Impulsive Self-destructive Behaviors in Adolescents

According to the American Psychological Association, some degree of impulsivity is developmentally normal for teenagers 1. During this stage of development, teens lack the same executive functioning skill and impulse control as adults. Thus, parents can expect their teens to engage in some risk-taking behaviors. However, impulsive behaviors that are self-destructive, such as using drugs, drinking excessively or engaging in reckless driving, could indicate an underlying behavioral or mental health issue.

Normal or Self-destructive Behavior?

The line between impulsive, self-destructive behavior and typical adolescent rebellion is often very thin. For example, an older teen who caves to peer pressure and tries alcohol because his friends are using it may be acting impulsively and in ways that are detrimental to his health, but he is also behaving in a way that is developmentally expected. However, if this same teen uses alcohol daily, drinks and drives or makes choices that interfere with his school functioning, family life or social functioning, then this behavior is cause for concern. Regardless of whether a poor choice is developmentally expected, it is nonetheless important for parents to talk to their child about these choices and provide guidance on how to make more reasoned decisions.


Impulsive and self-destructive behavior in adolescents can stem from a number of causes, including depression, anxiety, strained relationships with parents and organic issues, such as autism spectrum disorders or brain injury. Likewise, children who grow up witnessing persons in their families and communities engaging in self-destructive actions may be affected by these environmental influences and grow up to adopt these behaviors 3. Furthermore, adolescents who have suffered physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect may also engage in destructive and impulsive behaviors, such as substance abuse or self-mutilation, explains the Child Welfare Information Gateway website.

Encouraging Positive Decisions

Parents can encourage positive, reasoned decision-making in teenagers by establishing clear behavioral expectations and appropriate punishments for breaking these rules. Furthermore, keeping an open line of communication with your child can help you understand his decision-making process and learn about what he is feeling, thinking and experiencing. Along with talking to your child, meeting your child’s friends and learning about their families, backgrounds and influences can help you see whether peer pressure is playing a role in your teen’s destructive and impulsive choices.

Seeking Help

If your child is making impulsive, self-destructive choices and is not responding to your discipline or guidance, it may be valuable to seek professional input. A professional counselor, pediatrician or psychologist can help you identify any possible organic or mental health problems that may be underlying your child’s behavior. Additionally, these professionals can suggested targeted behavior interventions that you can use with your child to encourage healthier choices.