Challenging Behaviours in Teens

Jillian Enright

Challenging Behaviours in Teens

Supporting older children and teens while working through challenging emotions and behaviours

Adolescence can be such a difficult time — both for the teen, and for the people in their life who care about them.

I also know from my professional experience that teens are sorely misunderstood, unfairly labelled, and often have an undeservedly bad reputation.

Many teenagers are treated as though they don’t deserve the privileges adults have, while also being expected to have the decision-making capabilities of adults.

The problem with that is the part of the human brain and is responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, problem-solving, and self control isn’t fully developed until 25–30 years of age.

If a teenager in your life is going through a particularly rough patch right now, and their behaviour is very challenging, I have some suggestions for making it easier on both you and them.

Engage in Self-Reflection

Before you begin addressing any teen’s particular behaviour, check in with yourself (and perhaps a trusted co-parent, partner, or friend) to see if it is actually a problematic behaviour.

Is the behaviour only a problem for you, or is it a problem for the teen, and for others in their life?

Behaviours we are focusing on are behaviours that:

  • Are harmful or potentially dangerous to someone (themselves or others).
  • Infringe on the rights of others.

If the behaviour is simply irritating to you, or one you don’t like, ask yourself why? Ask yourself why the behaviour might make sense for them, and whether there is something you need to work on, rather than expecting others to change to suit your needs.

Especially as teens get older, they will need the skills, autonomy, and independence to navigate life’s challenges and we won’t always be there to help them problem-solve.

They also have the right to be their own person, to be an individual, and the right to make their own choices, even when we don’t always agree with them.

If the behaviour is potentially harmful, dig down to see what need that behaviour is meeting for the teen, and find safer ways to meet that need.

What NEED is the behaviour meeting for them?

When considering prevention:

  • Think in terms of problem-solving and reconciliation, rather than punishment or retribution.
  • By punishment, I mean adult-imposed consequences intended to stop the behaviour from happening and teach the teen their behaviour was unacceptable (hint: they already know that).

Why Punishment is Counter-Productive

If the teen has repeated this behaviour in the past, it’s highly likely they’ve been told a thousand times that behaviour is inappropriate. Intellectually, they almost certainly already know that.

Most people can recite the rules verbatim, they know right from wrong, but ADHD causes impulsivity. While we have the knowledge, we may not always have the capacity to stop, think, and apply that knowledge before acting.

“Instead of viewing behaviours purely as difficulties we need to get rid of, it’s helpful to see them as forming an instructional manual for how to support each child.” — Dr. Mona Delahooke

Another side-effect of punishment, is that it actually increases our stress levels, which is often part of the reason for misbehaviour in the first place.

“A child who seems to be misbehaving is, in the process, adapting and surviving.” — Dr. Mona Delahooke

Triggers are frequently outside of our control

Some of their behaviours, and most of the triggers, are largely outside of the teen’s control. Whether it be due to lagging skills, neurodevelopmental differences, or significant hormonal changes, teens are already struggling to hold it together while trying desperately to fit in with their peers.

When we punish behaviours that stem from their neurodivergence (which is most of them), we are essentially punishing them for having a disability.

If a teen is frequently singled out because of their behaviour, their peers look to the adults to role-model how to deal with it. This is particularly true with siblings, teammates, and classmates. If adults frequently punish, shame, or reject the teen, others will follow their example.

Note: I am not advocating a lack of accountability, far from it.

The point I do wish to make is that if punishment were effective, the concerning behaviours would stop after the first few times a person was punished, and it would not be necessary to continue punishing the same behaviour.

(My previous article, “Punishment Does Not Work” expands on this point).

When we punish behaviours that stem from divergent neurology, we are essentially punishing a them for having a disability.

Even worse, when we punish behaviours that stem from the child’s divergent neurology, and we haven’t appropriately supported or accommodated their needs, we are essentially punishing someone for having a disability that has been ignored.

So, how do we achieve what we want?

Reconciliation, restoring relationships, and collaborative problem-solving.

Before someone is able to accept responsibility for their actions, they need to feel that their experience has been heard and their feelings validated. They can’t focus on accepting responsibility and making reparations if they’re put on the defensive by accusations, blame, or shame.

When we truly listen to the teen, we are role-modelling how we want them to validate the experiences and feelings of those their behaviour has impacted.

“Sometimes those of us who feel the most incompetent, scared, or unsure can present as the most defensive or standoffish.” — Dr. Jody Carrington

Overcoming Defensiveness

We all can become defensive when we know we’ve made a mistake, and this is even more so when we feel attacked. When we don’t have a chance to process and acknowledge our errors, we may feel backed into a corner and so our defences go up.

“It’s not how we’re going to stop the behaviour, but how we’re going to support the kid.” — Dr. Jody Carrington

To avoid defensiveness from the teen:

  • Hear them out, show them you are truly listening and that you care.
  • Give them an opportunity to speak without interruption, and without correcting their version of events.
  • Avoid blaming and shaming.
  • Then you can focus on problem-solving together.
“If caregivers are focused only on modifying behaviour, then all they’re modifying is the signal. But they’re not solving any of the problems that are causing the signal.”— Dr. Ross Greene

Collaborative Proactive Solutions by Dr. Ross Greene

Collaborative Problem-Solving

The key premise of CPS is that kids (and teens) do well when they can, and when they can’t, they need adults to help teach them skills they are lacking.

