Tips for Troubleshooting 5 Common Teen Behavior Problems

By: Marie Williams

Looking back on my life, between the ages of 13 and 16-years old, I can only imagine how terrified my parents must have been. I was the kid who snuck out at night to hang out with friends, who cut classes to go have pizza and hang out with other kids who had long dropped out of school altogether; and I was the girl who rode in cars with boys who may or may not have been licensed to drive.

The reality in those years, I am happy to say, was not as dire as it looked. In many ways, I was a poser--a voyeur. I was not actually doing many of the things my parents feared most, so much as hanging out with the kids who were. Still, it must have been an unsettling time for my parents, and they certainly had no way of knowing just how committed (or not) I was to the potentially self-destructive path I seemed to have chosen.

If you’re having a similarly unsettling time with your teenagers, here are a few tips for navigating the minefield of common teen problem behaviors:

Problem #1: My Teen Lies to Me

There are many reasons your teen may choose not to tell you the truth. They may want to avoid consequences for small infractions; they may do it as a way to assert their independence by hiding aspects of their lives from you, or—most worrisome—they may be concealing details of a far more serious behaviors than the lie itself. Undoubtedly, it’s that last one that keeps parents up at night. To avoid getting to that point, ask your teen specific questions that leave little or no room for them to bend the truth. And if they do, call them out on it. Letting “little white lies” go will give them the impression that your commitment to honesty is not a serious one. Most importantly, model the behavior you want your teen to engage in. As you may remember from your teen years, hypocrisy is the one fault teens are most attentive to among adults. In some cases, teens’ lying may rise to a level that is a cause for significant concern. Habitual lying, avoidance, or exaggeration may indicate deeper underlying issues that may warrant the involvement of a professional.

Problem #2: I Don’t Like my Teen’s Friends

Before you jump the gun and impose rules and restrictions about who your teen can spend time with, ask yourself why you don’t like their friends and the people they spend time with. If your concerns are related to the superficial—the clothes they wear, the fact that they have piercings, or the color of their hair—reassess whether the problem might be yours alone. But if you have clear and objective reasons related to their friends’ behavior, or your teen’s behavior when they are with those friends, you should act. First, ask questions. If you have heard rumors from other parents or kids, confirm them rather than make accusations. And even if some of your fears about your teens’ friends are founded, consider the least restrictive measures to reach your end goal. If they must socialize with these friends, require that they do so in your home when you are present, or only during specific hours. Create guidelines around whether they can visit with these friends in their homes, and require them to check in at predetermined times or intervals. And finally, reinforce your standards for their behavior when they are not with you.

Problem #3: My Teen Has Trouble Controlling Her Emotions

Changes in mood and demeanor that appear suddenly and rapidly are among the hallmarks of adolescence. But there are times when changes in your teen’s moods may indicate that something is wrong that requires medical intervention. Watch for cycles of goal-oriented and almost frenzied behavior followed by periods of inactivity and a loss of interest and changes in appearance including significant weight gain or loss and inattention to hygiene. Keep the lines of communication open; check-in frequently, and provide other non-verbal outlets for expression. But when that, or making yourself —or another trusted adult—available as a sounding board does not work, professional help is in order. And remember, if teens are acting out in ways that are self-harming or harmful to others, don’t wait. Seek help immediately.

Problem #4: My Teen is Experimenting with Sex

By the time your kids are pre-teens your family’s values regarding sexual activity should be no mystery. Talk to your teens about your belief and value system regarding sex, and let them know the reasoning behind it. Remember that apart from moral or religious convictions, there is ample information to support the position that teens are in many ways emotionally (and as a practical matter) ill-equipped to handle the complexities of sex. Share that information with your teen; and particularly if they are already sexually-active, do so in a manner that is non-threatening and non-judgmental.

[Related: Tips for Talking with Teens about Sex]

Make sure they see a health professional to hear firsthand about the health implications of being sexually active, and speak to them frankly about the emotional implications. And make no mistake, if your teenager views sex as purely recreational, you may be out of your depth to address this on your own. Seek the help of a qualified professional to partner with as deeper issues, including a lack of self-worth may be at play.

  • Learn more about what to do if your teen is sexually active here
  • Problem #5: My Teen is Trying Drugs

    Curiosity about drugs is common among teens, so avoid overreactions or moralistic lectures over expressions of curiosity. If they feel comfortable enough to talk about it with you, chances are your opinion carries far more weight than you realize. But aside from holding off on expressing your opinion, use the opportunity to listen to why they’re curious and figure out how you might counter that curiosity with more positive choices. Are they bored? Reacting to pressure from peers? Escaping a problem that seems insurmountable? Each of these motivations for drug can be addressed with different strategies. But if you think your teen is already using drugs, first assess the severity of the problem. If they tried marijuana once, for example, a drug treatment program would be unwarranted and could do more harm than good. If, however, they are trying “hard” drugs, or multiple drugs, you must seek the help of a professional who can perform an assessment and make recommendation for how to address it. Talking it through alone is very unlikely to solve the problem.

  • Learn more about what to do when you suspect your teen is using drugs here.
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    Information and Resources:

    National Institutes of Mental Health, Depression in Children and Adolescents Fact Sheet

    Advocates for Youth, Parents Sex Ed Center

    University of Maryland, Teen Sexual Behavior Calculator

    WedMD, Teen Drug Slang: Dictionary for Parents

    The Partnership at Drug-Free.org, Intervention Tools

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