Adolescence, those unmistakable years between childhood and adulthood, is famous for being one of the most challenging times of life for the teens themselves, for their parents, and for all the other adults they interact with. This is the developmental stage best known for pushing buttons and boundaries, so it’s no wonder that even the most attentive parents can be confused by what is normal and what is cause for concern.

Not since early childhood have these kids changed so quickly physically, emotionally and intellectually. Keeping up with all that change can be exhilarating and exhausting for everyone involved.

Some behaviors that are completely normal seem strange and annoying, while some concerning behaviors may be inappropriately dismissed as “just being a teenager,” explains Maria Droste therapist Dawnelle Tilden, MA, LPC, LAC.

Teens are learning to flex their independence muscle. They experiment with risk-taking as they try on adult behaviors, but the line between healthy risk and dangerous risk can get blurred. As teen hormones take on a life of their own and emotions run to extremes, many parents take a white-knuckled, grit-your-teeth-until-it’s-over approach. Some are too hands on, others not enough. How do you find the right balance?

For starters, says Tilden, “Let’s de-stigmatize adolescence.” For all its mystery, many adults seem to be able to sum up teenagers pretty quickly: they’re loud, unruly, disruptive, lazy, and inconsiderate… On the other hand, not all teens are jerks, and many feel the pressure to succeed. Getting into college requires advanced courses, flawless GPAs, and a slew of extra-curricular activities like sports, music and volunteering. The stakes are high, not just for acceptance into a good school, but for scholarships as well. Plenty of teens also have paying jobs.

Normal or troubling?

The difference between normal teenage behavior and a red flag is all about degrees, says Tilden. Here are some examples:

Normal: Your son is 30 minutes to an hour late coming home.
Red flag: Your son stays out all night.

Normal: Your daughter spends less time with the family because she stays up late and then sleeps until 2 in the afternoon.
Red flag: Your daughter stays away often without checking in, misses dinner regularly, and never brings friends home. When she is home, she has music in her ears and doesn’t engage with anyone in the family.

Normal: Your son sometimes yells and acts disrespectful when he disagrees with you.
Red flag: Your son never shows any respect and makes no effort to communicate.

Normal: Your daughter is overly explosive and emotional in reaction to a particular situation.
Red flag: Your daughter’s emotions are constantly intensified. She rarely or never comes to an even keel.

Tilden encourages parents to stay open. Teens may pull away and be less communicative, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want their parents’ support. “They often think their parents are too busy with work, other siblings, and home responsibilities. They don’t want to add to the stress so they don’t initiate conversation when they have a problem,” she says. Tilden, who is also Director of Substance Abuse in Cherry Creek Schools, understands that when teens are distant and uncommunicative, it can be draining for parents to make the effort to connect. Nevertheless, she advises, most teens want that connection even if they don’t show it.

“When kids are young, parents are all about the community of people enlisted to manage the logistics such as carpools, play dates, shared babysitting,” Tilden explains.  “As kids get older and more independent, that happens less and less. Parents stop talking to other parents and lose that support system.”

As teens take on more responsibilities, parents do lose out on some of that time they spent together. Teens drive and no longer depend on their parents for rides everywhere. Busy schedules can mean fewer meals together. Parents who encourage their teens to advocate for themselves may not discuss schoolwork as often.

“Parenting doesn’t stop just because your child is now an adolescent. While giving them greater independence is a necessary part of their development, it’s not okay to just leave them on their own to figure things out. Teens still need you,” says Tilden.

She offers these tips:

  • Keep communication open. You never know when your teen will take the opportunity to connect with you.
  • Create space for your teen to talk with you spontaneously. Just being in proximity in the car, making dinner, watching TV can give your teen an opening to bring up an issue, talk about something that’s happening, ask questions, or share feelings. Be sure to give him or her your full attention, and resist the urge to jump in and offer quick solutions or judgment.
  • Don’t shame yourself. Parents make mistakes at all stages, and the teen years are no different. Just learn from the situation and move forward.
  • If you have any concerns or questions, reach out to a professional. Many therapists at Maria Droste offer free consultations or initial phone calls.

If you are unsure whether your teen is heading for trouble and you want to speak to someone about what’s going on, contact Maria Droste’s Access Center at 303-867-4600 for information or to connect with a therapist.