It’s not malicious or willful misbehaviour, it’s a lack of skills.

Collaborative Problem-Solving in a nutshell:

  1. Identify something you’ve noticed without blame or judgement.
  • “Hey buddy, I noticed you had a hard time when your brother wanted to join you in playing your video game. What’s up?”
  • It’s important to be authentic, be yourself. Paraphrase this in whatever way feels comfortable for you, while ensuring you don’t include judgements or assumptions when you state your concern.

2. Give them a chance to explain their perception of what is happening.

  • Do not interrupt and do not correct their version of events.
  • Let them get it out.

3. *Empathize with their experience and validate their feelings.

**This is a very important step**

  • It’s likely you will not be very successful with the proceeding steps if you don’t take the time for empathy and validation.
  • “It’s can be annoying when we want to do something on our own, or want some alone time, and our little brother wants to join in.”

4. Identify your concern — without blame or judgement.

  • Explain your concern without labelling the teen or their behaviour, and without making assumptions.
  • “My concern is that when you raise your voice at your brother, it makes him feel unsafe, and doesn’t help him respect your boundaries if you haven’t made them clear.”

5. Ask them to express any concerns they may have.

  • “What concerns do you have about what happened?”

6. Invite them to be part of the solution

  • Ask them if they have any suggestions for ways you can work together to solve the problem.
  • “What do you think we can do to solve this problem together?”

This includes actions that can be taken both by the kids and the adults.

  • “What do you think we can do to help everyone feel comfortable and make sure we’re being fair to both of you?”

They may shrug their shoulders and mumble “ idunno”, especially if this process is new to them. That’s okay. You can ask them if you can make some suggestions, or if they would prefer to take a little time to think about it and come back to it. For example:

  • I wonder if you could explain to your brother what your needs are, and ask him to give you x amount of minutes to play on your own before he joins in?”
  • Your Mom and I could keep your brother entertained while you have your alone time, and then he could have a turn to play with you.”

Be specific about when you will come back to the conversation: “Would it help if we both took some time to think about it this afternoon, and we’ll talk about it after dinner?”

Some suggestions the adult can make (or the teen might make) in the scenario above:

  • Ask parents for help if little brother isn’t giving you space when you politely request it.
  • Use a gentle voice to explain your needs.
  • Let the parents worry about enforcing the rules with little brother, it’s our responsibility.
  • We can try to be flexible and understand that your brother just wants to hang out with you, and it’s important he gets his fair share of time to play video games as well.

Check in with them at the end of the conversation

  • How are you feeling about our conversation?
  • Do you think our plan is fair?
  • Do you think we can all try those ideas and see how they go?
  • It’s okay if they don’t work perfectly, we can always make adjustments if we find things aren’t working for us.

For more information about the Collaborative-Proactive Solutions model, please visit the Lives in the Balance website. Their website has been updated and contains a wealth of free or low-cost resources for families and schools.

Teens get a bad rep

Teens are so misunderstood, unfairly labelled, and have an undeservedly bad reputation. I have worked with some of the most “challenging” adolescents.

I’ve worked in residential care (i.e. group homes), addictions treatment, and in the youth justice system. I’ve met teens with incredibly tough exteriors because of their even tougher histories.

I’ve met kids of all kinds, and I’ve never met a teen who didn’t deserve at least one person in their life to stick by them, regardless of what bravado they throw out to keep others at a distance.

Unrealistic expectations

Teens are treated like they don’t deserve the privileges of adults while being expected to have the decision-making abilities of adults.

The problem with that is our Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) doesn’t fully develop until between 25–30 years of age. The PFC is the most evolved part of the human brain and is responsible for executive functions such as complex decision-making, problem-solving, and self control.

Most research says 25 years, but of course, there is individual variation. Add anything to change that trajectory, such as trauma, mental illness, or neurodevelopmental disorders, and you’re definitely looking at closer to 30 before someone’s brain is fully mature.

Before you tell an adolescent they “should know better”, try to bear that in mind. I don’t know what you were like as a teen, but I sure as hell did not know better, and did not yet have the skills to do better.

© Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB

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Related Stories

You’re in luck! I don’t just have related stories…. I have an entire series of related stories, The Perils of Punishment:

The Perils of Punishment

Retribution Versus Restoration

Kinder, More Effective Alternatives to Punishment

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References

Arain, M., Haque, M., Johal, L., Mathur, P., Nel, W., Rais, A., Sandhu, R., & Sharma, S. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 9, 449–461. https://doi.org/10.2147/NDT.S39776

Carrington, J. (2020). Kids These Days: A game plan for (re)connecting with those we teach, lead, and love. IMpress Books.

Delahooke, M. (2019). Beyond Behaviors: using brain science and compassion to understand and solve children’s behavioral challenges. PESI Publishing.

Friedman, N.P., Robbins, T.W. (2021). The role of prefrontal cortex in cognitive control and executive function. Neuropsychopharmacology 47, 72–89. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-021-01132-0

Greene, Ross, W. (2021). Lost & Found: Unlocking collaboration and compassion to help our most vulnerable, misunderstood students, and all the rest. (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Greene, R. W. (2014). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, “chronically inflexible” children. HarperCollins Publishers.

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

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