Recognizing Behavior Patterns in Self-Destructive Teens

Recognizing Behavior Patterns in Self-Destructive Teens

Most parents wonder to themselves at some point whether the behavior their teen is exhibiting is normal, or a hazardous long-term pattern. Any adolescent can act out be very moody at times — it’s part of growing up. But sometimes, parents simply don’t understand the behavioral signs of a seriously distressed or self-destructive teen.

Is it “Just a Phase”?

If you find yourself wondering if your teen’s behavior is a phase or something more serious, there are some warning signs you can look for. While it’s difficult to imagine your son or daughter could be in self-destruct mode, the earlier you recognize and handle the situation, the better off they will be. First, let’s look at some “normal” teen behaviors that don’t necessarily signal a major problem:

  • Moodiness
  • Acting “secretive” or spending a lot of time in their room
  • Lack of patience or short temper
  • Becoming defensive
  • Coming home late
  • Phrases like, “you don’t understand” or “you don’t trust me”
  • Discontentment

These behaviors are typical to an extent, and could very well be how your teen asserts their identity and independence from you. However, there are some other behaviors that should concern parents as warning signs of a self-destructive teen:

  • Not coming home at all overnight
  • Showing signs of alcohol or drug use
  • Abusing or threatening you or their siblings, verbally or physically
  • Stealing
  • Destroying or vandalizing property
  • Excess truancy from school
  • Getting in trouble with the law

If your teen shows any of the above behaviors, don’t ignore it or wait for it to pass. It’s time to get some help in the form of counseling, educational organizations, or therapy. Overall, nobody knows your teen like you do. If something seems off, the earlier you intervene, the better.

Why Self-Destruct?

Self-destructive behavior has a myriad of causes. It’s important to find the root cause, so you can eliminate the reasons for the behavior instead of simply trying to treat the symptoms.

At its core, self destruction is a form of passive-aggressive behavior where someone’s anger turns inward. Often, a teen can’t express their anger directly, sometimes because that anger is unconscious. They may feel furious, but can’t really explain why. So they act out in self-destructive behavior as a way of coping with those feelings. They may also feel they have more control over you or their situation when they act out, because they get attention or results. For example, if you tell your teen it’s time to study or clean his room, and he lashes out in anger or takes off, many parents back off. Gradually, he beings to view his behavior as a tool for solving problems.

How to Manage This Behavior

If your teen is acting out in self-destructive ways, there are a number of things you can do. It is always best to reach out for professional advice for your situation, but here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Avoid confrontation — It takes two to fight. You don’t have to respond to a teen who baits you by slamming doors or rolling their eyes. Try calmly and specifically calling them out for that behavior, then walking away.
  • Don’t take it personally — When your daughter gets angry and stomps to her room, breaks the rules, or declines an invitation to spend time together, don’t take it personally. She isn’t attacking you, she’s just being self-involved (not the same thing as self-absorbed). Simply reinforce the house rules and hold her accountable appropriately, without guilting her for letting you down.
  • Set an example — You can’t very well expect children to obey rules that you don’t follow yourself. It’s the old adage that your behavior speaks louder than your words could ever be.
  • Don’t overreact — Make sure punishments or reprimands fit the crime. Pushing personal blame around is counter-productive. Instead, have a constructive conversation about the infraction, how it can be avoided next time, and apply or allow fitting consequences.
  • But DO react — Especially in cases of physical abuse, substance abuse, or legal trouble, shielding your teen from the outside consequences of their behavior is likely to do more harm in the long run. It’s difficult to watch your child face the music, but if the school or the law has consequences to levy, consider letting those chips fall where they may. That accountability can help facilitate the necessary changes.

These are just a few helpful parenting techniques for self-destructive behavior. However, as stated earlier, the best thing you can do is get some qualified help for a truly self-destructive teen. With the right assistance, you can get to the root cause of this behavior and eliminate the need for acting out. Identifying the mental, emotional, or physiological cause or causes for self-destructive behavior is the key to lasting and meaningful change.


  1. […] cuts or scratches on skin, bald spots, or other forms of self-harm, this is always a cry for help. This self-destructive behavior is an indicator that your teen doesn’t know how to cope with emotions healthily.

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