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Is my teen in an Adolescent Phase—or are they participating in Out-of-Control Behavior?

How can I know if my child is going through an adolescent phase, or if his out-of-control behavior is here to stay?

“Every teen goes through this,” you tell yourself. But in the back of your mind, you wonder if your child’s disrespect, acting out, and destructive behavior is normal. When you’re a parent, it’s troubling and sad to think that your son or daughter has a serious problem. And it’s painful to think they might be different from other kids. It’s why many parents say “Oh, it’s just a phase. My teenager will grow out of it.”  Calling it a phase is a way for some parents to avoid the unpleasant feeling in their gut that their child’s acting-out or destructive behavior is a significant problem.

How do I know the difference between Normal Adolescent Phases and Inappropriate Behavior?

When you look at what is considered to be a normal adolescent phase, understand that there’s a continuum. And within that continuum, you’ll see different types of behavior, depending on where your child is developmentally.  So picture a line with a well-behaved child at one end and an out-of-control child at the other. I’ve found that most kids are somewhere in the middle. I believe most parents instinctively know where the line is between normal and inappropriate behavior. For example, if your child’s behavior becomes verbally or physically abusive, if she’s stealing, if she’s coming home high or drunk, or she’s not coming home at all, that’s the line. 

Parents may be in denial for a while, but at some point, they simply won’t be able to deny it any longer. They’ll know. So let’s look at what might be considered normal versus out-of-control teen behaviors.

Normal Teen Behaviors

During normal adolescence, you might observe any of the following about your child’s behavior:

  • Is moody and secretive
  • Spends much of his time alone in his room
  • Gets frustrated easily and stomps out of the room
  • Is short-tempered and impatient, especially with parents
  • Doesn’t want to spend time with the family
  • Is late for curfew
  • Says things like, “Only my friends understand me! I hate it here, I wish I could leave.”
  • Is discontented and restless

As unpleasant as this is at times, this is all part of their way as teens and pre-teens to become individuals – beginning to separate from their parents—it’s part of the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Out-of-Control Teen Behaviors

But some behaviors are not normal. Rather, they’re warning signs. The following behaviors fit into this category:

  • Stealing
  • Being physically abusive to others or destructive in the house
  • Being verbally abusive, intimidating or threatening
  • Abusing a younger sibling
  • Coming home drunk or high
  • Staying out all night
  • Getting arrested

Make no mistake—there’s something wrong with these behaviors. Parents who tell themselves “it’s just phase” or “it’s what teenagers do” are setting themselves up for a rude awakening later on. If any of this is going on in your house, remember that the earlier you intervene with your child, the better. The sooner you tell your child that what he’s doing is not acceptable and give him the tools he needs to behave differently, the better. Understand that kids who seek control by acting out—by being physically abusive, verbally abusive, destructive, or abusing substances—don’t know how to solve problems. They don’t know how to make friends or communicate in a way that gets their needs met. So they turn to other ways to get their needs met—they turn to drugs and alcohol and inappropriate behavior.

Dealing with Your Child’s Thinking Errors

Parents of acting-out kids ask, “Is my son angry? Is he frustrated?” The answer is usually, “Yes, he is. But probably not for the reasons he’s telling you.” An acting-out child will say things like: “If you’d leave me alone, I’d behave better.”  Or he’ll tell you it’s the school’s fault: “They don’t understand me there, they keep picking on me.” 

The reality is that your child’s feelings of anger and frustration are coming from his inability to solve problems such as getting along with other people, managing impulses, and following directions. His anger and frustration are also coming from his unwillingness to make the right choices or his inability to ask for help.  A child in this situation is making thinking errors. Just as there are spelling errors and math errors, there are also thinking errors. When your child blames somebody else for a problem he caused, that’s a thinking error. When he tells you that it’s somebody else’s fault that he broke a window, that’s also a thinking error.  You see kids use all kinds of thinking errors: they’ll blame you, justify their behavior, and lie. Acting-out kids are willing to back up their thinking errors by punching a hole in the wall or calling you foul names.

Focus on Thoughts and Behavior, Not Feelings

If your child doesn’t know how to get along with people, he might try to control the situation through his behavior, manipulation, and dishonesty. And if you ask what he feels, he won’t answer, he will just become more aggressive because he is not clear how to respond. 

