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.

The 6 Components of Your Teen's Emotions... And How to Manage Them

When your teen is sad and they don't know why... 

Sometimes your teen may wake up and roll out of bed in a bad more. (Sometimes you may do this too.)

And you may question where it came from and ask yourself...

... why are you sad?

... what happened in the past few days that's getting to you?

... how does this even make sense?

And typically these questions arise from the desire to FIX the situation.

You don't want to feel sad. And you're convinced that if you find the reason for it, you can fix it and you won't feel sad anymore.



Understand what they are and how to address them and you'll know how to acknowledge your feelings AND move forward (even if it takes a little time to process.)


This is when you're hungry, tired, sick or not taking care of yourself with diet and exercise (or you're overusing alcohol or abusing substances.) These are examples of ways that taking care of yourself physically impacts you emotionally.

Think about it...

When you haven't slept well, you're way more likely to fly off the handle or break down in tears. So is your teen.

Routine and commitment to taking care of your physical health is the single best way to address these vulnerability factors and feel good about yourself. It's something we check in and hold teens accountable for each week in sessions using a DBT Diary Card too!


These are the events that prompt a reaction: the situations, thoughts and feelings that lead to an emotional experience.

Some examples include...

+ being told "no"

+ conflict with friends or siblings

+ a pile of school work or overwhelming demands

Knowing your teen's triggers and creating a plan to Cope Ahead so that they know how to handle the situation is a helpful way to manage triggers. And, identifying triggers then noticing them in the moment is a mindfulness practice in and of itself.


Your thoughts create your feelings about a situation. It's all based on how you interpret the event. Most times, these thoughts stem from beliefs your teen already holds about themselves and the world.

For example, if a friend doesn't answer a text right away, your teen may interpret this as, "She must hate me" based on a past experience of losing friendships or being rejected. And then your teen would feel sad which *could* lead to self-destructive behaviors as a result.

But, another teen could have the same experience of a friend not responding and think, "They must be busy at their job" and then move on with their day doing something fun or productive.

In therapy we work to challenge your teen's unhelpful interpretations with questions like...

...Is this ultimately true?

...Is there another way of looking at the situation that's more helpful or empowering for you?

(And you can ask the same questions at home too!)


When you experience emotions, you hold them within your body too.

You may notice that...

your heart races

your shoulders get tenseyour blood feels like it's boiling

your breathing gets more shallow

And when these body changes occur, it may prompt even MORE thoughts and feelings about what's happening. You may register one of these sensations and then begin to believe that something is *really* wrong.

Have you ever had a panic attack?

You begin to think that you're actually dying. << This is an interpretation (thought) about your emotion and the related body sensation.

Using DBT Self-Soothe and TIPP Skills can help you to address and change your body chemistry and physical experience of your emotions so that you feel calmer and are able to think more clearly.

Some Self-Soothe examples include...

+ Taking deep breaths

+ Listening to soothing music

+ Taking a hot bath or shower


Thoughts and feelings lead to behaviors. Behaviors are the outward expression of what's happening for your teen internally (and not a personal affront to you as a parent)

Urges and behaviors that are self-destructive are an indication that your teen is depressed, not a bid for attention or to manipulate to get what they want.

(That being said, sometimes your teen's desire to sit in their room is just a desire to be a typical teen and sit in their room. We have ALL the details on typical vs. problematic teen behaviors that we're spilling in our new parent support group here.)

When you can help your teen find a NAME for their emotion and VALIDATE them in the moment, you can help them feel heard which automatically decreases the need for the urge or behavior that's being expressed.

(Feeling understood = resolution for problem behaviors)


I'm not referring to "No driving for a week" but rather the natural consequences that come from your teen's emotional experience.

They may feel guilty for acting out.They may feel frustration that they didn't get the assignment done.They may feel anxious that another urge will arise.

In therapy, we often rewind and replay the incident by breaking it down like this. (In DBT we call this a Behavior Chain Analysis and we'll teach your teen how to do it too so they can essentially learn to become their own therapist.)

I'll often say things like...

If you went back and did it again, what would you do differently?

Where can you plug in skills that could have changed the outcome?

What do you know now as a result that you can use next time a similar situation arises?

And once your teen is calm, you too can return to the situation with them to help them learn from it and move forward.

Understanding the components of an emotion and how you can break it down will help you know how to respond to your teen AND how to help them understand what to do too!

