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Impulsive Self-Destructive Behaviors in Adolescents

By Genevieve Van Wyden ; Updated June 13, 2017

Today’s adolescents face many pressures, as did their parents, but the pressures they experience are different. From school shootings to societal pressure to “fit in,” to cyber-bullying, the onslaught is constant. Some of these teenagers might respond with impulsive and self-destructive behaviors. When a teen is impulsive, she acts on her feelings of the moment, likely believing that her actions will help to control the situation or end her pain.

Origins of Self-Destructive Behaviors

“What just happened tonight has to stay our secret so you don’t destroy our family.” When a teenager experiencing sexual abuse hears these words, he feels tremendous pressure to keep the secret even while he wants the abuse to end. He might not know that he can tell a trusted relative, school teacher or administrator, so he holds onto that secret until his feelings are too much for him. In an impulsive moment, he might decide it’s worth it to harm himself or “end the pain” via suicide, according to the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

An adolescent might put even more stress on herself. She might try to figure out what makes her peers so much more popular, and she might identify superficial differences, such as hair, cosmetics, weight or body shape. Once she has done this, she compares herself unfavorably to the popular kids, putting herself down for failing to meet what could be an impossible standard, according to Carolyn A. Curtis of Colby College. To correct her perceived inadequacy, she might start a diet, aiming to lose weight quickly. If she experiences a setback, she might decide, in an impulsive moment, that an “all or nothing” solution is the only way to deal with her perceived excess weight, and begin to restrict her diet even more. Thus begins her slide into an eating disorder.

Causes of Adolescent Stress

Adolescents growing up in the 1950s and 1960s were confronted with the threat of nuclear annihilation, then the years of the Vietnam War, the counterculture, war protests and the time of “free love.” Those pressures were enough to cause the teens of yesteryear to question the world in which they were growing up. Fast-forward to today’s teens, who have to think about social networking, being “on display” 24/7, cyber-bullying and the threat of school violence.

Teens whose parents have divorced display more acting-out behaviors, anger, depression, substance abuse, sexual behaviors and acts of delinquency than teens whose parents have not divorced, according to Ohio State University Extension Service. A newly single-parent household might face sharply higher economic difficulties as it woks to adjust to a lower income level. Such families might have to move to a neighborhood with a higher crime rate and less family-friendly or community activities. As these teens confront their new reality, they might respond with self-destructive behaviors.

Troubled Teens

If teens are already experiencing emotional or mental illness when they encounter these challenges, they might find unhealthy ways of handling the pressures of life. They might mutilate themselves or begin abusing alcohol and drugs. If they have not previously done so, they might become sexually active. If they are already sexually active, they might become promiscuous. Troubled teens might also develop eating disorders or attempt suicide, according to the University of Minnesota Extension Service. Combined with a withdrawal from family and friends, these actions are cries for help. The risk of self-destructive behavior multiplies if the teen has experienced several stressful events in a short period of time.

Suicide Attempts

Certain adolescents are more vulnerable to suicidal thinking if they have experienced losses or other stressful events. Teens with a family history of depression, substance abuse or a diagnosed psychiatric disorder might be more likely to attempt suicide. Children who have been physically or sexually abused by family members, as well as those with a chronically ill family member, are more likely to attempt suicide. A teen who witnesses a high level of family conflict, including a difficult divorce, might feel that killing himself is the only solution. And teens who suffer from disabilities or learning disorders are at higher risk, states the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

Eating Disorders

Taking control by bingeing or limiting food intake might provide temporary relief from high stress levels. Eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia, are self-destructive behaviors. An eating disorder does far more than cause a teen to lose or gain too much weight. Anorexia and bulimia can be fatal. A teenager diagnosed with an eating disorder is more likely to attempt suicide. Eating disorders -- bulimia and anorexia -- might be either impulsive or compulsive, according to the website Eating Disorders Review.

Hidden or Apparently Accidental Self-Destruction

Impulsive and self-destructive behaviors don’t have to be overt. Teens who cut themselves might do so on areas their clothing covers. Head-banging can cause a physical pain that helps to relieve the emotional pain. Behavior that might appear to be an accident might in reality be intentionally self-destructive. Examples include falling down the stairs or bumping into tables or walls, according to the Eating Disorders Review website. Again, the brief physical pain helps to relieve the emotional pain.

Relationship to Trauma

Teens who have experienced trauma, such as the loss of a parent, divorce, or physical or sexual abuse, especially when they are diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, are more likely to exhibit impulsive self-destructive behaviors, according to Lewis’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. If the traumas are repeated, teens can develop post-traumatic stress disorder, increasing the likelihood of self-destructive behaviors.

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