They truly don’t know how they feel. Many times, their feelings are so uncomfortable that they won’t acknowledge them in the first place. That’s why it’s vitally important to focus on thoughts and behavior, not feelings. Reality is, when we get our thoughts and behavior under control our feelings will generally improve.  This is why it is best that you teach them to act and think differently-to eliminate the thinking errors-so that their mood and feelings improve. 

Kids Lose Control to Get Control

Here’s the truth: acting-out kids lose control as a way to get control. And it works.  Here’s what I mean. Let’s say you tell your 14-year-old that it’s time to put down their phone and go do homework. They don’t want to and start freaking out and punching holes in walls. After a few such incidences, you stop telling them what to do altogether—you decide it is just not worth the fight.  This is pretty normal for most parents. They stop their child from acting-out by no longer asking him to do his homework, or whatever it is he needs to do.

But here’s the danger: now your child has gotten more control over you. It seems as if they lost control, but in the long run, they have gained control. Their out-of-control behavior has gotten you to stop telling them what to do. They were able to get out of doing homework. Who’s in control now.

But understand that it’s an unhealthy kind of control. Believe me, if your child is doing this already, they will continue to add behavior that will increase your tolerance for this inappropriate behavior. They will keep on till you to accept this bad behavior and may even get you to consider it normal. They will push you beyond the limits of what you used to believe was wrong and inappropriate. 

At the same time, without realizing it you will decrease your expectations for appropriate behavior. You simply won’t expect as much from them. Little by little, your child will become comfortable using acting-out as a way to solve his problems.

Kids Can Make Appropriate Choices

The whole idea that an out-of-control teen or a kid with behavioral problems can’t make appropriate choices is a lie or falsehood. 

Having worked with teens for many years, even the most difficult ones can make appropriate choices—and they do so every day. That’s why they act out with some teachers but not with others. Or they act out at home but not at school. Or with one parent but not the other.

I would hear from parents about the negative behavior they experienced at home, however these same kids in a youth detention center, where their probation officer sent them, weren’t cursing out the guards. They were saying “yes sir” and “no sir.” They were able to make good decisions when necessary, which confirms the previously mentioned point – there is something else driving their thoughts and behavior that we need to discover and clear up. It is the adolescent “Cycle of Need” 

When a child has been compliant and “better behaved” at one point in their life, but then things change – you must ask what has changed.  When a baby cries, we feed him – meeting the need and he relaxes (stops crying).  If the issues was a dirty diaper then he will still be crying, showing us we had not met the need – and we change our response/action to meet the child’s need.  In the adolescent stage we have similar behaviors, and as mentioned earlier they may not be able to clearly tell you what the need is but as a parent we must find ways to understand and meet the need.  To be honest we cannot punish behavior out of a teen, rather we must home them accountable and then help them change their behavior to more appropriate ways of getting their needs met.

Conclusion

The idea that a child will grow out of this type of destructive behavior is not realistic. Understand that if your teen is acting out and using intimidation to get his way, he’s already put this behavior into place as his problem-solving mechanism. 

And the sad thing is, it works for him. The people in his life back down and let him have his way until he reaches adulthood. But then he has real problems. Or the parent holds the teen accountable but it is not producing the results expected, the teen gets even worse because of stubbornness.  It may be that they are still not getting their need met – remember it is not just about punishment, it is about changing behavior. 

If your child reaches adulthood and doesn’t learn the all-important life skills of compromise, acceptance, and appropriate behavior, he will have trouble holding a job or staying in a healthy relationship. The harsh reality is that letting a child get away with this type of behavior will handicap him for the rest of his life. If your teen is in the adolescent stage and the things you are trying are not producing change, seek some professional help as you deal with their behavior. If there is acting out behavior – move quickly to gain help for them.

– James Chinners, LICSW-PIP
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker
Mostellar Medical Clinic 
Serves children and families experiencing mental health
and/or substance abuse issues with the intention
and purpose to bring healing and restoration
into the lives of individuals so as to affect meaningful change.

Chinnerschristiancounseling.org.

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