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When Does Teen Reckless Behavior Go Too Far?

The human brain doesn’t finish developing until a person’s mid-20s. When in-progress development is coupled with the pressures of being a young person today, it can cause teens to act out.

During their teen years, young adults are also experiencing physical changes due to hormones and can experience intense emotions or be moody, impulsive, and reckless.

Emily Thelen, clinical director at Milestones by Chrysalis, highlights that a natural part of growing up is self-exploration. Still, sometimes this process can look like recklessness when experimentation is taken too far. In those cases, it’s important to correct your teen and set clear boundaries.

Biology and development can explain some teen behaviors, but they don’t exonerate your teenager from the consequences of their actions. In this helpful guide, we explore how to recognize truly reckless behavior and address it.

Recognizing Reckless Behavior

You may see your teen acting out and become concerned, but development within the adolescent years is a time of individuation where curiosity and exploration are an essential aspect of identity formation. While it can make parenting a challenge, behaviors at this stage can include:

Reckless behavior goes beyond the typical teen curiosity and experimentation. Behavior may be considered reckless if it’s a high-risk behavior that’s repeated on an ongoing or long-lasting basis or if it involves intense self-harm or harm to others. Troubled or out-of-control teens may engage in reckless or high-risk behaviors like:

  • Excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Drug use.
  • Self-harm or harm to others.
  • Sexual behavior.
  • Shoplifting.
  • Skipping school.
  • Social or video game addiction.
  • Spending time with the wrong crowd.
  • Violence.

In some cases, the reckless behavior may be a sign that teens are dealing with issues like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, eating disorders, and/or substance abuse. For example, teens often experiment with alcohol or drugs during adolescence, but it can go too far when it becomes a substance abuse issue. Signs of this include habitual use, increased problems at home or school, and engaging in other risky behaviors.

Define the Rules and What Happens When They’re Broken

To help determine what is unacceptable in your home and family, Thelen said, “When you’re considering where to draw the line, it will come down to your core values as a parent.”

In some cases, it’s easy to see a clear line — getting kicked out of school, for example, would most likely be considered crossing the line in your family. Other actions such as being late for curfew might feel more harmless, but it’s important to communicate when that line is crossed and remind teens of the consequences even if they don’t face them this time.

Some out-of-control teens will intensify disputes, act violently at home or school, or encounter issues with law enforcement. If you ever feel threatened by your child or are concerned for their or your family’s immediate safety, seek help.

While you must establish boundaries, consequences, and rules before things escalate, enforcing those parameters is critical when it goes too far.

“Set rules with clear consequences as soon as possible,” Thelen said.

A rule could be made after the first incident or before it ever occurs. Thelen said these expectations must be outlined to ensure your teen doesn’t feel unprepared for the consequence they receive.

During this process, keep in mind that a teen’s prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for complex thinking such as making consequence-informed decisions, reasoning, and controlling inhibition — is developing during adolescence. While some of the cortex is functioning, it can be overridden by emotions during adolescence. According to this article by the University of Rochester Medical Center, teens process information primarily with the amygdala, which is the emotional part of the brain. This tends to have emotions override rational thinking and ability to weigh out cause and effect. Thelen said:

“Teens can have trouble with the forward thinking that comes with considering consequences.”

By helping them understand the negative consequences of their choices beforehand, you can stand in for their still-developing prefrontal cortex to help them avoid risky situations.

6 Tips for Addressing Reckless Behavior

If your teen is drinking, sneaking out, using drugs, or acting recklessly in other ways, it’s normal to be concerned and worried about their safety. There are ways to handle these situations effectively, but not every strategy will work for every teen. Thelen said:

“It’s incredibly hard to be a parent because there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with these issues.”

However, when teens are behaving recklessly, almost every parent can follow these six tips:

  1. Manage any negative emotions you may have. You likely have your own anxiety and fear in these situations, which can translate to an emotional response. Conversations will be more productive if you’re calm when you talk with your teen.
  2. Lead by example. Not only will taking time for yourself help you stay balanced, but it’s good for your teen to see you care about your own mental well-being. Seek help from family and friends or consider speaking with a professional or participating in a support group for parents of teenagers.
  3. Facilitate connection and collaboration. You can influence your child better if you spend intentional time with them. Routine time together will offer you insights into their life and emotional state. Listen without giving advice or making a judgment.
  4. Explain your observations and feelings. Tell your child what you’re observing and how their behavior makes you feel. Let them know that you want to understand what’s going on.
  5. Give a response, not a reaction. Fear can cause you to react before you have a solid plan to address the issue, one that includes natural, relational, and logical consequences. Avoid rushing to confront your teen or issuing heat-of-the-moment punishments.
  6. Help your teen find healthier ways to cope. Whether through music, running, team sports, or other productive activities, support coping strategies that help them deal with stress, anger, and anxiety.

How To Get Ahead of Reckless Behavior

Invite opportunities for your child to talk and be understood before a more significant problem manifests. Thelen suggested:

“Find ways to genuinely connect with your kids and be available. Whether that means having a routine of family dinner every night or just making time for them regularly, it’s important that you encourage and support that connection by making it the norm in your family.”

“Let your child know that you want to understand what’s going on in their life,” she added. If they share something that concerns you, genuinely listen so you can digest that information and form an appropriate response instead of reacting.”

If your child is acting out, it may be because a rule or boundary wasn’t well defined or constantly reinforced.

They may also be resorting to these behaviors because something else is going on in their life, and the behavior is functioning as a coping mechanism. Of course you’ll want to impose consequences, but by listening to your teen, you can address the root of the problem or mental health issues by getting them the help they need.

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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 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-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.