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When Does Your Teen’s Behavior Cross the Line?

How much does it cost when a teenager throws a rock onto the highway from an overpass, or shoplifts a band bracelet from the mall?  It all depends on whether you are the teen, the driver of the car down below, the store owner at the mall, or the parent. 

In the recent case in April of two South Carolina teens, the cost of the rock thrown from the overpass was a young motorist’s life, the motorist’s family’s grief, and a murder charge for the teens.  It’s the nightmare scenario for most parents of adolescents; that one act of impulsivity, one bad choice, will cause irreversible harm and an end of growing up.  For some parents, this puts them in the position of trying to define when their teen’s impulsive behaviors have crossed the line calling for immediate attention.  So, when does teen behavior cross the line?  How can parents evaluate each behavior to see if it is the last straw that tips the balance.

It’s not really crossing a line, it’s understanding a pattern

For most parents, the situation that needs to be confronted usually doesn’t involve one single behavior or incident, but rather a series of behaviors that have to be evaluated.  Researchers have shown us that teens are biologically more likely to be impulsive, and will probably engage in a number of impulsive behaviors over the course of growing up.  Laurence Steinberg, a researcher at Temple University and adolescent behavior expert says that there is a clear reason for this pattern based in the way the brain develops.  According to Steinberg, there is competition or an imbalance between the developing “control” parts of the brain and the “activation/impulsivity” parts of the brain.  When the teen brain is exposed to certain situations, especially those involving other teens, “activation” brain areas are stimulated resulting in a higher risk for impulsive behavior.  In contrast, the “control” or inhibitory centers of the brain won’t reach full development until the early to mid-twenties.  Translate this into the daily life of the teen, and the familiar pattern of impulsive teen choice-making is the result.  Parents who are waiting for the deal-breaker behavior, or the one that is so obviously dangerous it has to be confronted, may miss the point by not seeing the general pattern that would suggest their teen has a bigger problem with impulsivity than most and needs attention.

How do we spot a dangerous pattern, and how do we measure what needs to be done when we see it?  A helpful starting point is to separate single impulsive behaviors with habits.  Take a piece of writing paper and draw a line down the middle.  In the first column, write a list of impulsive things your teen has done over the last two weeks.  In the second column, list impulsive behaviors you have seen three or more times over the past month.  The second column would include things like being intentionally rude in public or impulsively harming a younger sibling.  What do the columns tell us?  The second column is the important one because it helps us recognize behavioral habits, or ones that won’t likely go away by themselves.  These habits tell us much more about a teenager’s struggle with impulsivity than any single incident.  The second column will also give us a sense of the severity of the problem, allowing us to measure the type of impulsive behaviors a teen may be more at risk.  There is a big difference between a teen running outside during an argument and one that punches a hole in the wall or harms herself after an argument.  It is especially helpful to look on the list and identify impulsive behaviors that might close doors to a teen’s future.  While the majority of teens exhibit several impulsive behaviors over the course of their adolescence, most of these behaviors will not lead to a longer term price.  Door closers, on the other hand, include things like getting into physical fights, drinking and driving, engaging in impulsive sexual behavior, or repeated acts of shoplifting.  These behaviors all carry high risk and consequences that can stretch long past adolescence.

Measure the behavior by the effect, not the cause

“I went to my son’s school online portal,” one parent reported, “and couldn’t believe it.  He had missed his first period class almost five days in a row.  He stays up too late texting his friends, but when I have him go to bed earlier, he says he can’t sleep.”  Naturally, when a problem comes up, our first impulse is to get behind the cause of the problem.  But in evaluating teen behavior, this isn’t always the best strategy.  In many instances, we find ourselves trying to confront a difficult problem by looking for a reasonable or controllable excuse.  We seem to feel more comfortable when we can link a behavior with its cause, for example, telling ourselves “he’s under a lot of stress, that’s why he never eats.”  In too many instances, what we find at the end of the trail is an “unfixable” cause that we have tried to deal with in the past but can’t really change.  Understanding the cause of the behavior is only really helpful if we are capable of and committed to changing the situation.  Instead, if we are trying to figure out if the behavior represents a habit that has crossed the line, we examine the effect or impact. Rather than understanding that it is hard for a teen to go to sleep at a reasonable time, evaluating the seriousness of the behavior comes from looking at what will happen with five missed classes.  Need another common example?  How about a teen that punches or kicks a hole in the wall following an argument.  In this instance, the cause is obvious – the argument.  But the real reason that the behavior continues and there is more than one hole in the wall is because of the effect, and the fact that there is probably no immediate consequence following the behavior besides threats that the teen will have to pay for the wall to be fixed at some point in the future.  In this instance, the effect tells us much more about why the behavior continues than the cause.

It isn’t just what happens outside of the home

It seems that parents are much more likely to overlook or forgive problematic impulsive behavior that starts in the home than behavior that occurs in the community.  Maybe it’s just the fact that it’s easier to turn a blind eye to things that happen out of the sight of our neighbors.   In the case of impulsivity, what happens to family members is critically important because of the tension it causes in the home that makes impulsivity more likely, but also because it sets the boundaries for how the teenager is allowed to communicate strong emotions within the family.  Teens do need an acceptable way to express strong emotions, but hitting or cursing out a family member while standing over them doesn’t work out well when the behavior is carried into the future.  Pay attention to how impulsivity is affecting other members of the family, and make sure that you are not being impulsively emotional if you do not want to see this behavioral pattern in your teenager.

What to do if it does look like a pattern

For most of us, our parents’ old threat of “sending you off to military school” just isn’t practical.  Even residential programs for teens are often out of reach unless they can be negotiated with the insurance company or sometimes the school district, and residential care is often not the “fix-all” that is promised in the brochures.  Instead, take some reasonable and available first steps.  Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, based on the work of William Miller, have developed an approach called Motivational Interviewing that shows some promise in teen behavior management.  In this approach, the first step is to find out where the teen stands in terms of recognizing the need to change the pattern of behavior before actually planning out the steps of change.  More information on motivational interviewing as it has originally been applied to addictive behavior is available at  Other in-home intervention strategies, such as James Lehman’s Total Transformation program provide a more direct step-by-step advice that can be applied when other efforts have failed.

If the researchers at Temple University are correct, then impulsive behavior has and will always be part of adolescent parenting in the foreseeable future.  Promoting the maturation of the “control” centers of the brain takes time, but it is possible whenever we teach teens to delay their reward until the work is done and to have some mindfulness when they are communicating with others.  Until that maturing happens, our impulsive teen can be guaranteed to force us to pay attention.


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