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Adolescents & Destructive Behaviors


Parenting children through adolescents is, to say the least, challenging. It is a natural part of growing into an adult to rebel, to seemingly abandon family values, experiment with new behaviors and test limits. According to Eric Ericson the adolescent must throw out the values the family has instilled in them as a child and create their own set of values. They must first empty the proverbial tea cup before filling it up again. This process allows them to become an individual with a unique identity who is able to function in the world and be autonomous from the family of origin. Still it can be quite worrisome and at times downright scary to be a parent of an adolescent.


When are adolescent behaviors natural and adaptive vs. problematic and indicative of more serious underlying causes? This is a difficult question as many adolescents experiment with dangerous behaviors. They may drink and use drugs, have unprotected sex, drag race with the family car, shoplift or any number of activities that will make a parents hair stand on end. Still “experimenting,” with such behaviors is a natural part of going out into the world, trying on different values and forming a functioning sense of self. This article will help parents identify when their adolescents behavior may be indicative of a larger problem. Also I will introduce some strategies to help deal with these behaviors.


What is destructive behavior? Good question. Let’s take alcohol or drug use. Although I am not suggesting you tolerate any chemical use, I am suggesting that some experimental use may not qualify as necessarily destructive. If the use is occasional, experimental and/or not interfering with the adolescents general functioning or development I would label this as inappropriate but not destructive behavior. If the use becomes chronic, serves to self-medicate, interferes with functioning and/or impedes development then I would label the behavior destructive. Chronic use of marijuana that causes decreased motivation, increased anxiety and a lack of attention given to schoolwork and other developmental tasks such as dating, I would label destructive.


A teen might engage in a dangerous behavior while driving a car. There is a road near where I grew up that has a large bump in it, for decades young people have driven fast over the bump to become airborne. Usually the most damage done was to the cars suspension. Although not a recommended activity I would not consider this behavior destructive. I would consider it risk taking behavior. About eight years ago a group of teenagers did this on a very cold night; the car slid on an ice patch going onto the bump and skidded into a tree killing one of the passengers. So yes, risk taking can be very dangerous but not necessarily destructive as defined here.


Conversely, driving recklessly at high speeds frequently, and flirting with causing an accident may be a symptom of depression and suicidal thoughts. This is a destructive behavior.

We used to have a list of about sixty adolescent behaviors that are earmarks of substance abuse. They included, change of dress, isolation from family, change of friends, and selling possessions. These behaviors may also be signs of normal adolescent development. Additionally they may be signs that the adolescent is suffering from an underlying mental health disorder. We look for underlying issues and causes when the behavior is destructive rather than simply breaking a rule or risk taking. The fifteen year old girl losses her virginity to her new boyfriend only to realize he has been cheating on her and sleeping with other girls. She is regretful, angry and embarrassed. We would say she should not have been promiscuous and took a risk. She will learn and adjust her values as a result. Yet this was not destructive behavior. Another fifteen year old girl begins sleeping around and becomes quite promiscuous to the point of contracting an STD and developing a negative reputation. I would label this destructive behavior that very well may be an indication of an underlying problem. It is not uncommon to see promiscuous behavior like these in adolescents who have been sexually abused or abandoned in some way.


With non-destructive but inappropriate behaviors it is important to give corrective guidance and consequences for the behavior. With destructive behaviors it is also important to do this but we also must address the underlying behavior.

Let’s look at some underlying issues that can drive destructive behaviors in adolescents and outline some signs and symptoms.


Psychiatric disorders:

Depression in adolescents can present differently than it does in adults. In adolescents depression manifests as irritability, aggressive angry behaviors, sleeping too much, difficulty sleeping, isolating, problems concentrating, substance misuse, or promiscuity. Anxiety may manifest in quite the same way. Bi-polar disorder may manifest as bouts of depression interspersed with times of high energy that may cause the adolescent to sneak out at night, engage in at risk behaviors and act erratically. Early experiences of psychosis may trigger substance use, and cause a decreased ability to concentrate and isolation. The child may have undiagnosed Oppositional Defiant Disorder which can create much turmoil for a family. Certain types of personality disorders that may cause much destructive behaviors may be forming.


