When Adolescents Become Their Own Worst Enemy

Watch out for self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors in adolescence

Posted Aug 05, 2013

“We have met the enemy and they are us,” cartoonist Walt Kelly wryly wrote many years ago.

Although most parents would wish otherwise, this humorous and harsh observation often rings true in adolescence on those contrary occasions when the young person acts against his or her better interests by engaging in self-defeating or even self-destructive behavior.

Self-defeating behavior prevents constructive action. Self-destructive behavior inflicts self-harm. During adolescence, parents must stay on the watch for each. Consider some common examples of both “enemy behaviors” during four stages of adolescent growth.

Early Adolescent (9 - 13). A self-defeating behavior that can occur at this age is an academic achievement drop when failing effort results in falling grades as attention to friends becomes a priority and resisting adult authority feels proud to do. A self-destructive behavior that can occur at this age is self-mutilation like scratching or cutting on oneself to create physical hurt to manage psychological suffering or to communicate a very painful emotional state.

Mid Adolescence (13-15). A self-defeating behavior that can occur at this age, when building a family of friends becomes all important, is acting socially standoffish and discouraging longed-for association with peers by shying away from contact with others. A self-destructive behavior that can occur at this age is when a teenager, by seeking to manage feelings of inadequacy based on a self-image that she hates, engages in an anorexic battle of self-control to achieve perfection to quell the pain.

Late Adolescence (15-18). A self-defeating behavior that can occur at this age is the teenager wishing for a date or a job, but refusing to ask or apply out from fear of putting himself forward and being turned down. A self-destructive behavior that can occur at this age is engaging in harmful physical or sexual risk taking for the thrill of it, denying danger for excitement’s sake.

Trial Independence (18-23). A self-defeating behavior that can occur at this age is a habit of procrastinating on college assignments, creating last minute stress to get them done, or waiting until it’s too late, in either case making performance more difficult and academic standing harder to maintain. A self-destructive behavior that can occur at this age, when recreational chemical (alcohol and other drugs) are easily available and social use can be extreme, is substance abuse (self-harm when under the influence) and addiction (compulsive dependency on a substance to survive.)

All the way through adolescence, young people have endless opportunity to act their own worst enemy, choosing to behave in self-defeating and self-destructive ways, creating a lot of unhappiness and trouble for themselves as they do.

So what are parents to do when they see their adolescent engaging in self-defeating or self-destructive behavior? When your adolescent is acting as her own worst “enemy,” it’s time for parents to intervene as “friend” of her best interests, even though she may ignore, object to, or resent your efforts to save her from herself. This is often the tricky part. Because she usually knows she is part of the problem, when parents take issue with the problem she can feel defensive, like they are accusing her, like she is being blamed, like they are not on her side.

In many cases, this is thankless parenting, at least at the time. But parenting is not a popularity contest, and the welfare of your teenager can be at stake. To make your intervention empathetic, practice tactful parenting. Express concern for her, not criticism of her. To convey your concerns in a way they can be heard, practice objective parenting. Just draw the connection between specific choices being made and behavioral consequences that follow. Being empathetic and objective in this encounter is important. You are not there to judge, only to share what you see.

Of course, parents cannot control the young person’s choices. However, there are two kinds of choices they can continually hold out to him. Both provide “constructive choice points” that, should he choose to give his consent or acceptance, could help him to cease behaving in self-defeating or self-destructive ways.

First, parents can make continual demands for constructive living that adolescent can refuse, but to which he can also choose to give consent – like abiding family routines for adequate nutrition and rest that they believe would serve him well. And second, parents can offer continual opportunities for healthy alternatives that he can reject, but which he can also accept – engaging in a new activity that they believe he might find self-affirming, like regularly working out at a gym.

 Why would a self-defeating or self-destructive young person be open to giving consent to what parents require and to accepting the opportunity to comply with constructive alternatives they offer? The answer is because when she has had enough pain from the errors of her ways, and enough experiential data that her decisions are simply not working well, acting more in accord with her better interests has increased appeal.

The crucial message from parents is: “It’s never too late to recover, and we are here to help whenever you are ready.” So don’t lose faith, don’t give up when your teenager has met the enemy and it is her. Instead, non-judgmentally, matter-of-factly, help her stay mindful of the self-defeating or self-destructive consequences of choices she is making, and keep those healthy choice points (constructive alternatives) open and available. By doing so, at this crucial time you continue giving her opportunities to accept responsibility for her decisions and to act as her friend, working for herself and not against herself, when she is ready to change.

Finally, if in your judgment the adolescent is ensnared not just in self-defeating but in self-destructive behavior, this is a good reason to seek outside psychological help for yourselves and for your endangered daughter or son.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.

Next week’s entry: Why Parent and Adolescent Need to Keep Talking