Q: Is there an easy way to do a quick "gut-check" to determine if my teen is acting "normal for a teenage girl" or if she's experiencing something that requires more attention? She is in therapy for anxiety and OCD tendencies. (She is very self-aware and asked to see a therapist to deal with these.) She has good friends and does well in school and other activities. That being said, she exhibits some signs of self-consciousness. For example, she notices how exercise and eating affect her weight (not in an unhealthy way, currently), and she laments acne flare-ups. I think this is pretty typical teen girl stuff, and I hope I would recognize if things evolved to be outside the norm, but I could really use some tools or questions to periodically ask myself to ensure that I'm staying on top of monitoring her mental health and that I'm not missing something.

A: Is there an easy way to do a quick gut-check to determine if your teen is acting “normal?” That’s easy: No.

Parenting a teen can feel like you’re in a labyrinth, often taking wrong turns and going down dead ends, but that doesn’t always mean you’re lost. In our culture, we want answers to everything all of the time. We want diagnoses, and most importantly, we want fixes for these diagnoses. I’m not knocking strategies that help anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. On the contrary, a great therapist can be the difference between suffering and hope, and I support therapy for everyone. But when I read your letter, I see both a young woman who is (maybe) suffering, and a parent who may need some perspective on parenting their teen.

To begin, let’s drop all the “normed” language. Yes, there have to be typical behaviors against which the world measures for the sake of diagnosis and treatment, but I don’t think constantly assessing if your daughter is “normal” is helpful for her or you. When a child is suffering, it is common for parents to jump into action and help. In fact, that is our parenting job. But when we get stuck in hawkish watchfulness, waiting for signs of disorder and disease, it is easy to forget that our teens are people. True, they are a jumble of hormones and idiosyncrasies, but they are also fully human and are full of ideas and insecurities and hopes and dreams and worries. Most of all, many parts of your teen have nothing to do with you. Teens absolutely need parents to act as guardrails at different times in their lives, but you need to keep checking in to see if your worrying is reactionary, or if you have valid concerns that need attention.

So, you want some gut-checks. Here’s what I see.

She has anxiety and OCD, sure, but she’s with a therapist and is self-aware. My questions: Are her symptoms worsening? Do you see evidence that the therapy isn’t helping? Do you think you need to be worried?

She has good friends and does well in school. Do you trust your assessment of this? Why or why not?

She is self-conscious. Is her self-consciousness interfering with her eating, exercising, friendships or sleeping? Why don’t you trust that these could be typical areas of self-consciousness? What’s your evidence that this is atypical?

You hope you can recognize when something is wrong. Okay, here is where the rubber hits the road for me. From everything I’m reading, you are doing a great job. True, things are hard, but you have taken all the steps I would suggest to support your daughter. So, I ask: Why don’t you trust your judgment? Has something happened to make you doubt your own intuition? Are you anxious yourself? Have you made a mistake in the past that is haunting you know? Did people not pay attention to your needs when you were a teen?

As you read the above questions, focus on your own thoughts, feelings and ideas, and see where that gets you. Maybe you don’t need to be more than the guardrail. Good luck.

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