6 Reasons Why Your Teenager Might Be Acting Out Impulsively

Many parents hope that their teenager acting out is “just a phase they’ll grow out of” or “part of being a teenager nowadays,” but there’s a difference between moodiness, bending rules, and being unsafe. Understanding why your teenager is acting out is more effective in knowing what needs could be met in safer ways rather than judging them for participating in risky activities. The teenage brain is accepted to be more emotional and impulsive than the adult brain; however, some research suggests that a lack of experience and desire to explore the world also contribute to “irrational” decision-making in adolescence. Although teenagers are not expected to make responsible decisions in the same capacity adults are, most teenagers do not participate in risky or impulsive behaviors to the point where they experience negative consequences, such as a decline in mental health and problems in social relationships.

Examples of risky or impulsive behaviors

  • Alcohol, drug, and tobacco use
  • Unsafe driving or riding
  • Unprotected or unsafe sex
  • Stealing and compulsive shopping
  • Physical Violence
  • Self harm

When many parents find out that their teenager has been acting out in any of these ways, they wonder if they are aware of consequences or what they were thinking when they made those decisions. The answer isn’t that they weren’t thinking at all, in fact, they may have believed their plans were well-thought out according to their motivations. However, parents hope that their teenager’s main motivation is to “stay safe and say no to bad choices” without considering what might makes these decisions attractive to some teenagers.

Why are Teenagers Drawn to Risky Behaviors:

  1. Instant Gratification: Teenagers are encouraged to live fast and enjoy their youth while they can, which impacts their ability to think of long-term consequences. They may be able to recognize that they are not making the most sustainable choices, but believe that the immediate pleasure they gain is worth any problems down the line.
  2. Sensation-seeking. The neurotransmitter dopamine is responsible for the reward system that motivates instant gratification and sensation-seeking. Adolescence is a period of identity exploration, thrill-chasing, and testing the limits of boundaries. Teenagers are motivated to try new experiences to learn more about the world from their own perspective.
  3. Peer Acceptance. Risky behavior peaks around age 16, when teenagers are first given the freedom to drive on their own and spend more time with friends. Although peer pressure is a questionable factor, many teenagers are more likely to participate in risky behavior if they believe their friends would approve or be impressed. Teenagers are drawn to people that perceive to be similar to themselves, so risk-taking teenagers are more likely to surround themselves with like-minded peers, which normalizes their own behavior. As teenagers become more independent, they value their friends’ approval less.
  4. Invincibility Fable. Some teenagers are aware of the potential consequences of their behavior, but are convinced that they are different or that it won’t happen to them. Their self-centered view of the world may change as they learn to take other people’s perspectives, but it helps them justify taking risks as they believe that they can get away with things or are better prepared to handle the consequences.
  5. Lack of appropriate education. Part of the reason teenagers may take risks in order to seek out novel experiences is because they believe that is the only way they can learn about them. Many teenagers don’t want to trust what they hear until they’ve experienced it themselves and formed their own conclusions. They may have had abstinence-based sex-ed in schools or been part of a DARE program that presented information in an unrealistic way. Many of the messages presented in the media tend to go to the other extreme in glamorizing risky behavior. It is possible that they may have a greater ability to weigh consequences than assumed, but that their need for social information is left unsatisfied.
  6. Mental health issues. Your teenager might be acting out to cope with underlying depression, anxiety, anger management, or low-self esteem. Mental health issues might make it more difficult to recognize that impulsivity is a problem or that there are solutions for it, if they believe it is something ingrained in them.

How Elevations can Help

Elevations RTC is an all gender residential treatment center for teens ages 13-18 that focuses on the intersection of mental health issues and risky and impulsive behaviors. We understand that risky behaviors may be influenced by a variety of underlying issues and use a multidisciplinary approach to address how risky behaviors have impacted students’ functioning. We provide intensive psychiatric medical care, educational support, group therapy, and experiential learning to help students learn more about their own behavior and set goals for their personal success. Elevations is relationship-based and emphasizes building social skills and self-esteem to move forward and develop healthier coping skills.


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