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Is My Teenager in Trouble?

By Charles Hopkins Published 05/27/2007 | Parenting

Are you worried about your teen? It's easy to become paranoid about teenager behavior when teens become distant, independent or emotional (which is true of every teen). But when you think something serious is going on, what should you do?

WHAT IS 'NORMAL' BEHAVIOR?

Don't be surprised if your teen exhibits what seem to be personality changes - hormones, self-esteem and a growing sense of independence are all factors that may cause you to wonder where your little boy or girl went. However, many of these changes are perfectly normal. Knowing your teen and what's normal behavior for them personally will lessen your anxiety while also helping you to determine when bumps in the road to adulthood are more serious and require intervention.

One change that worries parents is when teens seem to shut off from family and focus all their attention on friends. Stronger ties with peers are common as a teen learns their place amongst their peer group and begins to identify with others of similar age and interests. Expect lots of talking, texting and hanging out at this age as your teen becomes part of a social circle that is outside of the family. Don't worry that your teen will be lost - strong communication skills, including listening as well as talking, and ensuring teens spend social time with the family will protect them from the negative pressures of peer groups.

It is also healthy for teens to begin desiring more independence which often shows up by balking at treatment that they feel is childish. It is often difficult for parents to remain objective about their children and failing to acknowledge the abilities and responsibility of your older child may be causing friction. However, setting of permissiveness limits is necessary since teens are not equipped with the instincts or experience of adults when making decisions.

You may also find your teen has become more confrontational than before. Are you missing your sweet and willing eight year old? Sorry, teens need to assert their independence and responding with appropriate levels permissiveness will help your teen develop their own tastes and sense of responsibility - so long as respect within the family is still enforced.

WHEN SHOULD YOU WORRY?

When teen behavior goes from typically troublesome to dangerous can be a fuzzy line unless you have kept the lines of communication open and are involved in your teen's day-to-day life.

While stress, peer pressure and puberty will at times cause your teen to act distant, defiant or emotional, sudden changes or extreme behavior are the clearest signs of real trouble.

If your teen goes from being typically happy to becoming sullen, withdrawn and moody most of the time it could be a sign that your child is struggling and needs your help - addictions, depression or bullying are potential causes of this extreme change. Friends who isolate your teen and restrict access to other peer and family relationships can also be a sign your teen is being dangerously controlled. A sudden drop in school grades, abandoning sports or other activities they previously loved or a change in friends should alert you to potential problems.

When you suspect something's wrong your best action is to talk to your teen. Try to rebuild lost lines of communication by spending time one on one with your teen in a non-threatening situation such as watching TV, taking a drive or going grocery shopping. Resist the urge to demand explanations or blame your teen's friends since that will only cause your teen to feel defensive.

When answers are not forthcoming assure your teen that you want to listen when they're ready. Offer plenty of opportunities for them to talk. If what your teen tells you fills you with anger try to stay calm. Imagine how you would expect a teacher, therapist or adult friend to react to the news and try to stay focused on helping your child rather than judging them which may lead to your teen closing up.

If your attempts to find out what's bothering your teen seem futile or you are aware of serious problems such as alcohol, drug abuse, suicidal thoughts or sexual activity you should consider asking your child's doctor for advice - possibly even arranging a private visit for your teen to talk to a responsible adult when they won't talk with you.

Even self assured teens with close relationships with their parents and no school problems can find themselves dealing with situations they just can't get out of by themselves. Watching for warning signs and talking and spending time with your teen on a regular basis will be your biggest assets to helping your teen get through these difficult years.