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Signs of Pathological Behavior in Teenagers

by Ashley Miller

Pathological behavior is defined in two distinct ways. When behavior no longer achieves the desired result or the behavior is not justified by external circumstances, it is viewed as pathological, according to Howard Kendler in his book, "Basic Psychology." The behavior must cause significant clinical impairment, meaning that it results in self-harm, dropping out of school, hospitalization or other serious consequences. However, parents should take care not to confuse pathology with normal rebellious teenage behavior.

Normal Behavior

Teens are notorious for testing boundaries and pushing the limits by trying to see exactly how far they can go and what they can get away with. Teens usually do this through developmentally normal behaviors, such as changing goals or self-image, frequent romantic breakups, changing their group of friends, interpersonal conflicts or experimenting with drugs and alcohol, according to Linda A. Dimeff and Kelly Koerner in their book, "Dialectical Behavior Therapy in Clinical Practice." However, engaging in these types of behaviors is not considered pathological, no matter how frustrating or irritating it can be for parents and loved ones.

Pathological Behavior

Pathological behavior results in a significant deviation from the norm, according to an article published in the October 2004 issue of the Journal of Family Practice. Unlike the normal teenage behaviors of testing limits and breaking the rules from time to time, pathological behavior may involve serious self-harm, such as suicidal behavior or cutting, or harm to others, such as property damage or injury. Pathology can also involve engaging in other self-destructive behaviors, like eating disorders or alcohol or substance abuse that is not attributable to "normal" teen experimentation, or anti-social behaviors, such as excessive risk-taking, gambling, sexual promiscuity, stealing, narcissistic behavior, hostility or cheating.

What Parents Can Do

It can be frightening and distressing to see your teen engaging in what might appear to be pathological behavior. One way you can help is by learning to identify the difference between normal and pathological behavior. Educate yourself on normal teen risk-taking or limit-testing behavior, and ask yourself if her behavior truly falls outside of the normal range. You might wish to talk to your child's teacher or school social worker or psychologist to ask their perspective on the situation. It can also be helpful to discuss your concerns directly with your child. Be supportive and compassionate, and let her know that her safety and well-being are your primary concern.

Additional Help

It's not a sign of weakness to ask for outside help. In fact, recognizing the need for professional help is an indication of great strength and wisdom. Instead of trying to handle a situation that's already out of your control on your own, consult a licensed mental health professional to discuss your concerns. He will perform an assessment on your child and let you know whether clinical treatment is needed. Certain treatments, such as psychotherapy, and, in serious cases, medication, can help pathological behavior in teens, according to the Journal of Family Practice. Don't wait to seek help -- the longer you wait, the more serious the behavior -- and the consequences -- can become.

About the Author

Ashley Miller is a licensed social worker, psychotherapist, certified Reiki practitioner, yoga enthusiast and aromatherapist. She has also worked as an employee assistance program counselor and a substance-abuse professional. Miller holds a Master of Social Work and has extensive training in mental health diagnosis, as well as child and adolescent psychotherapy. She also has a bachelor's degree in music.

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