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Don't Worry—Your Teen Is Probably Normal

Several times in the last couple of years, parents have asked for a conference with me. I am always happy to meet with parents, because I see myself as a partner with them to help take care of their child. What these parents really wanted to know was whether the things they were seeing happen with their child were normal. Developmental psychology textbooks don’t really answer the specific questions they asked. The books explain that the teen years are when children begin the process of turning from children into adults, but they often fail to tell you what to expect in terms of family dynamics.

Here are some FAQs about adolescents in middle and high school.

Is it normal that my child doesn’t want to spend time with the family? Your child wants to be independent from you. Every chance he gets, he will isolate himself in his bedroom and play video games, watch television, text friends, or do a myriad of other things that don’t include the rest of the family. The truth is, he still needs you desperately. Physically, he looks like an adult, but he is still a child in many ways.

Why does my child argue with just about everything I say?
This is again part of the process of changing from a child into an adult. She wants to make all her decisions for herself. She is old enough to find herself in situations that can be dangerous for her, yet her brain is not fully developed in order to make the best choices. Arguing with you is her way of letting you know she wants you to see her as an adult. You will have fewer arguments if you allow her to make choices when the consequences for those choices is not too great. (See Adolescents Should Solve Most of Their Problems Themselves for some ideas.) You must stay involved, however, and help her to make the right decisions when the consequences could harm her. Raising teens is hard work! 

Is it normal that my child stays up really late and doesn’t want to get up for school?
The normal sleep patterns for teens shifts later into the night. They frequently stay up past midnight and are sleepy in their morning classes at school. This sleep pattern is perfectly normal. You should encourage her to get to bed earlier, but she may not be able to go to sleep right away. There has been discussion about whether school should start later in the day for adolescents. There are, however, a number of reasons for keeping it the way it is. The current schedule more closely mirrors parents’ work hours, and after school activities like sports and music practice would go too late into the evening hours if school started later. 

My child carries everything he owns in his book bag and doesn’t use his locker. He also forgets to do all his homework. Is that normal?
The part of the brain that governs planning ahead and time management does not fully develop until the early or middle twenties. It is very normal that teens find it easiest to take everything with them rather than to figure out what they can leave in their locker and pick up later in the day. Some teens have a very difficult time with this. (See Executive Functioning—How It Affects a Student in School.)

If you wonder whether your son or daughter is behaving in an unusual way, talk to other parents who have children the same age. It is sometimes hard to tell whether they are behaving like teenagers or whether there is really something bothering them. Talk to them every day, ask good questions, and stay involved despite their desire for you to leave them alone. Once they leave home, they will appreciate that you were always there for them! In the meantime, tell them how much you love them and keep trying to include them in all family activities.

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