Some experimentation and rebellion is normal. But would you know if your teenager was going down the wrong path?
Partying, staying up all night, experimenting with drink and possibly even drugs, answering back to parents… It’s all normal teenage behaviour, isn’t it?
We can all remember being that age — the frustration of wanting our independence, yearning to be different from our parents, trying out new things and taking risks.
But at what point does this behaviour become worrying? When is it a problem?
Over the years, studies have shown that teenage criminal behaviour typically starts at around the age of 13, and peaks when people are 17. In most cases it disappears completely after that, as older teenagers realise they must take responsibility for their actions.
Is risk-taking in teens’ DNA?
Clinical psychologist and author of The Supermum Myth, Doctor Rachel Andrew, says: ‘We expect most teenagers to show more risky behaviour and they’re more likely to come into conflict with their parents, teachers and other figures of authority.
‘This differs from teens who’ve had lifelong risk factors and who are more likely to end up in the criminal-justice system. But for most teenagers, it’s normal to engage in more risky behaviour.’
This might include trying alcohol, cigarettes or vaping, or even drugs.
Dr Andrew says this is because teens’ attitudes shift, and they begin to value their peer group’s opinions more than their parents’.
She adds: ‘A sense of survival kicks in, and teens evaluate the risk that they are engaging in within their peer group in a different way to adults. For example, a teenager offered a cigarette by friends would find it more risky to be a social outcast than thinking about the health implications of smoking.’
Who their peers are can make a huge differences to many teenagers’ lives, says Dr Andrew.
‘If your child is hanging out with positive peers, encourage this as much as you can,’ she says. ‘Likewise, if you find your child is with a negative peer group — although this can be hard to challenge — it’s worth talking to them about it.’
Is a bit of risk-taking and rebellion healthy?
It’s not all bad, says Dr Andrew.
‘Teenagers who engage in risks such as drinking, smoking or trying drugs are testing the boundaries and enjoying the moment,’ she says. ‘They want to be spontaneous and not rely on what parents or authority tell them about these risks. They want to try for themselves and challenge the status quo.
‘This is a key time for parents to renegotiate what is acceptable and what isn’t.’
What can you do if you are worried your child is going off the rails?
Dr Andrew says: ‘It’s important to talk and negotiate rather than going in too hard or being too strict. Often if you do so, your teenager will defy you even more. Or they might stop confiding in you altogether. As your child changes you need to rethink your parenting style.’
If you are worried about your teen and they are no longer confiding in you, there are some signs to look out for.
Signs to look out for
Dr Andrew says: ‘If your child is suddenly isolating himself from you and his friends, or if there’s a dramatic change in their mood or sleeping patterns, these can be signs of drug-taking or alcohol misuse. The trouble is, these can also simply be signs of adolescence.
‘Parents need to trust their own instincts about what is “normal” for their child and trust their intuition.’
The good news, though, is that most teenagers come out the other side.
‘There will be an end to it,’ Dr Andrew says. ‘There are positives to your teenager going through these changes — they learn to think for themselves, stand up for themselves and be independent adults. Most minor risky behaviour won’t cause them any long-term difficulties.’
What to do if your teenager is rebelling
• Assess your parenting style
If you’re usually authoritarian, this might not work with a teenager.
Keep communication open so your teen knows they can confide in you if they need to.
Draw up an agreement together of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.
• Check out their peers
Encourage positive, healthy friendships, and try to discuss negative peer groups with your teen.
• Remember you were a teen once
Many of us can remember challenging authority when we were teenagers!
• It will pass
Your child will ‘come back’ to you — hopefully as an independent young adult who can think for themselves.