When Teens Act Out: Disruptive Behavior Can Signify Personal Crisis

Some Angst and Conflict Is Normal

Teenagers are too often full of angst and conflict. This is normal. However, sometimes it becomes apparent to a teacher that a student is exhibiting behaviors outside the typical teenage parameters of “normal.” After a few years of teaching, it becomes very easy to spot the student who is “acting out.”

Acting out is typically a cry for help. Teenagers often don’t feel comfortable asking for help or sharing their pain with others. Instead they act out. Their behavior changes from how it was before the crisis began.They give off signals to others that something is amiss in their lives.

Your job as a teacher is to watch students carefully. Often their behavior gives clues to a troubled time in their lives. They may either whisper or shout the hints to their crisis, but the hints are there; you just have to be observant enough to notice them.

English teachers often know what is going on in a student’s life before anyone else. Teenagers are very open in their writing. Even if they are a bit covert about what is bothering them you may pick up clues. For example, teenagers are often vague in writing. So if you notice writing with extreme detail it is a hint they may be describing something from their real life. This writer once called a student out to the hall with a story she wrote and asked “Is this real?” She said yes. She was in enormous crisis and the school psychologist met with her that day.

Other acting-out behavior is also quite obvious:

  • If a student is suddenly loud and obnoxious and not doing their work. That is a huge hint you need to ask them if there is something going on that is troubling them.
  • If a student withdraws and isn’t interacting with friends that is also a sign a chat is in order.
  • Other signs may include a ragged appearance, unkempt hair or clothing, a major bad attitude, radical changes to appearance to shock such as colored hair, intense slogans on clothing and other changes meant to stir a reaction in the viewer.

Teenagers act out in many ways. Some kids are screaming for help with their bad behavior. Other kids will hand in a paper all about their crisis but will not put their name on it. Other kids will go AWOL from school. They will just disappear for a bit and will be vague about why they were out.

Today's teenagers live in a world that is changing rapidly. They face all kinds of pressures that are unique to their generation. The world is a bit chaotic now, for everyone, and not just teens. So watch closely for signs of turmoil in students. Sometimes a watchful teacher can pluck a kid off the precipice of disaster and get them the help they need so they can thrive again.

So be proactive. If you notice something unusual with a student you must talk to them. Take a few minutes to check how they are. If you suspect a crisis, alert the Guidance Department and perhaps also the school psychologist. Take action because teenagers too often give hints of crisis rather than asking for help. Get them help because things escalate very quickly with teenagers. Get help immediately if you suspect a child is in crisis.