Teens act out because they are upset about something, and don’t have the maturity to express their feelings. A lot of times they aren’t really even aware of their feelings. Something has disturbed their equilibrium and it has caused them to reach for comfort in unhealthy ways.
When I was seventeen I acted out. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was upset because my parents were moving to a new city as I was leaving for college. I had told them it didn’t matter since I wouldn’t be living with them anymore. I really believed this. I figured I could just come back to my hometown and stay with another friend. Meanwhile I was very, very disrespectful to my parents. I thought they were unreasonable people and were too strict. I would have told you then that my behavior was because of my curfew, chores expected of me, etc. I can tell you now with absolute certainty I was acting out because of the ensuing changes.
If your teenager is acting out, try to think about what has changed. To begin with, let’s clarify what it means to “act out.” Acting out is when your normally docile, respectful adolescent suddenly has some delinquent behaviors. It seems out of left field and it seems to have happened very suddenly. If your teen slowly starts smoking marijuana and over the course of a few months it escalates to every day, this isn’t acting out; this is a budding addiction. Acting out is if your teenager never smokes pot and suddenly smokes it every day for a week. In either case, therapy is warranted. However, the causes and treatment plans for both situations are very different.
For the acting out teen, what are they reacting to? Did a boyfriend or girlfriend just break up with them? Did you just tell them you’re getting a divorce? Did you tell them money is tight when it never has been before? Is grandma coming to live with you? What change is going on for them? While it might not seem like anything big to you, it might seem like a huge adjustment for your teenager.
How is therapy done with a teen who is acting out? The first step is to immediately stop your teenager from continuing unsafe behavior. Once your teen is safe, then the emotional work begins. It is important for your adolescent use the counseling process to recognize their behavior is a reaction to something. We then work together to help your teen adjust appropriately to what is different in his or her life. For the most part the acting out stops as your adolescent becomes more comfortable with the changes.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT