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Maladaptive Behaviors:

My Teenager is acting out, and I don't know what to do!

Is your teenager failing their classes? Are they fighting with classmates at school? Do they defy everything you or anyone in authority says, despite knowing that the instructions and/or guidance are helpful to them? 

Caregivers often bring their teenagers to treatment when they start acting out based on external measurements of behavior (e.g. grades, consequences at school or home). Especially when your teenager does not want to communicate with you, acting out behaviors are typically the only way for caregivers to find out if they are struggling with managing their mental health. While it is concerning whether your teenager has always acted out or this is the first time they have tested your boundaries, it is important to remember that almost every behavior has a function! 

An oversimplification of functions of behavior is the acronym, S.E.A.T.

  • Sensory: to provide a level of sensory input to sooth current state.
  • Escape/Avoidance: to avoid or delay of a non-preferred task.
  • Attention: to get any type of attention from someone else.
  • Tangible: to get something preferred 

Keeping these functions in mind, try evaluating what the function of your child’s behavior may be. It might fit into more than one! Based on the function(s) that are underlying your child’s behavior, respond accordingly. If the function is: 

  • Sensory: replace the sensory behavior with a more acceptable alternative behavior or encourage behaviors that prevent the sensory behavior from occurring.
  • Escape/Avoidance: continue (gently) redirecting towards the task that needs to be completed and remove all avenues of escape/avoidance 
  • Attention: only attend when appropriate behaviors occur (unless safety is a concern – provide minimal attention to address safety issues) 
  • Tangible: only provide preferred things when appropriate behaviors occur.

All of the above are simplifications and generalizations of one aspect of behaviorism. It can take years of study to fully understand the depth of human behavior. If you are struggling to understand and support your teenager, Protected Roots Integrative (PRI) Treatment Center can assess them and provide the therapeutic support they need to help your family better communicate instead of using maladaptive behaviors. 

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