Kids Health Info

Challenging behaviour – teenagers

  • As they develop, teenagers will experience a range of emotions and express themselves in many different ways. It’s normal for teenagers to be moody and to show some disrespect and defiance as they go through hormonal changes and a period of brain development during puberty.

    Teenagers may also be short-tempered as they naturally begin to seek privacy and independence. They may begin spending more time with their peers or lock themselves in their room away from their parents.

    It’s important that you and other caregivers provide support while your teenager is maturing and gaining independence. Guiding your teenager, setting boundaries and forming positive relationships will help them through the challenges of adolescence.

    Signs and symptoms  

    What one family finds challenging, another family will find acceptable. You and your family will have different ranges of what is acceptable when it comes to behaviour. However, some common issues during adolescence include:

    • defiance and being argumentative with parents or siblings
    • disrespectful towards others in the family (e.g. talking back, name calling)
    • fluctuations in emotions and being moody
    • aggressive or violent behaviour. 

    Mental health in teenagers 

    Although challenging behaviours and changes in mood are a normal part of adolescence, knowing what is normal and recognising signs of concern is important.

    Emotional periods and challenging behaviours should not last more than a few days; if feelings of sadness, anxiety or frustration are continual then you should speak to your teenager about your concerns.

    It is natural for teenagers to want to disengage from their families and spend more with their friends or participating in extra-curricular activities. However, if you notice that your child is withdrawing from all social interactions and no longer enjoys participating in activities they once enjoyed, this may be of concern.

    For more information about mental health concerns in teenagers, see our fact sheet Mental health – adolescents

    What causes challenging behaviour? 

    As teenagers mature, they are presented with new experiences. The way teenagers’ brains develop means that they may feel emotions very intensely, and they often do not yet have adequate coping tools to deal with their feelings. As a result, teenagers can often be very sensitive, self-conscious, and experience a range of emotions that at times can be overwhelming – these feelings are then often expressed by being argumentative or disrespectful towards others.

    The part of the brain involved in self-control, the frontal cortex, isn’t fully developed until people are well into their twenties, which means that teenagers can face challenges in self-management and decision-making.

    Sometimes challenging behaviours can also be a result of stressful or worrying events (e.g. a fight with a friend, an upcoming test, feeling that they don’t have the right clothes to wear).

    When looking at challenging behaviours in teenagers it is important to consider their current situation and how it may be affecting them. Some other important factors that have an impact on behaviour include: 

    • lack of sleep 
    • poor diet 
    • too much screen time 
    • mental health. 

    Sometimes, ongoing challenging behaviour can indicate other health issues. If you are concerned about your child, see your GP. 

    How you can help 

    There a number of strategies that can be used to help combat challenging behaviours that emerge during adolescence: 

    Positive relationships

    Building resilience in teenagers and the development of coping skills will help them to overcome difficult situations. Having strong, positive relationships and spending time with your child is key to building resilience.

    You can promote positive behaviours in your teenager by:

    • encouraging healthy habits in diet, exercise and adequate sleep
    • listening to concerns in a compassionate way and allowing your teenager to speak uninterrupted
    • problem-solving together with your teenager and asking them if they would like to hear your opinion or advice before offering it to them
    • showing interest in what’s happening in their life and celebrating achievements
    • encouraging talking about emotions or problems, and checking-in to make sure there’s nothing they are particularly stressed or worried about
    • spending time with your teenagers one-on-one and together as a family.

      If you find it difficult to have a positive relationship with your teenager, or there is often tension between you, another adult you trust (e.g. an aunt, family friend or sports coach) may be able to offer their support and be a positive role model for your child.

      Try to defuse heated arguments

      Arguing with your teenager rarely produces a positive outcome and being angry during a discussion usually ends up in heated argument and produces no or undesired outcomes.

      • Avoid starting arguments – ignore little things like shrugs or the rolling of eyes if your teenager is otherwise behaving in an acceptable way.
      • Avoid nagging your teenager – they often tune out and stop listening and this generally only increases your frustration.
      • If the argument is between siblings, get both children to voice their problems, look at what the conflict is about and encourage them to resolve the argument or compromise on their own before stepping in.
      • Defuse heated arguments, rather than provoking or worsening the situation (e.g.  listen to their opinion, allow your teenager to speak uninterrupted and to find a solution or resolution to the problem).
      • Try to stay calm even if your child reacts with attitude or talks back.
      • Reduce the tension in an argument by using humour to change the tone of an argument, but avoid mocking or sarcastic language.
      • If an argument is becoming heated, walk away and come back to continue the discussion when you are both calm. Teenagers are more likely to be reasonable and respond positively in a calm discussion.

      If heated arguments happen regularly, and your teenager finds it difficult to control their frustration or anger, it may be helpful for them to seek support from a counsellor, who may offer an independent or unbiased view and recommend new ways to deal with the anger.

      Set boundaries and consequences

      Teenagers develop their independence by separating themselves more and more from their parents as they get older, and it is important to give them the freedom and space to do this. However, it is also very important to set boundaries.

      Most teenagers will try to test the boundaries that have been set as they get older to see how much they can get away with.

