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  • J. Joseph Fanska

Typical vs. Atypical Adolescent Behaviors

Adolescence is a challenging time for many teenagers (and their parents)! Teens are living in a much different world than they were when I was their age. Parents often ask me which behaviors are fairly “normal” during the teen years versus the behaviors that are more of a cause for concern.

Let’s start with the typical or “normal” behaviors.

  • Increased moodiness and mood lability. The hormones are wild during the teen years. Teenagers may display very unpredictable shifts in moods on a daily basis. We have all been there, and we survived!

  • Experimentation with substances and sexual behaviors. Most teens are operating on what DBT mindfulness refers to as the “Emotional Mind.” This means that they will often do things without thinking of the potential consequences. Their emotions drive their behaviors more than rational thoughts. It is common to thrill-seek and experiment with risky behaviors, especially if the teen’s peer group already engages in such behaviors.

  • Difficulty making decisions and increased anxiety. Anxiety is one of the most common problems for today’s youth. Their brains have trouble differentiating real threats in the environment from perceived or imagined threats. The sympathetic nervous system is often in high gear during the teen years. When that fight-flight-freeze system activates, anxiety skyrockets, leading teenagers to be more susceptible to increased cortisol and sometimes reckless decisions.

And now for some of the more concerning behaviors.

  • Intense and painful mood swings, lasting for several hours. Major depressive episodes and frequent withdrawal and isolation (more than typical). Preoccupation with suicidal thoughts and self-injurious behaviors.

  • Substance abuse, significant changes in sleep, appetite, and weight. Selling drugs and hanging around with substance-using peer groups. School and legal consequences. Increased lying and deceitful behaviors.

  • Inability to make simple decisions. Significant changes in communication with family. Drop in grades and lack of interest in activities previously seen as enjoyable.

Remember that teenagers are often doing the best they can with what they are capable of during this stage in development. We know that the final parts of the brain to develop are the areas of complex decision-making, impulse inhibition, and advanced cognitive functioning. If you have serious concerns about your adolescent, please reach out for support.


B y: Joseph Fanska

LPC, C-DBT

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