-flag behaviors should be taken seriously and addressed immediately.

How to Help Troubled Teens: 5 Practical Tips for Parents

If you suspect your teen is struggling, acting immediately is important. Knowing how to help troubled teens can be challenging, so we’ve gathered five practical tips to help you get started.

1.   Recognize signs of depression

Be on the lookout for both the subtle and obvious signs of depression in teens. These signs might appear as:

  • Academic struggles: A noticeable decline in school attendance or grades could indicate depression-induced fatigue or lack of focus.
  • Talking about or plans of running away: This is often a cry for help, a sign that your child is distressed.
  • Substance misuse: Your teen might use drugs or alcohol to cope with depression.
  • Decreased self-worth: Feelings of failure, shame, and sensitivity to criticism are often associated with depression.
  • Technology dependence: Teens are increasingly dependent on smartphones, but excessive use may worsen symptoms of depression.
  • Risky behaviors: Look for actions like reckless driving or binge drinking, which may indicate deeper emotional distress.
  • Aggressive tendencies: Depression can manifest in violent behaviors or outbursts, particularly in males.

Recognizing these behaviors early can help you better support and guide your teen through their challenges.

2.   Help your teen create balance in their life

A structured routine is essential for a teen’s well-being, even if they resist. Help your teen create balance in their days to ensure adequate nutrition, exercise, and sleep. A good place to begin is with consistent mealtimes. Shared breakfasts and dinners provide security and moments to connect.

Monitoring teen screen time is also crucial given the links between excessive smartphone usage and diminished mental well-being. Studies show that replacing 60 minutes of screen time with physical activity or sleep can significantly improve mental health. Encouraging sports and outdoor activities can help adolescents reduce stress and enhance physical fitness.

Sleep is essential for teenagers, as it helps them recharge and stay focused. Teens should aim to get at least eight hours of sleep every night.

3.   Take time to connect with your teen

Even if your teen seems distant or irritable, they still seek your love and support. Strengthen your bond by spending relaxed quality time together. Enjoy simple moments, like having meals without any tech distractions. Engage in shared interests, such as a favorite show or an outdoor adventure.

Remember, when they choose to open up, listening is crucial. Prioritize understanding them over jumping to judgment or giving advice. Your teen might not always want to talk, but by showing you’re consistently available and patient, even amidst occasional rejections, you can create deeper connections.

4.   Create a plan to handle anger

Creating a plan to manage anger and frustration when communicating with your teen is essential. Practice deep breathing, count to 10, or take a break to cool off until you can approach the situation with empathy. It’s also helpful to give your teen a place and the space to cool off.

When you’re able to have an open dialogue, consider the situation from their perspective. There may be external pressures affecting their behavior, such as recent breakups or difficulties with friends. Understanding the root causes of their anger can help them better manage it in the future.

To maintain a healthy emotional environment, establish clear boundaries and consequences for disrespectful and violent behavior. Help your teen identify their anger triggers and provide healthy outlets like exercise, art, or writing. If your teen’s behavior becomes dangerous or unmanageable, don’t hesitate to reach out to professionals who know how to help troubled teens.

5.   Don’t forget to take care of yourself

Self-care is essential for parents of troubled teens and at-risk youth. Ensure you prioritize your well-being by getting ample sleep, engaging in regular exercise, and maintaining a balanced diet. Lean on the support of friends, family, or even a therapist.

It’s important not to take your teen’s troubles personally. Their behavior doesn’t define your skills as a parent. And remember—you aren’t alone. Many parents are experiencing similar situations. Don’t hesitate to connect with them and professionals who can guide you.

When to Seek Professional Help with Troubled Teens

The best way to help your troubled teen is to recognize when to seek help from a professional. Some concerning signs indicating immediate professional intervention include:

  • Indications of depression
  • Drug usage
  • A sudden shift in friend groups, especially toward illicit activities
  • Eating disorders
  • Unexpected anger outbursts

If your teen’s actions involve the law, display aggressive behavior, or hint at severe personality disorders, it could denote deeper problems requiring intensive treatment or youth counseling.

If you’re concerned and struggling to know how to help troubled teens, talk to your teen’s doctor about an assessment and possible recommendations. There are professional therapists and treatment centers ready to help troubled teens. Help is also available from many youth counseling resources, often just by calling.

Get Caring, Expert Help with Troubled Teens at Rawhide

The journey through adolescence is complex, both for teens and their parents. Discerning between normal growing pains and deeper issues can be challenging. However, early recognition and timely intervention can be pivotal.

If you need help with troubled teens, know that you’re not alone. At Rawhide, it’s our mission to give your teen guidance and give you peace of mind. Reach out to Rawhide today to schedule an appointment and discover how we can support your family’s journey toward healing and understanding.