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Behavioral Problems in Adolescents

by Sharon Levy, MD, MPH

Adolescence is a time for developing independence. Typically, adolescents exercise their independence by questioning and sometimes breaking rules. Parents and doctors must distinguish occasional errors of judgment from a degree of misbehavior that requires professional intervention. The severity and frequency of infractions are guides. For example, regular drinking, frequent episodes of fighting, truancy, and theft are much more significant than isolated episodes of the same activities. Other warning signs include deterioration of performance at school and running away from home. Of particular concern are adolescents who cause serious injury or use a weapon in a fight.

Children occasionally engage in physical confrontation. During adolescence, the frequency and severity of violent interactions may increase. Although episodes of violence at school are highly publicized, adolescents are much more likely to be involved in violent episodes (or more often the threat of violence) at home and outside of school. Many factors contribute to an increased risk of violence for adolescents, including

  • Gang membership

  • Access to firearms

  • Substance use

  • Poverty

There is little evidence to suggest a relationship between violence and genetic defects or chromosomal abnormalities.

Because adolescents are much more independent and mobile than they were as children, they are often out of the direct physical control of adults. In these circumstances, adolescents' behavior is determined by their own moral and behavioral code. Parents guide rather than directly control the adolescents' actions. Adolescents who feel warmth and support from their parents are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Also, adolescents whose parents convey clear expectations regarding their children’s behavior and show consistent limit setting and monitoring are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Authoritative parenting is a parenting style in which children participate in establishing family expectations and rules. This parenting style, as opposed to harsh or permissive parenting, is most likely to promote mature behaviors.

Authoritative parenting typically uses a system of graduated privileges, in which adolescents initially are given small bits of responsibility and freedom (such as caring for a pet, doing household chores, picking out clothing, or decorating their room). If adolescents handle this responsibility well over a period of time, more responsibilities and more privileges (such as going out with friends without parents, and driving) are granted. By contrast, poor judgment or lack of responsibility leads to loss of privileges. Each new privilege requires close monitoring by parents to make sure adolescents comply with the agreed-upon rules.

Some parents and their adolescents clash over almost everything. In these situations, the core issue is really control. Adolescents want to feel in control of their life, and parents want adolescents to know the parents still make the rules. In these situations, everyone may benefit from the parents picking their battles and focusing their efforts on the adolescents’ actions (such as attending school and complying with household responsibilities) rather than on expressions (such as dress, hairstyle, and preferred entertainment).

Adolescents whose behavior is dangerous or otherwise unacceptable despite their parents' best efforts may need professional intervention. Substance use is a common trigger of behavioral problems, and substance use disorders require specific treatment. Behavioral problems also may be a symptom of learning disabilities, depression, or other mental health disorders. Such disorders typically require counseling and mental health disorders often also require treatment with drugs. If parents are not able to limit an adolescent’s dangerous behavior, they may request help from the court system and be assigned to a probation officer who can help enforce reasonable household rules.

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