Systemic issues:

The adolescent may be, “acting out,” problems at home. If a parent is abusing drugs, or there has been a difficult divorce or a form of abuse. Poor behaviors may be the result of attention seeking, as negative attention is better than no attention. Shop lifting, bulling and drug use may be the result. Systemic issues originating from outside the family can cause destructive behaviors as well. The child may be the victim of bullying or lack basic resources like food are appropriate opportunities to socialize, leading to destructive behaviors.

Additionally, the family system may actually reinforce destructive behavior. A few years ago the father of a 16 year old client called and reported that the previous evening his son had punched him. The father was complaining how inappropriate this behavior was. I then spoke with the son and he told me what had occurred. He had asked his father for $20 to buy something on line, his father said no and that he was busy and not to bother him. A while later the father came to the sons room and, according to the son, began to lecture him about disturbing him when he’s working and the value of money and so forth. Then the son swung at his father striking him on the shoulder. The father then abruptly left his son’s room and left his son alone. When I asked the father what the consequences were for his son striking him he said there were none. I also heard from the son that the next morning his father handed him $20. Yes this is inappropriate behavior and ultimately destructive behavior. But look at the function of the behavior; the father stopped lecturing and the son received the $20, the son had no consequences but in fact was rewarded with being left alone and $20. Yes, this behavior was inappropriate, but it worked. Sometimes families must ask if they in fact are reinforcing negative or destructive behavior. In the substance abuse world they call this enabling, but he word applies here also.



Substance use disorders:

Some individuals suffer from chemical dependency. This disease often begins to rear its head in adolescents. Addiction itself is a base study in destructive behavior. The child lies, steals from parents, stays out all night and presents with some pretty nefarious behaviors. They seem caught in a destructive pattern and they in fact are. Other adolescents may be self-medicating an underlying issue. The key in differentiating between self-medicating abuse of drugs and addiction is this; does the use decrease or stop once the underlying problem is addressed. If so we are most likely seeing self-medication if not we are most likely seeing addiction?


We may treat young Johnny for depression as he says; I’m so depressed I drink.” Six months later after engaging in therapy, taking antidepressant medication and addressing issues in family therapy, Johnny reports no signs of depression but continues to drink. When we ask him if you’re not depressed why do you drink today, he replies, “its Tuesday.”

When I was the clinical director of an outpatient center that treated adolescents we provided both IOP and an EIP substance use treatment programs. Ok, what are those? IOP stands for intensive outpatient program. This type of program generally treats people with primary addiction. EIP or Early intervention programs were designed to treat people who may be abusing substances or self-medicating. One purpose of separating the two populations is to combat the “cross pollination” effect of exposing less indoctrinated youth to others that may be using harder drugs and suffer from addiction. A third or less of the admissions to EIP had difficulty discontinuing substance use to the point of needing to be referred to IOP. For the remaining kids admitted to EIP, a portion were diagnosed with an underlying psychiatric disorder, received appropriate treatment and were able to discontinue or ’control,” their substance use. Another portion was able to exercise better judgement around substance use, gain an awareness of the negative impact on their lives and control or stop their use also. The point here is, it is important to rule out chemical dependency and substance use as the cause of destructive behaviors.


Co-occurring Disorders:

Some individuals and a majority of adolescents admitted to both substance and psychiatric programs suffer from Co-occurring disorders. Having a co-occurring disorder means the individual suffers from substance use disorder and a mental health issue. It can also mean a substance co exists with another, systemic or environmental problem or stressor.



To summarize, destructive behaviors may be indicative of an underlying problem. Destructive behaviors tend to be chronic, cause much stress in the family and cause ongoing harm to the adolescent. Conversely, inappropriate behaviors can be an adaptive and natural part of the adolescent’s journey to adulthood.


