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Why Is My Teen so Mean to Me? Part 2: Causes of Adolescent Behavioral Issues

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

In part one of this series, we discussed the difference between normal teen defiance and behavior that necessitates serious help. While some noncompliance is normal during adolescence, chronic verbal or physical aggression is not. In this article, we’ll explore why some teens develop serious behavioral issues that involve temper tantrums, verbal aggression, and/or physical outbursts.

If your teen is being physically and/or verbally aggressive towards you on a consistent basis, you may wonder why they’re acting this way.

DBT’s Biosocial Theory

First, it’s important to mention that there is no one definite, black-and-white answer to this question. It’s the classic nature/nurture conundrum. According to most mental health professionals, multiple environmental and biological factors interact to cause a teen’s personality and behavior. This is the Biosocial Theory in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

Some children are born with a genetic predisposition to emotional sensitivity and reactivity. Some experienced an invalidating environment by their parents or caregivers. And yet others have both. A child could have been born naturally reactive and they might not have received sufficient validation from their parents as children. This combination of factors increases the likelihood that they will develop behavioral and mental health issues later on.

Was My Teen Born This Way?

In a way, possibly. Certain children are just born with a more sensitive and reactive nature: it’s in their genes. Some teens are just born highly emotionally sensitive, highly reactive, and with a slow return to baseline.

What do these three qualities mean?

Emotionally sensitive: A teen who’s naturally more sensitive will be distressed by triggers more easily than others. When such teens feel emotions, they also experience them strongly, more so than the average teen.

Emotionally reactive: The adolescent will also react more strongly in response to their emotions, which often makes things worse. For example, if they are angry about something, they may yell or act out (whereas other teens may just stew quietly.)

Slow return to baseline: A teen with a slow return to baseline has a hard time letting the emotion pass. Instead of experiencing the emotion and letting it pass, they keep reigniting it. The moment they think about the trigger, their distress peaks back up, so they stay emotionally activated.

Or Was It the Home Environment?

First, we need to provide an important disclaimer to all the parents reading this now:

The role of a mental health professional is never to blame a parent. Rather, it is to provide an explanation as to how parenting can affect a teen. Knowing what may have contributed to your teen acting this way will help you understand more fully the context behind their struggles. In turn, this will help you decide which course of treatment to take in order to help repair the relationship between you and your teen.   

Now that we’ve shared why the point of this article is not to blame—but to educate—we’ll continue.

Oftentimes, adolescents with behavioral issues were raised in an unhealthy environment as children. They may have experienced severe emotional neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. Or, they just witnessed too much family conflict (for example, parents yelling or fighting with each other constantly). Their parents may not have known how to attend to their emotional needs. They could have chronically invalidated their children’s emotions (“stop crying! Why are you acting like this?!”). This could have happened if the parents did not have the emotional capability to handle the child’s neediness or the parent(s) had mental health issues themselves. Nevertheless, it leads to the child developing behavioral and mental health issues during adolescence.

Insufficient validation of a child, or extreme invalidation of a child (which includes abuse), all lead to extreme displays of emotional reactivity and sensitivity later on in the child’s life. A teen’s chronic behavioral issues, including increased, severe fighting with parents, are a natural consequence of being raised in such a distressing environment.

Other Reasons Why Your Teen is Acting Mean

There could be other causes for your teen’s behavior, that don’t fall neatly into either nature/nurture category.

Developmental Delays

If your teen has developmental delays or learning differences, he or she will often display behavior that is age-inappropriate and challenging.

For example, a teen with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has a very hard time communicating properly with others and social interactions in general. Often extremely irritable, many autistic teens will engage in extreme temper tantrums. These can be a source of great stress for the entire family. Research also shows that autism and aggression often go hand in hand.

Likewise, an adolescent with Asperger’s Syndrome often has difficulty empathizing with others. They will often say exactly what they’re thinking, which might often come across as mean or rude to others.

Learning Differences

Teens with learning differences can also have behavioral challenges. Language Processing Disorder, Auditory Processing Disorder, Dyslexia, or other learning challenges can impact far more than just a child’s academics: they can have far-reaching effects on a teen’s relationships and social life. For example, a teen with a Nonverbal Learning Disability could have trouble interpreting another person’s tone of voice and body language. In their difficulty processing emotions and facial expressions, they could think a parent (or a friend) is extremely upset at them even when the parent is just a bit surprised. They will thus react accordingly.

Substance Abuse

Drugs can impact a teen’s volatility. A teen with substance use disorder can become unnaturally aggressive and angry and lash out at others. Drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, or other stimulants can cause a teen to become violent towards others, especially if a teen has been using these drugs chronically or heavily. At the same time, marijuana, synthetic marijuana (aka spice) and drugs known as “bath salts” can make an adolescent aggressive or angry even after a single use. Hallucinogens like PCP or LSD can also cause anger issues. Teens who take these drugs often hallucinate and become paranoid that others are trying to hurt them, so they often lash out in response to this supposed danger. (If you think your teen is experience psychosis or paranoia, seek immediate treatment for them at a mental health hospital.)

Conclusion

If you suspect your adolescent has a learning difference or developmental disorder, consider having your child tested. You can visit a psychologist or other mental health professional who specializes in children and adolescents. After you receive the results, you will have a clearer picture of where to go from there – whether it’s special education, specialized therapy (such as ABA for autism), or other therapeutic strategies that will help you and your teen function more effectively at home and at school.

If you suspect your teen’s aggressive/angry behavior could be a result of recreational drugs, you need to start out by scheduling a clinical assessment. If results indicate that your adolescent has a substance abuse problem, you’ll need to admit them to professional treatment at an adolescent drug rehab treatment center and/or medically-supervised detox center. There are residential treatment centers, intensive outpatient programs, and partial hospitalization programs that specialize in teen substance abuse.

However, in the absence of external issues like substance use, developmental/cognitive delays, or learning differences, it could be a mental health issue that’s causing your teen’s verbal or physical aggression. In the next article, we’ll discuss the mental health issues that could be causing, or exacerbating, your teen’s behavior. Keep reading:

Part 3: Mental Health Issues

Part 4: Treatment for Teens

Part 5: Treatment for Parents

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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