Why Teens Behave Badly

The two stages of life when humans undergo staggering amounts of developmental changes in a short period of time are infancy and the teen years. During adolescence, a young person gains 50 percent of his adult body weight, grows taller, becomes able to reproduce and transforms with the development of his brain, according to the Johns Hopkins University publication “The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development” by Clea McNeely and Jayne Blanchard 1. By knowing the changes that teens experience, you can have a better understanding as to why they behave badly.

Brain Development

During the teen years, the forebrain develops and allows for “higher-order activities.” As this development occurs, a young teen goes from having black-and-white, concrete thoughts and views to being able to think abstractly. In the publication “A Reference for Professionals: Developing Adolescents,” the American Psychological Association states that the new ability to reason and think critically can make teens seem argumentative and quick to find faults in others 2. A teen may act seemingly contrary as a way to exercise and test out her new reasoning skills. Because a teen’s emotional development may occur before she gains the ability to empathize, a teen may seem overly dramatic, self-centered and unreasonable.

Risk-Taking Tendencies

A teen’s limbic system kicks into action during the early teen years, but the frontal lobe doesn’t mature until the later adolescent years. McNeely and Blanchard explain that the limbic system is what allows teens to perceive rewards from risk-taking behaviors. The frontal lobe guides impulse control and gives a young person the ability to understand long-term consequences. As the frontal lobe develops in an older teen, he gains the ability to weigh cause and effect better. According to McNeely and Blanchard, teens don’t necessarily take risks because they think they’re invincible. Instead, they perceive the benefits of taking risks differently than adults. Consequently, a teen may feel more emotional satisfaction than an adult when a risky behavior produces the outcome desired. This becomes problematic when a teen uses risky behaviors to gain the approval of peers or experiments with drugs, alcohol and/or tobacco at a young age.

Boundary Testing

As a teen matures, she naturally becomes more independent. This can lead to the testing out of different fashions, looks, music and behaviors. A young person’s poor behavior may be her way of testing out social norms and boundaries, and developing a sense of self and autonomy. McNeely and Blanchard note that teens also tend to behave badly when adults don’t set age-appropriate, clear and practical limits or consistently enforce boundaries.

Expectations and Environment

When an adult expects a teen to behave badly, a teen is more likely to meet those expectations, according to Cheryl Walker in the Wake Forest University article, “Teens Behaving Badly?” In this article, Walker shares psychology professor Christy Buchanan’s findings: “Higher expectations for risk-taking and rebelliousness predict higher levels of problem behavior.” By expressing that rebelliousness and negative risk-taking is normal for teens, a parent may find an adolescent child following through with the message 3. Teens may also behave badly if adult role models demonstrate the behaviors themselves or if the teens don’t have positive social connections.

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