The Challenges of Parenting a Teenager Who Engages in Self-Destructive Behaviors

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 4.51.44 AMBy Lisa Ferentz, LCSW-C

If you’ve experienced the emotional rollercoaster of parenting an adolescent you probably know their brains are wired for aggression, pleasure seeking, impulsivity, immediate gratification, and risk taking.  They respond to emotionally-loaded situations far more intensely than young children or adults.  In fact, “looking at them the wrong way” can lead to instant meltdown!   Adolescents can be challenging because they see the world through a black or white lens and are incapable of full abstract thinking until their mid-20’s.  The adolescent brain doesn’t believe you understand it unless you agree with it.  This still developing brain tends to over-generalize, downplays important experiences, exaggerates mistakes, and buys into the idea that “if you feel it, it must be true.”

Teenagers who don’t have a good repertoire of coping strategies and stable resources for support are vulnerable to using self-destructive behaviors as a way to navigate these developmental challenges.  This can manifest as an eating disorder, drug or alcohol abuse, other addictive behaviors, or acts of self-mutilation such as cutting or burning the body.  If your child is grappling with this, one of the most important things to come to terms with is no matter how much you love your child you don’t have the power to make them give up something they aren’t ready to stop. 

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