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Is Your Adolescent Normal?

Local experts talk about typical and at-risk teen behaviors.

This past Sunday, I attended a great workshop entitled, “Raising Emotionally Healthy Adolescents.”

The panel was made up of three therapists, Geoff Genser, Marc Lehman, and Dan Weiner, as well as a pediatric neuropsychologist, Gary Isenberg, and Steve Boyle, a school counselor, coach, and founder of the 2-4-1 Sports Camp whose bumper stickers I see before me at every stop light in West Hartford. 

On the surface, listening to a bunch of psychologists talk about how annoying teenagers can be doesn’t sound like an ideal Sunday morning activity, but I work with teens and have one of my own, so I ditched Zumba and off I went.

Since I knew many of these guys by their excellent reputations, I expected them to be knowledgeable, but they were surprisingly engaging, funny, and down to earth as well. The teen brain was explained in terms everyone could understand.

The bottom line was that the teen brain is not fully developed, especially the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for processing information, planning and organization, self control, decision making, and prioritizing to name a few. I can personally attest to this because almost all of my students come to me for help in these areas.

The speakers presented the material in an “I feel your pain” way and gave explanations and guidelines for typical and atypical teen behaviors.

Typical behaviors include:

  • Occasional withdrawal from family activities
  • Easily frustrated and irrational at times
  • Showing more concern for friends than anyone else
  • Increase in opposition/defiance
  • “White” lies
  • Change in dress
  • Minor weight loss/change in diet

At-Risk behaviors include:

  • Erratic behavior that is potentially dangerous
  • Stealing/excessive lying
  • Aggression
  • Excessive isolation
  • Evidence of self harm
  • Significant weight loss
  • Significant change in friendships
  • Drug/alcohol use (beyond experimentation) *

I thought this list was very useful because many of us wonder where the line is between “normal” teen behaviors and excessive behaviors that may require professional intervention.

Teens today are faced with enormous educational, familial, and social pressures. The social pressures are similar to the ones we experienced as teens, which means kids are filled with just as much angst as ever. In addition, there is the overwhelming stress placed on getting into college, which can cause additional emotional turmoil within the family. Many kids are turning toward artificial means of coping with these pressures, such as drugs and alcohol and high-risk behaviors.

The speakers gave concrete tips on how to speak to your teen about this difficult topic:

  • Be absolutely clear with your kids that you don’t want them using drugs. Ever. Do not leave room for interpretation.
  • Be a better listener. Ask questions and encourage your teen to do the same. 
  • Give honest answers. Don’t make up what you don’t know. Instead, offer to find out. 
  • Look for opportunities to bring up the topic of drug use. TV reports, commercials, and school programs are good ways to do this.
  • Don’t react in a way that will cut off further discussion. Your teen may tell you something that may shock you. React calmly and turn the discussion toward the reasons people may use drugs and ask your teen if he or she thinks the consequences are worth the risk.*

As we know, the teen years can be challenging to say the least. We want to trust our kids to do the right thing but their brains are not fully developed; they have serious pressures and are in need of coping skills, and are at a time in their lives where they are striving for, yet often not prepared for, independence. 

I spoke with several parents after the workshop who thought they gained valuable information and insight about their kids. I agreed that it was well worth missing Zumba. 

* These lists and much of the information in this article was reproduced from the slide presentation prepared by the panelists of “Raising Emotionally Healthy Adolescents.”

About this column:  Sue Schaefer, M.A.T., M.ED., director and founder of Academic Coaching Associates, is an academic coach, student advocate, and certified teacher.  You may e-mail Sue at susan.schafer@academiccoachingct.com. You can also follow Sue on twitter: @sueschaefer1

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