Why Do Teenagers "Act Out"?
Updated: Apr 11, 2022
Teenagers are trying to figure a lot of things out during adolescence: who they are, how to be with friends, and what paths to pursue. That work takes time, energy, and space. They are transitioning from a kid to an adult at all levels—physically, emotionally, and cognitively—and it often does not go smoothly.
Adolescents can be moody, distant from their families, hyper-focused on their peers, tired, resistant to parental input, and somewhat impulsive and self-absorbed. These behaviors can be especially pronounced at home, which (believe it or not) is a safe space for them—a place where they don’t have to keep up all the defenses utilized when they are "out in the world". In response, it’s easy for parents to worry or overreact to these dynamics, and they report feeling ineffective and shut out from the lives of their teenagers. While not pleasant to deal with, all of this is part of the typical transition to adulthood. Some teenagers will ask their parents if they can talk to a counselor to ease the stresses involved in these transitions, and I encourage parents to respond positively to this request if possible through the school, religious organizations, community agencies, or private practices.
It is a different situation when parents learn that their teenagers are acting out in harmful ways— towards themselves or others. Behaviors that may require professional help include self-harm such as cutting or burning, problematic eating, excessive drinking or drug use, suicidal ideation or gestures, sexual acting out, general defiance of authority, and legal problems. Such acts can put a family into crisis.
Teenagers can act out when they are not able to properly process what they are feeling, thinking or doing. They may engage in acting-out behaviors for many reasons: a cry for help, impulse control issues, a distraction, or to express their emotional pain. Individual counseling can provide teenagers with a safe place to talk and learn about themselves, their peers, school issues, parents, moods, coping skills, pressures and expectations, and more in a non-judgmental and confidential place. It also can provide parents with positive ways to help their teenagers through such a stressful time.