How to Make Sense of Your Teen's Problem Behaviors

Some behaviors that your teen displays in the moment may seem irrational to you. They may upset you. They may baffle you because you see how they can be harmful or have long-term negative consequences.

But in the moment they make a whole lot of sense.

Drinking at a party may ease your teen's social anxiety.

Self-harm may give an immediate release to a build up of emotional pain.

Punching a wall (or a person) may provide instant relief to a burning anger that's brewing inside.

Behaviors always serve a purpose.

And when you're looking to better understand your teen, it can be helpful to understand the WHY behind the action (and be open and curious about this) rather than jumping right to conclusions and consequences.


In a relationship first stance, you always start with validation, like,

"You must have been in a lot of pain to have hurt yourself like that."

Or, "Seems like you were pretty angry to have punched that wall."

^^ This is what eases your teen's emotional experience and opens them up to actually talking to you about it rather than being defensive and shutting down.

And, just like behaviors always have a purpose, they always have a consequence too (good or bad.)

Drinking at a party may ease social anxiety, but it also may lead to underage drinking charges or moments of embarrassment when you're less inhibited and have poor judgment.

Self-harm may help with in the moment pain, but it often causes shame, fuels self-hatred and leads to the desire to ultimately self-harm more.


Punching a wall may help you release anger instantly, but may also lead to hurt hands and having to fix the hole you created using your own time and finances.

Use the DBT skill Pros and Cons to help your teen decide whether or not their behavior has been helpful or harmful

Stop reacting to behaviors with punishments that make your teen resent YOU. Instead, Validate FIRST, then talk through the pros and cons that THEY see in their chosen behaviors and help them come up with a new way to think about and act on this feeling in the future.

This is how you set your teen up for being a successful adult. It's all about empowering them to learn appropriate ways of interacting and responding (not punishing them for acting on feelings they haven't learned to control yet.)

This doesn't mean that you condone unhealthy behaviors. It means you understand them and troubleshoot how to manage the feelings behind them so that they behaviors fundamentally change. (Otherwise you're punishing a behavior but not addressing the feeling that's causing it. And this typically just leads to sneaky and dishonest teens that try not to get caught but continue to do the same thing.)

You can validate the feelings behind your teen’s behavior and still set limits on behavior! Try this three step method:

Acknowledge your teen’s feeling: “I know you’re angry that I won’t allow you out past curfew.”

Communicate the limit: “But punching the wall is not an appropriate way to express this anger."

Provide alternatives: “So, you can choose to yell, journal, text to a friend to vent or go punch the punching bag in the basement-- which do you choose right now?"

With this method, you are validating your teen’s feeling while maintaining house rules and expectations. In addition, you are providing some acceptable alternatives that may satisfy your teen’s initial desire (at least in part) to show that you care about your teen’s wants and needs.