My child doesn’t communicate, so how can I know what’s wrong?
Whenever your teenager seems to be acting out, it’s helpful to remember that all behavior, verbal or not, is a form of communication. This is especially important to remember when he’s behaving in a way that’s uncharacteristic or hurtful. He may not come right out and tell you what’s wrong, but certain behavioral changes can indicate problems. For example, if your teenage child neglects his personal hygiene or stops doing his schoolwork — he didn’t just become lazy — he’s telling you that he’s upset about something.
As with most behavioral changes in teenagers, there’s a good chance that his are driven by emotions. The way he acts out may not reflect these emotions directly, though. What appears to be anger may, in fact, be a reaction to feelings of rejection, disempowerment, or hopelessness — all of which can stem from an injured sense of self-esteem. We all know how difficult it can be to bolster our self-esteem, and that it’s even more difficult as a teenager. Low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness can result in self-neglect. From this vantage point, it’s easy to see that the lack of personal hygiene, the neglected schoolwork, and the angry outbursts are really indicators of other issues. When humans suffer from low self-esteem, we often find ourselves more inclined to be defensive — to protect ourselves when we feel vulnerable.
While an injured sense of self-esteem is common among teens and young adults, there are other issues that may be at the root of the problem. Think about some of the recent difficult interactions you’ve had with your teenage child. Underneath those outlandish behaviors, what do you think he’s desperately trying to communicate? How do you think he sees himself? How do you think he sees your relationship?
How do I know if my teenager isn’t just “being a teenager”?
Adolescence is a volatile time for everyone. Everyone has stories about heartbreak, mood swings, experimenting with risky behaviors, or arguing with parents. That said, there’s a difference between watching your teenager become emotional and worrying that his behavior may threaten his future. As a parent, you innately feel when something is “off.” If your teenager consistently acts in a way that hurts himself or others, you should take that feeling seriously. While adolescence is a time of self-exploration, boundary testing, and emotional roller-coasters, it is also a time to begin the transition into adulthood. Ask yourself if your teenage child’s behaviors are taking him toward or away from healthy independence.
If your teenage child completely disregards your boundaries, hurts himself, or stops spending time with his positive peer group, etc., that’s a sign that you’re dealing with more than a teenage mood swing. If you see a sign, you’re likely seeing the tip of an emotional iceberg. This sign is letting you know that your child needs to make a biopsychosocial adjustment in order to stay on track toward becoming a healthy young adult.