30 Coping Skills Your Teen Can Use at Home

Coping skills work if you work them! 


A coping skill is something to try when you are feeling overwhelmed by your emotions. It's a way to help your body and mind take a break so that you can come back to the situation at hand and attend to problem solve.

Sometimes there's not a solution and then it's time to work on acceptance.

It's important to note that coping skills are meant to be PLANNED and TEMPORARY.

They are not meant to make you feel happy. They are meant to help you manage a difficult situation without making a self-destructive choice that could make the situation worse.

Here's our three-step plan for using coping skills effectively:

Know the warning signs of overwhelm. Catch that very first sign that your emotions are shifting and become aware of your urges and behaviors that coincide with your difficult mood. It may be helpful to rate your mood from 0 to 10 so that you can assess the situation and best communicate your feelings to others.

Choose a coping skill to try and commit to it for at least 15 minutes. Rate your mood again and decide if the skill you chose has been helpful. If it has, you can continue with this or try something else. If it hasn't, choose another skill from your list. (It's helpful to have a list of skills to try BEFORE you're in crisis since thinking rationally when your emotions are high is more difficult.

Re-evaluate and rate your mood. Return to step one as needed. If you feel calm and capable of having a conversation, it may be helpful to try to problem solve or talk out the situation with a trusted friend or professional.

Check out this AMAZING list of coping skills that our campers came up with in DBT Summer Camp...

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Want a list of 100 more positive activities to help your teen cope?

 Invite them to do some activities together with you and encourage them to engage in a few on their own or with friends too!  It's all about surrounding your teen with positive supports and healthy activities so that they can have a break from overwhelming emotions until they are calm enough to problem solve or work through the situation that's causing distress.

How to help your teen feel understood

When you find someone that understands you, the world just makes sense. 

We all fear judgment. Feeling embarrassed or singled out is one of the biggest fears that we as humans experience. And, part of a typical teen's development is experiencing the "personal fable" -- the belief that you are the center of the world and that everyone's focused on you.

When you're eating with new friends, you fear that they are judging you for your food choice, or how much you're eating.

When you enter a crowd you imagine that they're thinking about the shirt you're wearing that you may have second guessed when you put it on that morning.

When you have a pimple, it becomes the only thing you believe people see when they look at you.

The world becomes a mirror for all your insecurities. 
And anything you think about yourself becomes magnified and projected onto everyone else.

It feels lonely.
It feels rejecting.
It feels humiliating.

And your teen doesn't have to go through it alone.

Learning that you're not the only one who feels a certain way and that others understand you is a VALIDATING experience. And for a highly sensitive teen, validation is step one before you can begin to see any kind of change at all.

How can you validate your teen?

Hear your teen out without telling them what to do, making disapproving faces or "shoulding" them into further shame or embarrassment. Just be there to listen without trying to change anything.

Decide how your teen may be feeling based on what they are sharing, their tone and their facial expression, then reflect this back to them.

This can be as simple as:

"I can tell you're really angry about this."

^^ Use a tone and body language that communicate this message too.

Give your teen permission to stay sad or anxious or stuck if that's what they desire. Or, you can offer choices for how to shift out of difficult thoughts and feelings and to make changes. >> It has to be their decision.

Imagine that your support is like a buffet. They can view all the options and pick the ones that work best for them.

Here's how:

"If you want me to sit here and rub your back while you cry, I can do that for you. Or, if you'd like to go for a walk or watch Netflix together to take your mind off this, I'm game for that too."

You don't need to solve your teen's problems for them to feel supported. (In fact they're telling us here at the teen support center that that's not what they want at all.)

What they really need is to have a felt sense that they are not alone. And when you validate your teen's feelings, you accomplish this.

Overcome the myth of, "I'll do better in school once I get to college because I'll care more and I'm paying for it." 

This is an example of magical thinking at it's finest. And it's the lie that many teens are telling themselves to give them permission to coast through the rest of the school year.

But here's the truth

Unless you COMMIT to a routine that brings you success right now, it's going to be super hard to change your internal motivation or day-to-day work ethic just because you've had a change of location (even when there's more money involved.)



Here's how...

People tend to get overwhelmed with big responsibilities, so it helps to break them down into smaller steps. Make a list of overall goals, then schedule smaller objectives directly into your calendar. Small wins lead to big successes.

