This blog post was authored by: Dr. Avidan Milevsky
As an adolescent researcher and clinician, I often receive calls from concerned parents seeking my advice about how to deal with their belligerent teen. The phone exchange usually follows a similar trajectory: after describing the egregious behaviors of their teen, the parent asks if I can meet their child and determine if their offspring is just being a teenager or if the problem is more serious. I usually respond by helping parents find the words they are looking for to describe their question; I say, “So you are asking me if your child’s problem is developmental or clinical.” I have found that simply stating the question in these terms, developmental or clinical, provides a sense of relief for parents. It helps to capture what parents have been concerned about but lacked the ability to express using the right words. Knowing that I truly comprehend their question and that the field of helping adolescents actually has a term to capture the intricacy of this dilemma provides a sense of comfort to parents.
It is infinitely important to know the difference between what normal adolescent behavior looks like, as opposed to truly disruptive and clinical problems. The renowned adolescent theorist and researcher, G. Stanley Hall, often called the father of adolescent research, coined the phrase “storm and stress” to capture the essence of the adolescent experience. Adolescence is a naturally tumultuous time. This turmoil is a normal part of development. Experiencing some upheaval in areas of parental conflict, mood swings, and risky behaviors is a normal part of the adolescent developmental process. Most teens face these difficulties in an adaptive way and use the obstacles as a growing and learning experience. For these teens, the challenges of the adolescent years could be considered developmental in nature.
Unfortunately, we often are quick to diagnose teens as having clinical problems when they are actually exhibiting normal adolescent behavior. Labeling normal teenage behavior as clinical and problematic is unfortunately a common and destructive occurrence. I have seen numerous teens labeled as having problems, when in fact they were just being teens, and over time they actually started believing that there was something wrong with them. Once a teen believes that there is something wrong with him or her, it takes a long time to undo this negative self-image. I recently had a client in her thirties, a successful attorney with a wonderful marriage and two great children, who still had serious doubts about her worth due to being labeled during her teenage years as being “trouble.” Labeling adolescents as having clinical problems when they are simply exhibiting developmental issues has long-term effects.
One reason for this over-diagnosis is a lack of understanding of normal adolescent development. If parents, clinicians, social workers and others working with teens had a clear understanding of typical adolescent development, society would be much more cautious before jumping to pathological conclusions whenever they see a teenager misbehave.
In order to remedy this problem, my upcoming book, “Understanding Adolescents for Helping Professionals” by Springer Publishing Company, is geared toward clarifying what normal adolescent development looks like. The book will also help in demystifying the process of differentiating between developmental issues and what would be considered clinical adolescent issues. In future posts I hope to provide specific examples of teen issues that are often misdiagnosed as clinical, when in fact they are simply developmental in nature.
Dr. Avidan Milevsky is an Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania and a psychotherapist at Wellspring Counseling in Towson, MD where he specializes in adolescent issues. His clinical research on adolescents has produced over 100 conference presentations, more than 20 papers, and four books including his upcoming “Understanding Adolescents for Helping Professionals” by Springer Publishing Company. Dr. Milevsky has been a guest expert on TV, radio, and the media about his work including stories in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, Real Simple, and Allure Magazine. Additionally, Dr. Milevsky is a columnist for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post on family issues.