      • Set clear rules and involve your teenager in this process. Setting rules is important so that your teenager knows what behaviour is expected of them and what the consequences are if they decide to break the rules.
      • The most effective boundaries or rules are those that are fair and reasonable, and can be applied consistently.
      • Back yourself by being consistent with your approach to consequences and applying them each time rules are broken.
      • Avoid reacting when your teenager is teasing, disobeying, back talking or rule breaking. Instead of reacting or exacerbating the problem, remind them that disrespectful behaviours have consequences and respond appropriately.

      Violent behaviour and aggression

      Sometimes teenagers can struggle with emotions of frustration or anger and become violent or aggressive towards the people around them.

      Teenagers need to be made aware that violence and aggression towards anybody is unacceptable. If your teenager is being aggressive towards you, tell them you are walking away and you will return when they have calmed down.

      Strategies for dealing with aggressive behaviour in your teenager include to:

      • always use non-violent and respectful strategies when interacting with your child
      • give your teenager space - remove yourself or the other person who is aggravating the situation and allow them time to calm down before continuing the discussion
      • Set appropriate non-violent consequences, and follow through - this will help your teenager to understand that their aggressive behaviour is unacceptable
      • talk to your child’s school to find out if their behaviour is consistent with behaviours at home – the school may also be able to offer your child support.

      If there is violence or aggression in your family, you feel unsafe, or you or your child is at immediate risk of harm, contact emergency services on 000. 

      Why negative discipline can be harmful 

      Physical discipline 

      Physical discipline is anything done to cause physical pain or discomfort to a child in response to their behaviour, including smacking, hitting, spanking, slapping, pinching or pulling.

      Many studies have found that physical discipline can have long-lasting negative effects on a child or young person, including: 

      • increased aggression and antisocial behaviour   
      • reinforcing the idea that violence is OK 
      • low self-esteem 
      • mental health problems 
      • a poor relationship between the teenager and parent. 

      Shouting or shaming

      Shouting or yelling may be an understandable response when parents are extremely frustrated; however, studies have found that harsh verbal discipline like shouting can have similar harmful effects to physical punishments.  

      Being shouted at can very stressful for a teenager. Losing control and lashing out verbally at your teenager is not modelling good ways to deal with anger and frustration.

      Shouting at, shaming, belittling and humiliating teenagers for their actions can lead to more behavioural problems (e.g. increased aggression), be damaging to their long-term mental health, and is not an effective way to improve their behaviour. 

      When to see a doctor 

      Sometimes, severe and persistent challenging behaviour can be a sign of a medical condition or a more serious social or emotional problem. A GP can investigate this and refer you to a specialist if needed. You should speak with your GP if you are concerned that your teenager’s behaviour is linked to a mental health problem.

      Behavioural challenges can have an ongoing, negative impact on family life. If you are having difficulties managing or coping with your teenager’s behaviour, you can talk to a GP who may refer you on to a specialist in paediatric behaviours. 

      Key points to remember

      •  It’s normal for teenagers to show challenging behaviours as they go through puberty and develop coping skills. 
      • Forming positive relationships with your teenager is important to help with the development of their resilience and problem-solving abilities as they gain independence. 
      • Arguing with teenagers is often unproductive – it is best to defuse heated arguments and be calm and clear when speaking to your child.  
      • Setting boundaries being consistent with consequences is important.  
      • Punishing your teenager with physical discipline, shouting or shaming can be harmful.  

      More information  

      Common questions our doctors are asked

      What effect will too much screen time have on my child? 

      Studies have found that being ‘addicted’ to screens, in particular for internet and gaming use, can actually causes changes in the brain that affect emotional processing, decision making and ability to control behaviour. Even for teenagers who are not addicted to their devices, too much screen time can lead to poor quality sleep and mental health problems. These things can all contribute to challenging behaviour. Furthermore, being glued to a screen means less time exercising, getting fresh air and spending time with family and friends, which can also negatively impact on mental and physical wellbeing.  

      The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that for all children aged five to 18 years, screen time should be reduced where possible. Screen time should not replace time needed for sleeping, eating, being active and interacting with family or friends. 

      Although there are no specific guidelines in place for teenagers, it is up to parents to make decisions about how much screen time their children have access to and how screens are used (e.g. using a screen for research or homework may not need to be restricted as much as time spent playing video games). 

      How do I find the right balance between allowing my teenager the space to develop and setting boundaries and rules?  

      As part of the journey to becoming a capable adult, teenagers need to become more independent, try new things, make their own decisions and come up with their own solutions to problems they face. They won’t be able to do this if there are too many rules in place. Of course, your teenager does also need rules and boundaries to keep them safe and to ensure they are responsible and respectful. The rules you set will depend on your family situation and your teenager’s personality and needs, and may need to change over time as your teenager develops and matures. Aim to set clear, fair boundaries but also try to be understanding of your teenager’s needs and feelings.   

      Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Community Information, Department of Adolescent Medicine, and The RCH Child Health Poll. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers. 

      First published October 2018. 

      Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit  www.rchfoundation.org.au

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    Disclaimer
    This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.