Having a daily routine allows you to wash, rinse and repeat success in a way that feels normal and keeps you from getting stuck. Write down your weekly routine. Of course you can allow yourself to be flexible within this routine, but committing to an hour of studying per day, or physical activity daily is a way of creating a strong foundation for a happy and healthy life.

Productivity is great, but when you ignore what makes you happy, tasks and responsibilities get more difficult to complete. Build in time for fun and self-care every single day. Make a list of activities that you feel confident when you're engaging in and that you feel happy when you complete. Make doing at least one per day as routine as brushing your teeth.

When you can be mindful of how routines help you build a more satisfying life and you commit to taking the time to make routine a habit, you'll soon be soaring towards your goals and ready for college now, not crossing your fingers and hoping it happens when you get there.


4 Ways to Manage Suffering to Empower Your Teen

Even when you're suffering you have a choice

When you are having a hard time, you may want to ignore the situation. You may try to push it out of your mind and present it isn't happening.

Or, you may feel angry and continually try to change other people and the world around you to bend to your needs. And when that doesn't work, you feel even more angry, sad and helpless.


Acceptance instead of resistance releases you to access resources, and move forward.

Know that even when you're in pain, you have choices. Here are the four choices that you can enact when you are suffering...

Change the Situation

First, figure out if you have some control in the situation. If there are things you can change, go ahead and change them. This may mean walking away from toxic friendships, asserting your needs to someone, or beginning to exercise. When you have a way to change your situation, it's all about problem solving to make your life better.

Change How You Think About the Situation

If you're stuck in a situation that's difficult for you, sometimes reframing the difficulty can make it easier. Did you learn something about yourself or your life as a result of a difficulty? Can you think of a long boring car ride instead as an opportunity to connect with your family in a new way? How can you look at your situation differently in order to find balance?

Accept the Situation

Stop fighting reality and start accepting it as it is. This is what can give you the freedom to move forward. In DBT, the idea of RADICAL ACCEPTANCE means being willing to experience a difficult situation without trying to change it or escape it. It's understanding that you have to go through difficult feelings to get to the other side of them.

Stay Stuck in Difficult Feelings

This is a choice. No one can make you change or accept difficulties before you're ready. You may remain in denial, anger or sadness for quite some time before you're ready to move into another choice.

You are NOT your suffering.

Understand that you always have a choice and the possibility of rewriting your story so that you are not a victim of your circumstances. Even when life is hard and the people around you are treating you poorly, changing your outlook and responses can do wonders for your own mood and emotional experience.


It's time to break the silence...

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Hey there, parent... 

It's a stressful time of year.  School is almost over and with finals and APs and keystones and senior projects, there is just SO MUCH PRESSURE on your teen to get it all done... to not only keep up with their friends, but to complete assignments and make big life decisions with what they hope is a perceived effortless perfection.

Why are we doing this to our teens?

Why do we do it to ourselves?

At the teen support center, we see over 100 teens in office each week (between groups and therapists) and a major consensus right now is that "THE STRUGGLE IS REAL." 

Teens are reporting "dark thoughts"

Teens are engaging in unhealthy behaviors as a means of escape

Teens are shutting down and just simply refusing to complete work because it's all TOO MUCH

Be aware of the warning signs 

If your teen is isolating more than usual, reports feeling hopeless or makes statements about wanting to go to sleep and never wake up, or wonders aloud if anyone would care if they weren't around, these are signs that your teen may be passively or actively having suicidal thoughts.  

Talk to your teen! 

It is important to be direct when talking to your teen about safety concerns.  If you are unable to comfortably ask the questions to keep your teen safe, they will sense this and perhaps not be straightforward with you in an attempt to spare your feelings. 

Many parents fear that being so direct and asking questions about suicide will put ideas in their teen’s head that was not there before.  This is simply not true.  Bringing up the idea of suicide shows that you are taking your child’s pain seriously and that there is no topic that is too shocking or difficult for you to hear about if they choose to talk about it.

Arm yourself with the same knowledge that a clinician assessing for suicide would have so that you can understand your teen's thoughts and feelings.

Using the questions below, you can assess your teen’s intentions.

  •     Are you feeling hopeless about your future?

  •     Do you have thoughts to end your life?

  •     Do you have a plan for how you would end your life?

