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Learning About Typical Versus Problem Behaviour in Teens

What's the difference between typical and problem behaviour?

Teen behaviours can be confusing and frustrating for adults. But a lot of those behaviours are happening for a reason. Many teen behaviours are signs of growth toward adulthood.

Problem behaviour is often an extreme form of common or typical behaviours. Something might be a problem behaviour when it:

  • Causes more severe, long-term consequences. Examples might include damaging important relationships, getting into legal trouble, and failing in school.
  • Causes physical or emotional harm. The harm may be either to the teen themself or to people close to them.

What are some examples of typical versus problem behaviour?

Teenagers are going through intense physical, emotional, and mental changes. Here are some of the types of growth that happen in teens, with examples of behaviours you might see.

Remember, even if a behaviour is common in teens, it doesn't mean that you should allow or encourage it. Remind your teen of your rules. And talk with your teen about choices that have long-term consequences.

  • Forming their own identity. Teens are figuring out who they are and what they believe.
    • Typical teen behaviour might include:
      • Spending more time with friends and less time with family.
      • Spending more time in their room alone.
      • Trying out different personal styles (clothing, hair, makeup, etc.).
      • Trying out different hobbies or having shifting interests.
      • Experimenting with alcohol or drugs.
    • Signs of a problem might include:
      • Complete withdrawal from parents and family.
      • Forming a habit of using drugs or alcohol. Or a teen may show signs of a substance use disorder. These signs include things like having problems with school, work, or relationships because of drugs or alcohol.

    Talk with your teen about the risks of using drugs or alcohol. Drug and alcohol use can cause physical harm. And even experimental use is illegal for teens. Getting caught could have big legal consequences.

  • Showing more independence. Teens often start pushing away from their parents so they can start to make their own decisions about what they do and how they want to be.
    • Typical teen behaviour might include:
      • Testing boundaries and breaking rules.
      • Not wanting help from their parents.
      • Not wanting to share what's going on in their lives.
      • Rejecting things they enjoyed or cared about in childhood.
      • Having mood swings or arguing a lot.
    • Signs of a problem might include:
      • Running away from home.
      • Refusing to go to school, or skipping classes.
      • Having temper outbursts that become violent.
      • Being moody, anxious, or withdrawn beyond what seems typical for your teen. Or they may seem to feel sad or "down" more days than not.
      • Self-harming or talking about suicide. If this happens with your teen, get help from a counsellor. If it's an emergency or if your child is in a crisis, get help right away. Call 911 or a suicide crisis centre. Go to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention web page at http://suicideprevention.ca/need-help to find a suicide crisis prevention centre in your area.
  • Exploring closeness in relationships. Part of becoming an adult means learning how to have intimate relationships. These could be close friendships with intimate emotions. Or they might be romantic relationships with sexual intimacy.
    • Typical teen behaviour may include:
      • Having intense friendships.
      • Being very influenced by peers.
      • Focusing intensely on a "crush" or love interest.
      • Being more curious about sex and intimacy. Or teens may explore physical intimacy through dating and sex.
    • Signs of a problem might include:
      • A sudden change in peer group. This is especially true if the new group seems to be a negative influence.
      • Risky sexual behaviour. A teen may have unprotected sex or have many sex partners at the same time. Or they may have a string of sexual relationships that don't last long.
  • Adjusting to a changing body. The teen years are a time of lots of physical changes. It can take some time for your teen to get used to their maturing body.
    • Some typical behaviours may include:
      • Taking a long time to get ready to go out.
      • Being more focused on how they look and how others look.
      • Acting shy or self-conscious.
    • Signs of a problem might include:
      • Being very critical of their body or how they look.
      • Overeating regularly, restricting food, or purging.

Try to handle the common behaviours as best you can. Remind yourself that this phase won't last forever. Teens eventually become adults.

If you see problem behaviours, take them seriously and address them quickly. Get help from a doctor, counsellor, or other professional if needed.

Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.