Are Teens Truly Terrible?

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Contributed by Dr. Nina Woulff:


For over 25 years, psychologist Nina Woulff has provided answers to questions posed by CBC radio listeners on the popular Maritime Noon live phone-in.

In this blog post deals with questions about differentiating normal and problematic adolescent development.

Question: I find myself dreading the teen years of my children. I hear so many horror stories.  Will my sweet 10 year old transform into a surly drug addicted thieving thug?


Delinquent adolescents can create great stress and difficulty for their families, schools, society and themselves. However,  about 13 % of adolescents develop severe emotional problems and 17% of adolescents develop aggressive or delinquent behavior.  Thus the majority of children go through their adolescent years without significant emotional or behavior problems.

Question:   But I hear other parents talking about how their children are moody, rude and inconsiderate.  What is that all about?


In early adolescence (the middle school and early high school years) many children are more moody and self-preoccupied. Their attitude toward their parents may vacillate from affection to disdain with occasional rudeness.  However by the latter years of high school such behaviors usually diminish or disappear as the child develops a clearer sense of their own identity, greater self-confidence and comfort with their adult body and feelings.

Question:   But then how do I tell the difference between normal adolescent moodiness and real problems? 


The symptoms and signs below are not indicative of normal adolescent development.  If you see any of these in your child you should be concerned.  These include:

  • Marked change in school performance.
  • Inability to cope with problems and daily activities.
  • Marked changes in sleeping and/or eating habits.
  • Depression shown by sustained, prolonged negative mood and attitude, often accompanied by poor appetite, difficulty sleeping or thoughts of death.
  • Abuse of alcohol and/or drugs.
  • Persistent nightmares.
  • Threats of self-harm or harm to others.
  • Self-injury or self destructive behavior.
  • Frequent outbursts of anger, aggression.
  • Threats to run away
  • Aggressive or non-aggressive consistent violation of rights of others; opposition to authority, truancy, thefts, or vandalism.
  • Strange thoughts, beliefs, feelings, or unusual behaviors.

 Question: Aren’t teenagers rather secretive about their activities and feelings?  How is a parent to know if these problems are going on?


It is wise to develop strategies for encouraging conversation with your children from an early age. However, if your child is not high- disclosing with you there are other ways of finding out what is going on with your child.  You can speak with his teachers and school guidance counselor.  It is also a good idea to be aware of the character of the people she spends time with.  If you suspect illicit drug use you should look for evidence. You may also wish to speak with a mental health professional about your concerns and worries.


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