One of the most common statements I hear from parents is, “I don’t know what is “normal” teenage behavior and what I should be concerned about.”

 

There is a lot going on in the world right now around the word “normal” if you haven’t noticed. I would argue that humanity itself is in its adolescence and we are all trying very hard to work some big issues out with each other! Let’s maybe start with a super simple look at the term “normal”

 

“Normal” is what a culture deems as status quo. Something expected. In The United States of America we have “norms.” Within the great state of Texas we have “norms.” The Greater Houston Area has “norms” and then our various subdivisions have “norms.”

This article explains how perception can influence the way you see the world. Your perspective verses another's perspective on the world can be completely different.

If we dig even deeper, each family has “norms.” For instance, in some families, it is perfectly “normal” to leave the bathroom door open while your partner, sibling, etc is walking around the house. In other families, the norm is to ALWAYS close the bathroom door and KNOCK before entering a shared space.

 

Neither norm is right, wrong or “unnormal.” It is just simply what is commonly practiced and accepted within that family structure.

 

Humans naturally categorize and label in order to help us assimilate new and different information. Teens have an inherently strong biological pension for labelling (i.e. jocks, goth, preppy, hipster, etc…I’m probably way behind on current lingo here) because their brains are growing at such an alarming rate they HAVE to categorize in order to make sense of so much new information! They are typically asking themselves hundreds of times each day “what is normal?”

A man in a pink-and-blue striped shirt and Africa necklace stands before a graffitied wall

There is NO SHAME in parents being curious about this question! It is a tumultuous time in which the same mood swings, irritability, odd appetite and sleep patterns in a regular growing adolescent, can also look eerily similar to drug use, depression, and anxiety.

 

Teens see the word “normal” as some mythical measuring stick they can’t ever seem to figure out. They don’t feel normal (because their bodies and brains are going bonkers on them and the world is getting bigger by the second!) When parents throw the term around it can further aggravate a frustrating matter.

 

A useful exercise I have used in family sessions has been to have a honest talk about that specific word and what comes up for everyone in the family around it. What are each person’s initial thoughts when that word is used? What assumptions is everyone making when different members of the family throw it around? Can anyone be more specific about what they mean when they say “normal?”

 

“Normal” is a pretty general description to put it mildly. A solution is to get more specific. The only way to do that is to ask questions and be curious about what the other person is picturing. Then, DON’T JUDGE THEM! Sit with their answer, continue being curious about it. Talk about what you picture, but don’t proclaim your version of “normal” is the “right” version.

"Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly." - Morticia

A lot of family communication can be cleared up by acknowledging the assumptions we are making when we use general terms like the one expressed above. Spend some time thinking about the “norms” you had when you were growing up. Which ones have you carried over into your family now? Which ones did you decide to change or toss out? What caused you to make that decision or change? Could your teen be further evolving the norms in your family? Could they just be experimenting with identity and exploring the vast possibilities of what “normal” means to them? Go ask them!

 

Stay curious my friend.

 

Feel free to read my bio on the website to get the “professional” introduction of myself, but in case I need a little more credibility, here’s the reason I love working with teens, young adults, and their families:

 

I had a professor tell the class once that people in the helping profession typically choose a population they like to work with based on where their psychic energy stopped. Now, if this is a little too “whoowhoo” for you, I understand, keep an open mind, ride with me on this train of thought.

 

By psychic energy, I don’t mean that people in the helping profession can read minds (although really good therapists and counselors typically have a higher degree of intuition than most). What I mean is, their spirit is drawn towards a certain population or age group. Perhaps they had a psychic wound (non-whoowhoo people will call this a “trauma”), some part of their life their minds continually return to.

 

For me, that is between the ages of 14 and 23, with a sweet spot right around 17. I was a super rebellious teen (and my rebel spirit still pokes her head out to give a fist pump in the air). I had some major issues with authority. It wasn’t enough that you were older than me or you were in a position that wielded more power than me. I needed proof that you were right or that it served me well to listen to you (even proof wasn’t always enough…blasted stubborn teen!).  

 

Part of this came from having a very authoritative dad who was particularly militant. I just flat out didn’t respect him, he was a bully. Shoving his finger into my chest and yelling at me just made me laugh. He looked so ridiculous! That always made it worse.

 

I want to be clear, I was not abused, I was just bullied. What I know now is mean people are hurt people. My parents were good, imperfect people and they did a great job. I was not an easy teenager and many of our problems were not one sided. I played a huge part in creating the relationship we had with each other for many years. In no way am I putting blame on anyone other than me for my choices. No one EVER made me do anything. I chose.

 

“Question authority” was my anthem and I had a lot of fun doing it. Yes that’s right, I was “that kid.” I would do contrary things just to be contrary. It was a riot watching these authority figures literally not know what to do with me. They were so used to other kids just going along. I felt powerful pushing them to really work hard and “figure this darn kid out!”

I’m sure at this point many parents are reading this and begging the question, “But why!? Why would she act that way? Why do kids do that?” If you’re asking those questions, you might not have been that kind of young person, or maybe you were, but had enough motivation (external or internal) that told you to keep your mouth shut and just go along.

 

The drive to “push the envelope” was just too tempting. I just wanted to see where the line was exactly. The whole time wondering, “Who made the line? Why is this the line and not that? Is the line the same for everyone? Is the line the same everywhere? Is the line only the line because this person standing in front of me says its the line?” These were the types of questions I pursued answers to. I don’t begin to give myself enough credit for thinking that this was always my line of thought. I put plenty of stock in the fact that I was also just a dumb, difficult teenager who enjoyed getting a rise out of people or who acted impulsively and honestly didn’t know why I chose to make some of the choices I did.

Needless to say, I got in a lot of trouble at school and at home. But, I was also a pretty smart kid and made decent grades in AP classes, had a job where I worked about 30 hours per week, and an extra-curricular activity that kept me busy too. So I didn’t get too out of hand until I was on my own in college and no longer had my extra-curricular activity to keep me motivated. That’s a whole other story.

 

My hope is by now I have a little bit of “cred” at why I identify so strongly with teens and young adults that just don’t seem to fit the mold of what a young person “should” be or “should” be doing. (I will write another blog on on its own about not “should’ing on yourself”)

 

Due to grace and mercy, my choices did not kill me or land me in prison. I feel as if I have some purpose to fulfill and some good to give during the rest of my time on Earth. I have also been blessed with repairing my relationship with my mother, bless her heart, who has shared with me many of her trials and tribulations of dealing with her unruly young person. The blessings have continued during all my years of working closely with parents and their young people in non-profit agencies. They have shared countless stories of what worked and what didn’t for them, how they thought, and what they felt during their time raising a wandering young person.

As the saying goes, “Not all who wander are lost,” so it is with your young person. The victory is not in getting your kiddo to do something or behave a certain way, but it is to create deeper levels of understanding between you both. (Note: when I say “understanding” I do not mean “agreeance.”) To help them formulate a deeper understanding of themselves and create identity. This is a big, huge world we live in and they are on the precipice of discovering it. It is daunting, scary, exciting! Who am I? Who am I in relation to all this? What am I doing here? What do I want? Face it, a lot of adults can’t answer those questions. Can you? Can you help your young person without judgement and coercion be who their insides are telling them they are?

 

If you’re wavering, it’s really ok. Those are some pretty freakin’ deep existential questions. I hope that this continuing blog will help give you some insight into the young person’s mind as well as some creative and positive solutions on how to meet them where they are at, give them some scaffolding to build themselves up around, and protect your sanity in the meantime.