Never Assume the Reason Behind a Teen’s Bad Behavior

When teens behave badly, it can feel infuriating! Parents are bound to feel frustrated when their teen acts defiant, withdrawn, aggressive, or unmotivated. We might feel that our teen is ungrateful, entitled, disrespectful, or that he/she hates us.

While these are perfectly natural reactions, we are missing an important key. Don’t guess or assume that your teen is acting out based on what you see. Your teen’s bad behavior is actually the symptom of the real problem. In other words, there is a reason they are acting this way, and if you really want to stop the bad behavior, then you’re going to have to discover and deal with the root cause.

When a teen acts out, the pattern of poor behavior is often covering up deeper feelings of pain, fear, depression, or loneliness. Assuming your teen is just “a bad kid” can cause your teen to feel misunderstood or even more alone with whatever difficult emotions they are coping with, which deepens their reasons for more bad behavior.

Here are some possible reasons why your teen may be acting out:

Bullying. Teens who are being bullied, either in person at school or online via social media, will express their anger, frustration and helplessness by misbehaving at home.

Trauma. Some teens act out because they are responding in a normal way to a situation that has upset them to the point where they are unable to manage their emotions. “Trauma” does not necessarily mean a catastrophic event, such as abuse. It can also be an event or experience that causes them to feel helpless or hopeless. When teens don’t know how to manage their big emotions in positive ways, they spill over into misbehavior.

Mental Health Condition. More and more teens are suffering from depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental health conditions. If left untreated, mental health conditions will definitely cause troubled behavior.

Learning Disability. Another common cause for misbehavior may be frustration due to undiagnosed or untreated learning disabilities. When a teen cannot succeed in the classroom despite their best efforts, they will feel frustrated and angry.

Pressured. Teens are under an inordinate amount of pressure to succeed and to fit in. They face peer pressure from their friends, academic pressure from their parents, and cultural pressure to succeed in school, sports, and extracurriculars.

Exploratory Risk-Taking. Adolescents are trying to figure out who they are and how they want to behave in life. As a result, they often are rebellious and engage in risk-taking behaviors that allow them to test family, social, and personal boundaries. They also seek attention and want to impress their peers.

Family Strife. Conflict within the home can also cause anger and frustration which result in a teen’s desire to either withdraw or lash out.

This is not an exhaustive list of all the possible causes behind a teen’s poor behavior, but it does offer some ideas for what might be behind the misbehavior.

Ways Parents Can Get to the Root Cause

Try tracking your teen’s behavior for a short period of time and notice what situations or feelings seem to trigger the withdrawal or defiant outbursts. If you notice a pattern where your teen is always lashing out when he first comes home from school or withdraws when their siblings bicker, talk to your teen about it at a time when they are calm. Be careful to avoid accusations or judgments. Approach the subject with open-ended questions. For example, you could say, “I notice that you seem pretty miserable right after dinner. Is there a way I can help you?” While your teen might ignore your attempt, you are still demonstrating to your teen that you’re trying to understand them and that you want to help. They might approach you later when they feel ready to talk.

If these efforts don’t work and the behavior doesn’t improve, please seek professional help. Schedule an appointment with your pediatrician and explain the behavior. They will be able to first rule out any medical causes. Assuming there are none, they can recommend a good adolescent or family therapist in your area who can help your teen deal with their emotions and behaviors.

Final Thoughts…

It’s important to note that this article is in no way suggesting that your teen’s bad behavior is acceptable because there’s a good reason for it. The root cause of the behavior does NOT excuse the behavior, but discovering the root cause will make it more likely that you can stop the poor behavior.

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