Why Troubled Teens Use Bad Behavior to Cover up Pain

Rebellious teen on steps

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Acting out, or rebellious behavior, is a pattern of exhibiting inappropriate behavior to cover up deeper feelings or issues including fear, pain, or loneliness. Teens are well known for demonstrating how they feel through their misbehavior rather than through talking about it straightforwardly. Originally the term "acting out" was used by Freud to describe certain behaviors that occur during the process of psychotherapy. The term is now used casually by mental health professionals to describe this tendency in teens to express unhappiness through their actions.

Acting out and Working Through Difficult Feelings

Most teens do not understand this is what they are doing. Instead of letting people see them as vulnerable and opening up about what's bothering them, troubled teens choose the isolation and singling out that acting out behaviors cause. A primary goal of treatment is helping young people in crisis to understand the connections between how they feel and how they act, and allowing them to practice expressing themselves instead of acting out.

By giving a teen an outlet, outside of the spotlight, to express him or herself, you are offering them the time they need to work through feelings they may have never examined before. As they rehearse the feelings and what may have caused them, keep an open mind and allow the teen to speak, even if the feelings don't make sense or connect well with the actions of others.

To help teens who are acting out, give them an outlet to express themselves. The goal is to allow them to look inside of themselves instead of redirecting pain towards others.


John, age 16, is being defiant to his teachers. When asked to do something, he responds in a sarcastic manner, often cussing at the teacher. John has been acting this way ever since a girl he cared for deeply broke up with him to date another guy. On the inside, he feels rejected and insecure about himself. On the outside, he acts tough and pretends he doesn't care what happens to him in an effort to shield himself from being hurt more. John isn't aware that his distress about this breakup is the reason for his acting out behavior at school. 

What to Do About Acting Out

While acting out can often be connected to the issues a teen is struggling with, nothing in their lives changes until a teen begins to deal with the reasons behind the behavior. When parents see a teen acting out, this is a strong warning sign the teen is hurting and needs help to effectively express their pain and deal with what is truly troubling them.

If your teen or their friends have been acting out, try to sit them down in a neutral setting to get to the root of what may be upsetting them. You may learn that they have some healing to do. Why not be that voice of reason they need to get past negative thoughts about themselves or past hurts?

4 Sources
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By Kathryn Rudlin, LCSW
Kathyrn Rudlin, LCSW, a writer and therapist in California specializes in counseling and education for teenagers with mothers who are emotionally disconnected.