TIFT #85: Adolescent Acting Out

tift Sep 13, 2023


Internalizers Welcome: Share your difficult problems! Winning subscribers will receive free coaching via TIFT. All you have to do is Dare to Share!


We all have difficult cases and doubts. Of course you are hesitant to expose the areas where you feel unsure, but I promise full anonymity. We will only publish your description of the problem. Entries are chosen for publication on the basis of common interest to the community of therapists. Please be sure to disguise any identifying information. Enter by emailing a few descriptive paragraphs to [email protected] with the words "Dare to Share" in the subject line.

Disclaimer:  This is therapist coaching, not supervision or consultation. Application of ideas presented here should only be considered in the light of direct examination by a qualified clinician.  


Dare to Share

I am a therapist as well as a single mother of 3 for 27 years 

My question is regarding my 16 year old daughter who is engaging in high risk behaviors like smoking weed, dressing too sexy, vaping, smoking marijuana and drinking at parties supposed to be supervised by parents, and basically manipulating the help out of me. I have an 18 year old who is going to play college football as a freshman out of state on a scholarship, will major in engineering but spends too much money and time on video games and screentime. I also have a 27 year old who has a bachelors degree, lives on his own 10 mins away but hasn’t had a real job in 5 years. He ‘consults’ etc. always planning to leave the state and won’t commit to a relationship because he is ‘leaving’ and smokes weed and plays video games. 

We are a super close family and enjoy hanging out. We love hard and fight hard. No fathers in the picture. I’m overwhelmed. Where do I start? 


Coaching–Some Thoughts

Thanks for sharing this all-to-common story.  Let’s start with the big picture of what is going on. At the end, you give important clues: “super close” and “love hard and fight hard.” It may feel like a betrayal for all the caring you have given over years, but what I see over and over is how hard it is for young people to tear themselves away from the family of their childhood. It is that much harder when the family is as emotionally close as you describe. So my experience would suggest that these young people are fighting within themselves to find the courage to loosen (not even break) bonds and face a world that seems far too scary to join in any definitive way.

 No one admits the real problem 

Part of the trouble is that culture and values prohibit admitting or even knowing about being afraid to "grow up." Parents think the children hate them and are exhausted. Young people give themselves the explanation that the parents or some other external cause is holding them back. Most of all, they don’t want to solve the problem because that would mean diving into freezing water.


I usually start by prioritizing. First come behaviors that can cause irreparable harm, like hanging out with dangerous people, driving drunk, and vaping (I know one person who died but was brought back to life from vaping unknown substances). I think it is a relief for a young person to have a parent stop them from putting themselves in danger. If the dangerous behavior is a call for help, which it probably is, then using whatever means to manage it may be justified.

Parental Authority

Parents need to have authority over their minor children. Minors are considered minor for a good reason. They don’t have enough experience to be fully responsible for their decisions and actions. Parental authority is best cultivated over years and used only when really needed. Trust, both ways, is built by taking modest risks. When young people win some battles and lose others, they know the parent isn’t motivated by a need for control, but to keep them safe. It takes sensitivity to distinguish between a little “No” that might mean, “OK, I know you are right,” and a big “NO” that might really need to be respected. That said, authority usually means a willingness to go to whatever consequences will end defiance. When kids know the parent means business, then hopefully the confrontation won’t have to happen. 

How to gain authority is too individual to give a general prescription. Parenting doesn't mean making sure the child makes the right decisions. It means helping them practice taking charge. There really are parents who can’t let go and need to treat their children as if they were pre-teens. They are suffering from the same ambivalence as their kids. Others don’t have authority, which is just as upsetting, and a reason for conflict to escalate. “How far do I have to go to get you to wake up?" 


Second priority, or maybe the first, is marijuana. Both the chemistry and the culture promote avoidance of the stress of separating from parents and facing the world. My experience is that during adolescence, before the ambivalence about loosening family bonds is resolved, marijuana simply stops emotional growth in its tracks. Other addictive things have a similar effect, but are often not as powerful. That includes video games, alcohol, other substances, and all the other “power tools” young people have for avoiding the stress of separation.

That gets us back to parental authority. As long as young people are dependent on parents, that gives the parent "leverage," and I think it is a responsibility to use all the power we might have including urine tests, etc. Try niceness and persuasion once, but learn from experience. The longer young people avoid facing adulthood, the harder it is to catch up. One, not infrequent outcome is a “marginal” adult life.


I think it is critical to engage the young person in the discussion. I have found that young people respond surprisingly well to discussions about their level of maturity. They want to mature, and may be more willing, even if scared, to do the hard things they need to do to get through the pain of letting go and the anxiety of losing their safety net.

Finally, a few clarifications. When does adolescence end? I have seen these issues go decades into supposedly adult life. That is partly because developmental arrest can happen in specific areas and not in others. It is even possible to be hyper-mature in some areas (like manipulation) and immature in others. 

Definition of adulthood: 

Mine is, “Having a subjective sense of full ownership of one’s own life.” What is emotional maturation in adolescence? It is gaining skills by practicing a wide range of new, stressful (the good kind) behaviors:

  • Learning impulse control and self management (a major challenge for ADHD people).
  • Gaining a realistic sense of one’s own strengths and weaknesses; likes and dislikes.
  • Taking ownership of one’s values (as opposed to borrowing them).
  • Going through a period of conformism with peers and on to developing individual identity.
  • Learning to enter into healthy (50/50), emotionally intense relationships.
  • Exploring options in the world to learn more about where one might fit in.
  • Learning to accept more arms-length relationships useful in adult life.

Thank you for Daring to Share!  

Jeffery Smith MD

Photo credit,  Ph M Chung, Unsplash

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