  •     When were you thinking about doing this?

  •     On a scale from zero to ten, if zero is not at all, and ten is definitely, how likely are you to follow through with this plan?

** ALWAYS seek professional help when you have safety concerns regarding your teen.  These questions are simply meant to be a guide for how to better understand your teen's inner monologue. **

Validate the struggle 

Validating your teen shows them that their thoughts and feelings make sense and that you can understand why they feel this way.  It does not mean that you are condoning or agreeing with their thoughts or behavior.  

Validating your teen will show your teen that you are listening, that you are not judging them, and that you care about them and the
relationship. Giving your teen this understanding and nonjudgmental acceptance can help to decrease urges to self-harm that stem from feeling invalidated.

How is it done?

• Look at your teen; make eye contact.

• Pay attention to your teens words AND nonverbal cues, like facial expressions and body language.

• Decide how you think your teen is feeling in the moment.

• Use your own words to reflect back to your teen how you think they feel like, 

“It seems like you feel really disappointed about that,”

or,  “I can understand why you would be upset by that.”

• Be sure your own nonverbal communication matches your words.  Be mindful of what your facial expressions and body language convey to your teen too.

Don't be afraid to check in and monitor them more closely (even if it annoys them) 

Let your teen know that because you care about them and their safety that you'll be monitoring them a little bit more closely.  Of course YOU know that this is not a punishment, but your teen may perceive this as frustrating and/or annoying when they KNOW and insist that they are "fine" in any given moment.

Nighttime seems to generally be the hardest for teens.  Having an extra goodnight check in closer to midnight than 10 PM to ensure they are not stuck in negative or harmful thoughts may be helpful.

Implementing a number system for how to discuss safety concerns and difficult emotions may be helpful too.  Have your teen mark a number on the calendar each day for their current status.  0 is happy and 10 is actively suicidal. Using numbers helps your teen have a simple system to relay information and it takes away some of the fear sharing emotionally charged information.

Seek help and create a support system to surround your teen 

Raising any teen is a wild ride, but when your teen is in emotional distress, please seek support immediately.  Here are some local numbers to get you started...

Crisis support is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at Access Services, Mobile Crisis Center in Montgomery and Bucks Counties, PA:

1-855-634-HOPE (4673)

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress to prevent crises and keep you safe.


Real Talk... 

Your teen's safety is more important than their GPA.  Period.  

If your teen is struggling now, please take the pressure off and get them the support they need.  Don't wait until the school year ends and you have more time or less activities and obligations.  Depression and "dark thoughts" are serious and we need to receive them that way and take action.

Do You Have the "I Want-They Want" Balance in Relationships?

Communication in relationships is key 

The way you communicate in relationships impacts your interactions with others and how close you feel to the people who are important to you.

Being passive may feel safe... 

Passive people tend to give in to the needs of others because it feels safe.  They avoid conflict because arguing or disagreeing triggers a fear that others will leave them.  Passive communicators may be people pleasers and tend to give in rather than say anything that could be upsetting.

What happens, though, is that these behaviors often lead to your own needs being unmet or others never fully knowing WHO you are because you've always gone along with everyone else.  

Ultimately passivity leads to big blow outs or completely shutting down because you begin to resent other people for not understanding you or giving you what you need.

Aggressive communication may feel "right" or justified... 

Aggressive communication often comes from thinking that things "should" be a certain way.  This may spring from your values or upbringing, but dictating how others should or need to behave can destroy your relationships with them.

You may also feel a need to control how others around you behave or interact.  Your anger may drive you lash out at others which pushes them away.  You may feel justified in this interaction thinking that you needed to "teach them a lesson."

Being passive OR aggressive is destructive 

Both extremes in communication push people away and destroy relationships.  Both extremes come from a need to control others -- either by compromising your own needs to keep them around, or by insisting that they behave a certain way to meet your own expectations.

Assertiveness is the balance you need 

When you assert yourself, you find the "I want/you want" balance that you need.  Using DBT Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills is the best way to find the middle ground.

How can you start finding balance?  It starts by getting crystal clear on what YOU want and learning how to communicate these needs in relationships in a calm and collaborative way.  (Here's where your DEAR MAN skill becomes so important!)

You'll also want to practice skillfully listening and negotiating conflicts.  This may include learning to say no when necessary and to stick to your values to preserve your self-respect in relationships too.