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July 14, 2015

Rebellion, non-conformity, waywardness or impulsive behavior—whatever you call it, it is often normal (and expected) behavior in adolescents during their teenage years. But if you’re confused about what happened to your once-sweet child who now acts out in a rebellious fashion, you are not alone.

Adolescent brains process information differently than adult brains, which translates to a biological explanation more so than plain teenage stubbornness, according to research led by neuropsychologist Deborah Todd-Yurgelun, Ph.D., of Harvard University’s McLean Hospital Cognitive Neuroimaging and Neuropsychology Laboratory.

“Don’t assume that because you’ve laid out the argument or presented the idea that teenagers are interpreting it in the same way you’ve presented it,” she advises. “The frontal cortex is continuing to develop, and if you don’t have the neural structure in place, the adolescent cannot really think things through at the same level as an adult.”

But when does rebellious behavior turn into self-destructive behavior, and what are the signs to watch?

Defining Self-Destructive Behavior

It is a fine line that separates rebellious behavior from self-destructive behavior. In plain terms, self-destructive behavior is characterized as self-inflicted acts that are destructive to oneself. For example, a teen succumbing to peer pressure and trying alcohol at a party because everyone else is drinking is impulsive behavior. It’s harmful behavior, but it’s also somewhat normal behavior.

If this same teen makes a daily habit out of drinking, knowingly drinks and drives, and ignores the signs that his drinking is interfering with his school life and family life, there is cause for concern.

Possible Causes and Manifestations

Self-destructive behavior can stem from a number of causes: depression, anxiety, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, or in some cases, learned dysfunctional patterns from earlier in life. Where it does not stem from, and what it is not, is attention seeking.

Characteristics of destructive behavior in adolescents run the gamut from throwing things across the room, to causing harm to oneself or the environment. If your teen is exhibiting behaviors that cause serious harm, this may be a red flag that your teen may be struggling with an underlying mental health disorder and you should seek professional help.

Self-destructive behaviors manifest in a variety of forms, including:

  • Aggression
  • Eating disorders
  • Addiction
  • Depression

Getting Help

According to clinical social worker and psychotherapist, Lisa Ferentz, “Millions of people engage in self-destructive behaviors—and they do so for a reason. For them, it is a means of coping because they have not learned more compassionate ways of soothing themselves in times of distress. The way out of the cycle of harm is to learn new ways of short-circuiting untenable thoughts and feelings.”

If your teen is displaying any form of self-destructive behavior, there are a wide variety of treatment options available. There are options for teen depression treatment and behavioral therapy programs that go beyond simply treating the self-destructive behaviors and focus on the underlying issues.

Horticultural Therapy is a sought-after intervention that offers a growth-focused and life-affirming approach to healing. At Pacific Quest, teens test new skills and insights in a uniquely experiential way. By participating in the programs, they develop courage and confidence and a new set of values that teach them to seek responsibility for themselves as an expression of self-worth and gratitude.

If you have any questions, or would like more information about our options for teen depression treatment or behavioral therapy programs that may help, please contact us today.


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