Teens are known for risky behavior and getting into trouble. Some of this is normal rebellion and testing limits and boundaries. Sometimes, however, the limit-testing and boundary-pushing can go too far, and kids find themselves in situations and lifestyles that aren’t what they intended. All of a sudden, they are facing consequences at school, with the law, and at home. Some end up running away, getting arrested, being hurt or assaulted, and before you know it, it’s not just teens being teens, but serious problems that can affect the rest of their lives.
To a certain extent, one bad choice doesn’t lead a teen down a troubled path. A series of choices, however, does. Teens who continue to make bad choices are being driven by factors other than a simple desire to rebel and test limits. Trouble at home, undiagnosed learning disabilities, mental illness that develops with puberty, or low self-esteem are all reasons kids will choose to hang with the wrong crowd, sleep with the wrong people, do drugs, or break the law. If your teen seems to be making those choices, what can you do to help your teen from heading down the wrong path?
Teens Making Bad Decisions VS Acting Out
The truth is, teens make bad decisions. It’s in their nature to test, experiment, and learn. Luckily, most teens are able to make mistakes without too many consequences, and it’s all part of growing up. We need to let our kids make mistakes, but when those mistakes keep happening, something else is going on. Your teen is acting out.
When teens act out consistently, especially in the face of warnings, anger, or disapproval, then they are communicating that they don’t feel safe, understood, or in control. Many teens reach high school and struggle with school. The pressure is on to succeed, and if they can’t handle the pressure, the pace of learning, or the material, they feel left out, stupid, or ashamed. They may have an undiagnosed learning disability and feel like there’s something wrong with them. Those feelings translate into bad behavior because “Who cares anyway?” Usually, when a kid says they don’t care, it’s because they care a lot but feel powerless to do anything about their situation.
They could also feel social pressure, and in an effort to fit in, they choose the crowd that seems to be having the most fun. Belonging is incredibly important to teens who don’t feel secure, and a teen who doesn’t think they belong or are good enough will do almost anything – sex, drugs, breaking the law – to fit in. If they are being bullied, they will isolate, get angry, or use substances to cope with the pain of being rejected by peers. They are dealing with this stress as best they can, and sometimes acting out makes it feel better.
These social and academic pressures, as well as changes in their bodies which can feel embarrassing or shameful, can lead to emotional symptoms such as depression or anxiety. If these symptoms persist for more than a few weeks and have a negative effect on your teen’s functioning, they may be suffering from a mental illness that requires counseling or medical attention.
A deeper reason that is not uncommon is that there is a family dynamic that has been festering for a long time, either in the form of unresolved or unaddressed trauma, loss, or change, or unresolved issues in the parents. Most kids who act out are communicating something about the family, whether it’s pain about a divorce, anger at an absent or punitive parent, a lack of feeling heard, seen, or valued, or what they see as hypocrisy in adults. It could also be that the teen suffered some kind of trauma as a child, and that the family hasn’t done a good job addressing it.
We all have things in our lives that we would rather not look at. As parents, we would rather leave the past in the past and focus on our families. We provide a home, food, material things, and support as best we can, but if we struggle with anger, depression, workaholism, substance use, or a lack of self-care and motivation, then our kids take notice and feel the effects of not having parents who are emotionally or physically available for them as they try to navigate the stresses and challenges of growing up. The best thing you can do as a parent is learn to take care of yourself and take your own personal growth seriously.
What Approach Should A Parent Take?
There are a few simple steps a parent can take to address their teens’ bad choices. It is never too late to start putting these into practice, no matter how far down a troubled path your teen has gone.
1. Take care of yourself and get support
If your anger or sadness about your teen’s choices is overwhelming you and your family, seek some support and learn to focus on yourself what you can control. You can’t control an out-of-control teen if you’re also feeling unbalanced. Learn ways to create space for yourself and calm yourself down.
2. Change your tone
When you engage with your teen, be calm, confident, and concerned.
Wrong Things To Do
- Not listening
- Severe Punishment
- Being emotionally absent
Right Things To Do
- Asking questions
- Making suggestions
- Being and showing concern
- Moderate Discipline
- Encouraging Good Behavior
- Making time to spend with your teen doing something fun and light
- Being present
3. Focus on the cause
Giving your teen a chance to speak about what’s really going on rather than trying to get a clear answer about “Why would you do that??” opens the door to a deeper connection and more information about what you can do to support your teen. For the most part, teens won’t be able to tell you why they make bad choices, but if you ask about school, friends, or just let them talk about their lives without judgment, interruption, correction, or shame, you will be able to get to the root cause together. It may take some time to earn their trust back if you have been shaming them or punishing them for their behavior, but it is worth the time and patience required to get to the bottom of things.
4. Be there
When parents start to look at their own lives and all the ways they aren’t present, even with themselves, they will start to be able to be “there” with their teens. Learning to slow down, listen not talk, and showing up when your teen needs you, are the best way to show that you care through your presence, investment, and focus on them. If you need additional help to deal with your own unresolved childhood trauma, family strife, or personal struggles, get it. It will help you to be a compassionate and mature presence, which is what your teen really wants.
Teens Who Act Out Need Safety
At the root of it, teens who act out don’t feel safe. They make bad choices that take them down a troubled path to prove that, in fact, they aren’t safe. As a parent, the best thing you can do is be a firm, calm, and caring presence that makes your teen feel safe, protected, and encouraged. Listening to their struggles, being confident enough to hold their stress and their struggles, and offering support without solving their problems will help them to feel safe and confident, too. Teens don’t need to be told what to do, but they do need adults, real adults, in their lives who are coaches, consultants, and able to help out when things get to be too much. Working towards that goal is the best thing you can do for your teen who has wandered down a troubled path.
See our resources page for books that can help with this issue.