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Dangerous games, failing grades, drug and alcohol abuse, habitual rebellious behavior, and in the worst case, teenage suicide, are all examples of “warning signs” that a “tween” or adolescent are in trouble, and that their behavior is not normal as compared to what is considered expected for a teenager. The old adage that “kids will be kids” can be a dangerous assumption if one does not fully understand what is considered “normal” versus abnormal behavior when considering a middle or high school-aged boy or girl. As psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts, we speak of the typical processes of separation and individuation as children and adolescents alike consciously and unconsciously attempt to separate themselves and be psychologically independent from their adult counterparts by acting and doing things differently in efforts to feel less dependent and more grown up, but the degree and extent to which course might take must consider individual differences based on both the personality and particular conflicts each child and adolescent endures.
Another important consideration is that by definition, adolescents tend to feel normally invincible and their judgment tends to be commonly inconsistent based on the influences of strong feelings of aggression and sexuality which puts great stress on their consciousnesses. Coupled with peer influences, pressure to do well in school, and a more or less self-centered view of the world based on their general sense of vulnerability, decisions are often half thought through and mistakes happen from time to time. When this happens, most “good” parents set limits and the behaviors calm down, until the next periodic time of “not thinking” occurs. However, occasional poor judgment is far different than consistent investments in self-compromising behaviors which tend to place this group of children into frequent states of peril. When this happens, we see these choices as symptoms of something much larger inside of the adolescent causing disturbance and subsequent maladaptive behaviors.
Exactly what is going on inside of these particular children needs more investigation to determine for example as whether or not they are depressed, going through a rough developmental period, or withstanding an even more debilitating personality disturbance. However, it takes an invested parent who is observing their child on a daily basis and who has some sense of what is considered normal or not, to make the determination as to whether or not their child needs help.
In most cases, when parents find that their child is going down a less than optimal pathway, they intervene and talk with their child and then if there is a lack of change, they get them some help. This is why most adolescents are not either depressed or failing out of high school. Parents however, need to constantly be on alert as to how their child is managing his or her lives during these critical years. We all know that most adolescents do not talk openly to their parents for those same reasons of wanting to be “on their own”, but their behaviors usually speak loud and clear as to how they are really feeling about life and themselves. Very few children who are really suffering have a lack of presently symptoms that can be identified by anyone outside of the boy or girl who has the knowledge of normality versus abnormality and pay attention to their children. Symptoms are basically anything that is evidence of something self-compromising to a child or adolescent, but the top most common ones are as follows:
Limits placed on these issues by parents help children in elevating their self-esteem and subsequently helps them better manage their feelings which at this stage feel out of their control. When a parent helps, these noted symptoms often subside, and the risk of their actions intensifying lessen. However if a parent fails to identify such problems and fail to get them some help if their best efforts fall short, their child will continue to suffer and their problems may intensify leading to some sort of crisis which can then hurt the entire family.
Resources can be obtained by contacting your child’s primary care physician or by calling your insurance company and asking for a list of approved professionals.
Dr. Keith Kanner is a Licensed and Board Certified Clinical Child, Adolescent, and Adult Psychologist and Psychoanalyst. In addition to a full-time private practice in Rancho Santa Fe, California, he is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of California San Diego where he teaches both human development and also trains medical students how to better understand and relate to their patients. He also serves as the Director of Clinical Counseling for La Jolla Country Day School in La Jolla, California, and is a Clinical Professor at The San Diego Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. Dr. Kanner also sits on the National Board of Directors for Kids Korps USA, which is the largest organization in the country that teaches children and adolescents the importance of volunteering to help the community at large. As a father of three children, he is also a dedicated baseball, football, and soccer coach.