As parents, many of us find ourselves asking, “Why in the world is my kid acting this way?” Often, their behaviors do not seem to make sense — like when they act out in the same way, time and time again, despite natural or imposed consequences.
In our experience, there is always something under the surface driving these types of behaviors, and the source of the problem often falls into one of these categories:


One of our most basic human needs is acceptance. The desire to fit in somewhere is a key motivator for teens and adults both. We all want to be liked!

When people do not feel as though they belong somewhere, they can react in many different, and sometimes unexpected, ways. Sometimes the reaction makes sense: Your teen may withdraw because she feels isolated and sad, or conversely, display attention-seeking behavior in an attempt to get noticed. Other young people may lose their sense of self and start to act out of character, following the in-crowd because “everybody’s doing it.”

Sometimes the reaction is more extreme and oppositional. Some teens who don’t feel accepted engage in self-mutilation. The physical pain dulls the emotional pain and helps take away the empty feeling of isolation. For others, self-harm is a way to take out the anger and hurt they feel on the inside as a result of feeling alone or different.

Other troubled teens don’t hurt themselves — they hurt others. They get mean. This seems counterintuitive, because it’s not exactly the way to make friends. The problem is that the young person often doesn’t expect to make friends anymore because he’s been bullied or shut out in the past. Being mean and nasty pushes people away before they have chance to push them away.

Avoidance of Pain

As humans, we have a natural bent to avoid pain. The threat of physical pain usually leads us to avoid things we think are too dangerous, while the potential for emotional pain causes people to avoid painful feelings or people or situations that could cause painful feelings. Sometimes, this avoidance can result in harmful behaviors, such as withdrawal and isolation from family and friends or using drugs, alcohol or other illegal substances to dull the pain. We ALL do this to some extent — we just don’t all do it by picking up illegal, unhealthy or addictive habits.

Desire for Independence

Your child’s world should not revolve around you forever. You should be working yourself out of a job! It is normal for your teen to want to hang out with others besides you. It is important, though, that she listen to you, because she does need your guidance and support.

We all need to be able to listen to others and be responsible. Sometimes teens break rules just to push boundaries and test limits. They want to prove that they are no longer a child and that they are capable of making their own decisions. In many ways, this is what parents want, too! You don’t want to be raising your child forever. Your job during the teen years is to help him practice making healthy, value-based decisions. Set healthy and clear limits and allow him to make choices. When he violates rules or boundaries, make sure he understands he is subject to the consequences.


We all have a natural desire for pleasure and fun. How many adults live for the weekend or save up all year to take a one-week pleasure cruise or some other vacation? In our experience, teens are the same way. When asked why they do the things they do, the No. 1 answer provided by the troubled teens we work with is, “It’s fun.” We hear that more than anything else.

Unfortunately, there is sometimes a fine line between danger and fun. And teens naturally feel a thrill if there is an element of danger in what they are doing — it’s characteristic of their current stage of life.

Parents need to keep in mind that there is some element of normalcy to this thrill-seeking behavior. After all, isn’t that why people sky dive or bungee jump?

Our job with teens is to help set limits for their fun and pleasure-seeking and help channel it in the right direction. There are times when we need to step in and let them know that certain behaviors are not safe. Stress to your teen that if she cannot make safe decisions on her own, you will have to step in.

For more help coping with your teen’s troubling behavior — and uncovering its source — contact us today.