You know your child. You’ve watched her grow up. Suddenly, this person that you’ve watched develop from infancy is behaving in ways that are unhealthy and uncharacteristic, and it’s terrifying. Why is this happening? Did she suddenly go nuts? Of course not.
The way we act is a direct response to our emotions. Our emotions are affected by many factors — both internal and external. The factors that affect our emotions fall into three basic categories: biological, psychological, and social. Your teenage child is experiencing tremendous, unfamiliar pressure from all three of these directions, and her seemingly self-destructive behavior is a result of these pressures.
The physical makeup of our brains and bodies can have a profound effect on our moods and emotions. One theory regarding the etiology of depression, for example, is that it’s caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain (Malison et al., 1998).
Physical activity releases endorphins, which give us a “natural high.” When a person fails to engage in physical activity, they build up stress within the body without providing an appropriate outlet. If your teenager is relying on substances or electronics to cope with emotions, this may be evidence that there is a biological component to your child’s behavior. These activities can provide a temporary outlet for stress, but can’t replace physical activity as a healthy way to relieve stress and anxiety.
You may have noticed that your teen’s negative thoughts are so strong that there’s no “talking her out of it.” Adolescents’ brains are wired in a way to be more receptive to feeling emotions than adults or children, which results in much stronger emotions (Hare et al., 2008). At this point, your teenager is likely struggling with emotions that are stronger than her ability to rationalize, especially since the rational part of the brain is not yet fully developed. In other words, your child’s unhealthy behaviors are being guided by emotions, not logic.
Because of this, trying to win your child over with logic may be impossible. While this can be extremely frustrating, it doesn’t mean that her emotions are invalid — it means you’ll have to adjust your approach in trying to alter her behavior. Rather than making logical arguments about why this behavior is destructive, you’ll need to address her emotional needs to understand her actions.
Our environment has a profound effect on our moods, emotions, and well-being. Environmental factors that can deeply affect us include peer groups, socio-economic status, education system, family dynamics, and relationships. Negative social factors, such as watching parents go through a difficult divorce, feeling “behind” in school, being the victim of bullying, and lack of meaningful relationships can have lasting effects on an adolescent and lead to unhealthy behavior.
We all feel the need to belong. It’s especially difficult for adolescents to find this feeling of belonging, because they are still trying to figure out exactly who they are. While it’s healthy for your teen to branch out from the family and develop her own identity, it’s important that she still feels connected to the family during this vulnerable time. Research has repeatedly shown that, despite limited interactions with adults during adolescence, parental relationships with their children tend to maintain importance (Diamond, 2003). Even beyond childhood, early adolescent relationships with parents have consequences for late adolescence and adjustment during young adulthood. For example, if a teenager does not feel accepted within the home, there is a good chance that she will seek acceptance by anyone willing to take her in — even peers who don’t care about her well-being. In order for teenagers to try out different peer groups, they need to feel like they will be welcomed back home when a peer group doesn’t work out.
It’s important to recognize how these components work together. An adolescent who tells herself that she is worthless (psychological) will likely struggle with building relationships (social) and as a result may look to substances or lock herself in her room without a healthy physical outlet for stress (biological). This creates a cycle that is extremely difficult break, especially when she doesn’t think that she’s capable or worthy of change.
With a comprehensive understanding of the factors that contribute to how we develop, it follows that a treatment which incorporates each of those components is ideal to maximize opportunities for change. It also makes sense that interventions in more than one area may be necessary to sustain that change. Learn more about some of our troubled teen programs.