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Ask a Therapist: My Teen Is Acting Out. What Should I Do?

Ask a Therapist: My teen ran away and stayed out with friends all night again, drinking and smoking. I’m concerned about these behavioral problems and wonder if they are warning signs. What should I do? What should I say to address the negative behavior? 

Emily Thelen, clinical director at Milestones by Chrysalis, has answers for you. She acknowledged that it’s hard to be a parent because no two teens are the same, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with issues that can show up during the teen years, like lying, substance abuse, or acting out in other ways. “There’s no parenting manual for how to parent, especially teenagers because they all turn out so differently,” she added. 

From mood swings to peer pressure, teenagers are dealing with many changes at once. They may deal with those shifts in different ways.  

A typical part of being a teenager is individuation, where teens feel the need to separate from their family. “They’re exploring who they are, and that sometimes can look like acting out when their experimentation is taken too far,” Thelen explained. It’s important to learn the differences between typical behavioral changes and out-of-control teen behavior.  

When the behavior is no longer healthy or appropriate, or you’re concerned about your child’s well-being, you can follow these steps: 

  1. Manage your emotions. It’s natural to have your own anxiety and fear in these situations. Before you check in with your child, calm down and make sure your emotions are in check. Thelen explained, “If your child has been sneaking out and you come in with a furious tone, and you’re really reactive with boundaries and consequences, it’s not going to be effective.” Instead, talk with your support system, such as your own therapist, friends, or family members, and approach your child when you’re calm and emotionally prepared. 
  1. Encourage connection and collaboration. Spend intentional time with your child. Thelen explained, “You need to have access to your teen if you’re going to be able to influence them.” If they’re only spending time with their peer group or online community, you won’t know what influences your teen and what authority figures they look up to. Whether it’s regular family dinners or family game nights without cellphones, establishing routine time together will allow you to gain insights into their life and influence them. 
  1. Observe and directly communicate feelings. Don’t shy away from the issue, pretend not to see it, or assume the best. Let your teen know what behavioral issues you’re seeing and how that makes you feel. Ask them to talk about it and ask for clarification. 

Keeping Your Teenager Safe When They Engage in Inappropriate Behavior

It’s normal to be concerned about your child’s safety if they’re acting out. That fear can drive you to react to misbehavior instead of putting together a plan on how to best address the issue and keep your teen safe. Thelen summed up her advice: 

“Give a response, not a reaction.” 

Pause and consider the best course of action for your teen. Become grounded before you start implementing consequences or reacting to inappropriate behavior.

Without taking a pause, you may impose consequences that aren’t natural or logical, or you may miss an opportunity to enact a consequence that keeps your teen safe. For example, if they’re drinking or using drugs, you may want to consider implementing the consequence of restricted car use. 

Knowing Where To Draw the Line 

From dealing with teenage hormones to figuring out who they are as an individual, some of the behaviors your teen engages in are a regular part of their biological and social development. “As a parent, sometimes there’s a gut feeling about whether the behavior is normal or not,” Thelen said.

In some cases, you’ll recognize that a clear line has been crossed based on your core values. In other cases, it may be harder to figure out where the line needs to be drawn. However, Thelen recommended that you set a hard line with clear consequences on the first instance.

“If they miss curfew by five minutes, communicate a clear three-strikes policy,” she suggested. A natural, logical consequence could be if they disregard those clear expectations and miss curfew multiple times, their curfew gets moved up to an earlier time. 

“It’s important to ensure alignment and understanding on what the boundaries are so your child doesn’t feel like they received a consequence that they weren’t prepared for,” Thelen advised. Doing this gives teenagers the power and control they crave in a reasonable and appropriate manner.

Teens need obvious boundaries because their prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed yet. That area of the brain is where long-term thinking, like forward thinking and weighing consequences, occurs.

“As a parent, it’s our job to help be their surrogate prefrontal cortex and help them see the consequences to choices ahead of time,” Thelen said. 

How To Stop the Inappropriate Behavior

Thelen said it’s essential that you listen and understand before responding during a conversation. Digesting information first allows you to form an appropriate response that helps solve the underlying issue of your teen acting out. She explained:

“You may find your child is staying out late because a rule wasn’t clear or consistently enforced. They may be drinking or using drugs because school is stressing them out, so while you may make the decision to ground them, you could also set up a tutor to help them.”

Whether your teen is lying, engaging in substance use, or sneaking out, there may be a bigger reason why they’re turning to those behaviors. Maybe they’re seeking attention because a family issue is harder on their mental health than you realized, and they need help coping with the stress. By listening to them, you’ll be able to address the root of the problem in addition to implementing consequences for the behavior.  

And when it comes to those more significant issues behind acting out, Thelen offered a friendly reminder: 

“It’s not up to you to be an expert. You can get help from school counselors, teachers, or the other people of influence in your teen’s life.” 

There’s no shame in asking for help, and getting others’ perspectives on what’s going on with your teen can help you better understand how to address the problem.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.