When Impulsive Teen Behaviors Become Self-Destructive
Transitioning from one period of life to another is always tough. Consider the emotional unsteadiness of an empty nest or retirement for older people. For teens, transitioning from childhood into adulthood can be especially challenging. Teens are not re-adjusting their identity, they are forming one. And in the midst of figuring out who they are as an individual their bodies are also undergoing all kinds of physiological changes.
Sometimes when all the changes become overwhelming to a teen, they may give in to impulsive or even self-destructive behaviors. A certain amount of impulsivity is normal for teens. The area of their brains which governs impulse control has not completely finished forming, so some impulsiveness is actually to be expected. But when impulsivity turns destructive it’s important for an adult to step in. Drug or alcohol use, dangerous driving habits, cutting or sexually acting out are signs they need help learning to cope.
Teens may resort to self-destructive behaviors due to a number of different reasons:
- Depression. Low self-worth and hopelessness that are observable for long periods of time are signs of depression.
- Role modeling. When teens see friends or family members using drugs or breaking the law they may imitate this behavior, thinking these are normal reactions to difficult circumstances.
- Abuse. Some teens may become self-destructive due to physical, verbal or sexual abuse which can fill them with self-loathing, with the reckless behavior a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Health. In a few instances, the teen has an underlying health problem such as a behavioral disorder which makes him/her particularly vulnerable to risk-taking.
Not every instance of teen rebellion is a self-destructive cry for help. Yielding to peer pressure to drink or to drive crazily can be part of learning who you are. Teens often try on different identities to see which one fits. Of course, the occasional bad choice differs from using alcohol and drugs in order to get through each day.
It’s always a good idea to explore how a teen felt when they made a particular choice. When they made a bad decision what were they thinking? What was going on around them when they made that decision?
Parents need to talk openly with teens about choices and decisions, laying out clear guidelines for acceptable behavior with clearly defined consequences. Regular discussions about decision making will help parents to discern whether their teen is acting out in a way consistent with normal teen development, or whether they’re anxious, depressed or unable to cope with stressors.
Teens are just learning to connect their outward behavior with what’s going on internally. Parents should be alert to how and why a teen acts impulsively. These discussions will reveal if guidance from someone outside the family is needed.