Troubled teens: what’s normal, what’s not

Teenagers go through a lot of physical, emotional and mental changes in adolescence.

It might help to know that most of these changes are normal. Physical changes happen because your child is going through puberty. Social and emotional changes happen because your child is exploring independence and identity. And your child’s thinking changes because of the way the teenage brain is remodelled during these years.

Although these changes can sometimes be challenging, they’re an important part of your child’s development towards young adulthood.

Changes in behaviour and attitudes: what to expect
You might get some disrespect and rudeness from your child. Some children, especially those with older siblings, might start to show this kind of ‘teenage attitude’ when they’re around 10 years old. Others will develop it around 15 years, or even later. Some seem to skip this stage altogether.

Your child might seem to make some impulsive, emotional decisions without thinking through the consequences.

You might notice that your child wants to go out whenever he wants, or doesn’t want to share information with you. He might also want more privacy, not communicate with you as much as he used to, and spend a lot more time on his appearance, clothes and hair.

Your child might be less interested in past hobbies, sports or family activities, and less motivated to do homework.

Your child could be very concerned about what her friends think, what they want to do and what they have. It’s normal for your child to be more influenced by her friends’ opinions. She might want to be connected with her friends constantly via phone, texts and social media.

And your child might start showing an interest in romantic relationships and sex – for example, kissing and fondling. He might also experiment with alcohol or smoking or behaviour that breaks the law – for example, stealing.

If you think back to your own teenage years, you might remember going through some of these changing feelings and experiences yourself.

As the parent of a teenager, part of your job is to ‘let go’ and shift more responsibility to your child. But it’s normal to worry. You can take some of the worry out of things by staying connected to your childsupporting your child’s growing independence and helping your child find activities and interests that build his confidence and resilience.

Early signs of trouble

Seeking new experiences is a normal part of growing up, and some teenagers do it more than others. But sometimes this kind of behaviour can put your child at risk and be an early sign of trouble.

For example, you might be concerned if you notice your child:

  • skipping classes, or whole days of school, training or work, or getting lower results than usual and starting to fail subjects at school
  • being rude and aggressive towards parents, teachers or other adults or family members
  • not coming home at agreed times, staying out all night, or even running away from home
  • showing signs of drinking or taking drugs
  • getting caught up with peers who seek thrills that lead to risk
  • having unprotected sex
  • withdrawing from family and friends and spending all day and night in the bedroom or online.

If you act now, it can help your child get back on track. This doesn’t necessarily mean coming down heavier on your child. It might mean trying to step back, be calm, talk together and be clear on how to handle the situation. It might also mean seeking help for your child and yourself.

What to do about early signs of trouble

If you think your child is showing some early signs of trouble, your child needs to hear that you’re concerned about her behaviour. But if you want your child to listen to your concerns, you need to stay calm and listen to her point of view too. If you think you might find this hard, you could ask another trusted adult, like a family member or friend, to start the conversation for you.

Here are some other things you can do to get in early and stop things getting worse:

  • Look at whether your parenting approach and the discipline strategies you’re using are fair, firm and consistent.
  • Discuss and negotiate rules and limits with your child, as well as consequences for breaking them. Follow through with consequences when your child breaks the rules you’ve agreed on together. Let ‘natural’ consequences come from other sources as well – like school, police or others.
  • If you can, talk about the issues with your child’s other parent or carer. If you can come up with limits that you both agree on and can be consistent about, you’re more likely to see some changes in your child’s behaviour.
  • Notice when your child is doing something well and talk to him about the positive effects for him – for example, ‘You seem so much happier when you’ve had a good night’s sleep at home in your own bed’.
  • Think about ways to reconnect or be more connected to your child. One way to do this is by spending some fun, relaxing time together.
  • Get advice from youth and family counselling services or your child’s school. Work with the school to manage your child’s behaviour, and also encourage your child to seek help from school counsellors or other sources like Teens Helpline.
  • Focus on being a role model for your child. In your own behaviour, you can show your child how to find positive solutions to problems, look after your own wellbeing, and get outside help when you need it.

And no matter what, tell your child that you love her – it’s her behaviour that you don’t like.

Talking to other parents can be a good way to find out whether your child’s behaviour is much the same as other children’s. Other parents can also give you support and helpful suggestions.

Troubled teens: serious behaviour concerns

The early signs of trouble listed above might develop into behaviour that’s a serious cause for concern. This kind of behaviour includes:

  • not going to school, sport, training or work at all
  • spending a lot of time hanging out in public places, rarely being at home and not having a regular place to stay
  • being highly agitated or irritable, or showing signs of mental health issues – for example, severe depression, paranoia, extreme irrationality, seeing things that aren’t there, or extreme social isolation or withdrawal
  • having very poor hygiene, health or appearance
  • hanging around with young people or adults who use illicit drugs or who have significant criminal histories, or getting into trouble with the police
  • showing the signs of regular or daily drug use – for example, withdrawal symptoms, or needing lots of money for no reason
  • having lots of unprotected sex and risking teenage pregnancy or getting sexually transmitted infections.

If your child is in trouble, it’s natural to feel that it’s your fault. But lots of things play a role in how your child goes in life – personality, psychological health, friends and your community. As your child gets older, he has to take more responsibility for his own decisions too.

Helping seriously troubled teens

You might find you have to change your hopes and expectations for your child – for the time being, at least – while you work on your child’s behaviour. Being realistic right now and aiming for small positive changes over time can take the pressure off. You might also need to work out your own limits and the level of support you can give your child.

Keep going with the strategies mentioned above, but also look into professional help. You could start by talking to your GP, your child’s school counsellor, teacher or other school staff. GPs and other health professionals can suggest strategies and give advice.

It’s important to keep an eye on younger siblings who might be affected by your troubled child’s behaviour, or by any conflict that’s happening in your home.

Where to go for help with troubled teens

Young people tend not to seek help from doctors or formal services. They often prefer to talk to friends, or maybe a trusted adult. They also look for information on the internet.

You can still encourage your child to seek help and give her information about where to go – for example, you could suggest some some websites or people your child could talk to if she doesn’t want to talk to you. Options might include aunts or uncles, close family friends, a school counsellor or religious leader, your GP or the Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.

You might find it useful to seek help yourself – for example, you can get information and advice from an organisation, or support from other parents or friends who have been through something similar. They might understand and have ideas and hopes to share.

Our guide to relationship services for teenagers and their families lists organisations and agencies that can help you and your child.

For information about youth and family relationship counselling and adolescent mediation and family therapy services near you, you can call:

If you’re worried about a serious issue, like alcohol or other drug use, unprotected sex or your child’s mental health and wellbeing, you must act. If you think your child is in immediate danger of hurting himself or somebody else, call 000 or take him to the emergency department of your nearest hospital.