Suffering Teen Behavior Issues? You’re Not Alone

teen behaviorDo you have a young teen who seems to be going off the rails? Like run-ins with the police, getting suspended from school, caught sneaking a beer from the fridge, disappearing overnight, failing an important class after years of mostly “A”s, taking a family car joy-riding without permission. These are all things that friends of mine – and I – are experiencing with our young teen boys right now. I won’t say which kid is guilty of which infraction, in order to protect the…. well, you get the idea.

It’s really hard to know what to do in these situations. There aren’t the same “what to expect when” bibles for teens like there are for babies and little kids. I definitely don’t have all the answers – but I will give some of the things my friends and I are learning on this journey.

First Things First

A friend of mine who is a child psychologist often tells me the following, which I repeat to myself regularly like a mantra: every kid is different and they don’t come with an owner’s manual.

The point of this comment is that we shouldn’t view the behavior issues our kids are having as our fault. We could still be – are – good parents, and our own personal experience of going through childhood and adolescence may not have prepared us for managing the unique child we ended up with.

It’s also important to remember that kids are not just smaller-sized adults. Both their bodies and their brains are still developing – and one of the last regions of the brain to fully develop is the one which oversees decision making and impulse control.

Checking for Underlying Issues

While teen rebellion and experimentation is a fact of life, a change in behavior could be a sign of a problem your child is dealing with. It’s important to try to talk with them to see if something has happened or is bothering them. Getting to the root cause is more effective than just focusing on the behavior issues.

But teen behavior problems could also be due to mental or physical health concerns such as depression, attention and impulse control issues, or other conditions. Getting some professional help can be useful – both for identifying underlying factors and helping your child and family cope. One of the steps they may take are to have teachers complete assessments of your teen’s behavior and temperament to provide additional insight into the situation.

Helping Your Child

Kids – including teens – have a hard time weighing the potential consequences of their actions, to a large part due to their continuing brain development. If you are dealing with normal teen behavior or rebellion, then it can help to concentrate on setting age appropriate rules with firm and consistent consequences. Now, this is one I struggle with…. As much as I try to set rules, my son constantly argues and negotiates – and I have a hard time identifying consequences that work. An article I read recently that I found helpful is at WebMD. They suggest writing out the key rules and agreeing the consequences with your teen(s) – and posting the list somewhere central in the house.

Another thing I’m trying is incentives rather than consequences – something I also picked up from a psychologist. We are having trouble with late assignments at school, so I asked my son what might be a motivating incentive for no “tardy” homework over the next 2-3 weeks. I thought he’d want money or a video game – but he said he’d like to have a family dinner out at a favorite restaurant. That was kind of nice to hear!

Teens are also very poor at judging risk. They often think “it won’t happen to me” when they participate in dangerous acts or risky social behaviors. One thing we’ve seen recently – and tried ourselves – is how to make risk and consequences seem more likely and feel more real.  For example, a friend of our son was recently suspended for breaking school rules. He didn’t think he would get caught….but someone got a picture of him in the act. We talked to our son about this – and how easy it was for someone to get a record of the wrongdoing. We pointed out how lucky he was that no one posted the photo online – which might have made his indiscretion last a lifetime.

In another example, a colleague at work was having problems with his son not balancing school work with his varsity sport. In what I consider to be a sneaky but brilliant stroke of genius, he told the teen he had to drop the sport and made him write an apology letter to his coach. Apparently the boy was beside himself that night – but in the morning, his father told him he could continue on the team if he made a stronger commitment to his academics. He also said to pin the note above the boy’s desk as an incentive for studying – to remind him of how he felt having to drop out of the team.

Helping Yourself

The last thing I would say is that parents also have to look after themselves. One of my friends at work had a really tough time with a wayward son and didn’t realize how much impact it was having on her and her husband until she pretty much had to take a leave from work due to the stress.

If you feel overwhelmed with the situation or find yourself losing your cool too often with your teen, yelling – or crying – and possibly having issues within your marriage as well, you might want to talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. And getting time for yourself – for sports, hobbies, meditation, anything you enjoy – is critical. It’s tough helping our kids when we can’t operate from a position of strength with our own health.

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited fourteen-year old boy. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global diabetes education programs as well as by her fourteen-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a member of the PedSafe Team

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