What to do about it:

First, always seek professional help if you have an adolescent engaging in destructive behaviors. Always rule out underlying medical causes, substance abuse causes and psychiatric causes as well as systemic problems that may be influencing the adolescent. Take care to find an objective professional versed in all these areas. Try to avoid professionals with an investment in a certain type of treatment. If I work at a psychiatric facility I will tend to identify psychiatric problems. Conversely If I work at a substance use treatment facility I will tend to identify substance use as the primary problem. Ask for referrals from friends, school personal and relatives.


DO NOT go on line, surf websites and start dialing the phone. I am adamant about this as many practices and facilities are ethical and truly are there to help where others are unscrupulous and out to benefit financially with no consideration for the person’s needs.

Next, learn about setting appropriate limits, the use of contracting and what has been called mindful parenting.


Often times I find parents can benefit from seeking treatment and guidance from an appropriate professional. A common mistake I see parents make is believing they can convince the adolescent their behavior is inappropriate. Another mistake I see is when the parent works hard to convince their teen just how scared, angry or uncomfortable their child’s behavior makes them. They become invested in these tactics and continue to use them even though they are not working.


Here is a classic scenario from family therapy with adolescents. Mom begins to berate the adolescent with arguments as to why they should study, “you will never get anywhere in life, look at cousin Bob who didn’t study, it’s a family value to be successful at school, how are you going to be a pilot without studying……….. “ Dad then becomes a bit agitated, and tells the teen he is upsetting his mother and is sick of this, he will study or else. Mom then tells the father he should calm down and the father turns to his wife and yells, I am calm!” (example of splitting) Notice the focus has now moved from the child’s behavior to the father’s behavior


I intervene and say,” boy, you guys really put a lot of energy in convincing your son to study. Seems you really care about his getting somewhere in life. I the ask, “how long has your son struggled with grades?” They all respond about five years since eighth grade. Me, “Oh wow that long, tell me how long have you engaged in this type of exchange.” About five years they reply. Me, “really and how is that working for you?” They ask, what do you mean?” Me, “well, engaging in this behavior what’s the success rate for you, for every twenty minutes of convincing, (nagging) what’s the grade point improvement?”


Hopefully I cause an ah ha moment for the parents as I have pointed that this tactic is not working, has not worked in the past and probably won’t work in the future. Then I can ask, as they see this is not working, do they want to try something different. If they say yes, I usually get the adolescent to say they will try something different as well. I then will start to introduce the concepts of contracting, limit setting and Mindful parenting.

Contracting involves setting limits on problematic behavior and enacting consequences when the contract is broken as well as building in rewards when the contract is followed. Usually part of the contract includes the parents agreeing not to discuss grades with their teen. Rather to enact the consequences and rewards.

Here is an example:

For a couple years the teenage daughter and her mom have had a rough time with the daughter getting up on time and getting in moms car to get to school on time. They yell, argue, curse, water has been thrown and often times the result is the daughter being late for school and mom being late for work. “How is that working for you?” They say not well and agree to contract around the behavior. The daughter agrees to try to get up on time. Mom (and dad) agree that the daughter will be left alone in the morning and left to her own resources to be on time without any prompting. All agree that if the daughter is not in the car by the specified time mom will leave her home, not excuse her from school and she will not have the use of electronic devices that evening.


Most of the time this backfires, at least at first. Mom can’t seem to get in the car alone and decides to remind her daughter of the contract. Daughter screams,” you see you promised and now you’re yelling at me” and the old behavior pattern returns. Giving up that old behavior is hard to do. It usually takes a session or two to help the parents grieve the loss of the belief that the old behavior can work and adapt to a new pattern. Ultimately the contract usually proves quite effective.


Mindful parenting, in a nutshell, is being mindful of emotions and the functions of our behaviors. It involves having supports and outlets for frustration. Mindful parenting is centered on the fact that we cannot control others (even our children’s) behaviors but we can control our own. It involves processing the loss of old beliefs that gave us a false sense of security. Ultimately Mindful parenting creates a calmer, nontoxic and nurturing environment in the household.

In summary, the answer is not to give up but rather to accept that some of these inappropriate and/or destructive behaviors may occur, to be prepared and have a plan. Being a good parent IS NOT measured by the child’s behavior it is measured by your reaction. How you respond is the key.


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