Dealing with Anger and Violence in Troubled Teens

Parenting a teenager is never easy, but when your teen is violent, depressed, abusing alcohol or drugs, or engaging in other reckless behaviors, it can seem overwhelming. You may feel exhausted from lying awake at night worrying about where your child is, who he or she is with, and what they're doing. You may despair over failed attempts to communicate, the endless fights, and the open defiance. Or you may live in fear of your teen's violent mood swings and explosive anger. While parenting a troubled teen can often seem like an impossible task, there are steps you can take to ease the chaos at home and help your teen transition into a happy, successful young adult.

Normal teen vs. troubled teen behavior

As teenagers begin to assert their independence and find their own identity, many experience behavioral changes that can seem bizarre and unpredictable to parents. Your sweet, obedient child who once couldn’t bear to be separated from you now won’t be seen within 20 yards of you, and greets everything you say with a roll of the eyes or the slam of a door. These, unfortunately, are the actions of a normal teenager.

As the parent of a troubled teen, you’re faced with even greater challenges. A troubled teen faces behavioral, emotional, or learning problems beyond the normal teenage issues. They may repeatedly practice at-risk behaviors such as violence, skipping school, drinking, drug use, sex, self-harming, shoplifting, or other criminal acts. Or they may exhibit symptoms of mental health problems like depression, anxiety, or eating disorders. While any negative behavior repeated over and over can be a sign of underlying trouble, it’s important for parents to understand which behaviors are normal during adolescent development, and which can point to more serious problems.

When Typical Teen Behavior Becomes Troubled Teen Behavior

Typical Teen Behavior

Warning Signs of a Troubled Teen

Changing appearance. Keeping up with fashion is important to teens. That may mean wearing provocative or attention-seeking clothing or dyeing hair. Unless your teen wants tattoos, avoid criticizing and save your protests for the bigger issues. Fashions change, and so will your teen.

Changing appearance can be a red flag if it’s accompanied by problems at school or other negative changes in behavior, or if there’s evidence of cutting and self-harm or extreme weight loss or weight gain.

Increased arguments and rebellious behavior. As teens begin seeking independence, you will frequently butt heads and argue.

Constant escalation of arguments, violence at home, skipping school, getting in fights, and run-ins with the law are all red flag behaviors that go beyond the norm of teenage rebellion. 
Mood swings. Hormones and developmental changes often mean that your teen will experience mood swings, irritable behavior, and struggle to manage his or her emotions.

Rapid changes in personality, falling grades, persistent sadness, anxiety, or sleep problems could indicate depression, bullying, or another emotional health issue. Take any talk about suicide seriously.

Experimenting with alcohol or drugs. Most teens will try alcohol and smoke a cigarette at some point. Many will even try marijuana. Talking to your kids frankly and openly about drugs and alcohol is one way to ensure it doesn’t progress further.

When alcohol or drug use becomes habitual, especially when it’s accompanied by problems at school or home, it may indicate a substance abuse issue or other underlying problems.

 

More influenced by friends than parents.Friends become extremely important to teens and can have a great influence on their choices. As teens focus more on their peers, that inevitably means they withdraw from you. It may leave you feeling hurt, but it doesn’t mean your teen doesn’t still need your love.

Red flags include a sudden change in peer group (especially if the new friends encourage negative behavior), refusing to comply with reasonable rules and boundaries, or avoiding the consequences of bad behavior by lying. Your teen spending too much time alone can also indicate problems.

Seeking professional help for a troubled teen

Teenagers are individuals with unique personalities and their own likes and dislikes. Some things about them are universal, though. No matter how much your teen seems to withdraw from you emotionally, no matter how independent your teen appears, or how troubled your teen becomes, he or she still needs your attention and to feel loved by you.

If you identify red flag behaviors in your teen, consult a doctor, counselor, therapist, or other mental health professional for help finding appropriate treatment.

Even when you seek professional help for your teen, though, that doesn’t mean that your job is done. As detailed below, there are many things you can do at home to help your teen and improve the relationship between you. And you don’t need to wait for a diagnosis to start putting them into practice.

Understanding Teen development

No, your teen is not an alien being from a distant planet, but he or she is wired differently. A teenager’s brain is still actively developing, processing information differently than a mature adult’s brain. The frontal cortex—the part of the brain used to manage emotions, make decisions, reason, and control inhibitions—is restructured during the teenage years, forming new synapses at an incredible rate, while the whole brain does not reach full maturity until about the mid-20’s.

Your teen may be taller than you and seem mature in some respects, but often he or she is simply unable to think things through at an adult level. Hormones produced during the physical changes of adolescence can further complicate things. Now, these biological differences don’t excuse teens’ poor behavior or absolve them from accountability for their actions, but they may help explain why teens behave so impulsively or frustrate parents and teachers with their poor decisions, social anxiety, and rebelliousness. Understanding adolescent development can help you find ways to stay connected to your teen and overcome problems together.