What Is Pathological Behavior in a Teen?

How to recognize and handle pathological behavior in a teen

Teenager Playing Video Games. Credit: Ute Grabowsky / Contributor / Getty Images

In dealing with a troubled teen, parents may hear the term pathology, which can be confusing because medical and mental health professionals may use this term in slightly different ways.

Different Uses of the Term "Pathological"

Medical health professionals use the term pathology to describe the study of disease and other abnormal conditions to include the causes, progression and consequences.

Example: In developing an accurate diagnosis for a teen exhibiting strange behavior or having hallucinations, an adolescent psychiatrist might speak in terms of brain pathology, meaning the doctor is looking for possible diseases of the brain that could be causing this condition.

Amongst mental health professionals who do not have a medical background, the term pathology is often used to refer to any variation in normal or healthy functioning, which can vary from mild to extreme. In this usage the term pathological refers to abnormal, or not typical, behavior or thinking that is caused by mental or physical disease.

Example: A therapist might describe a teens' problems with anger this way, "He has reasons to be angry but his anger is pathological to the extent that he hurts other people because he can't control it."

What Is Pathological Behavior in a Teen?

Truly pathological behavior in teens is abnormal behavior that actually impairs the teen's ability to function. In other words, throwing a tantrum is not a pathological behavior unless it results in self-harm, hospitalization, expulsion from school, or other major outcomes. In fact, teens that never have temper tantrums, never question authority, and never step out of line are extremely unusual -- because typical teen behavior includes all of these and more.

What does truly pathological behavior look like? Here are a few signs that your teen's behavior may be more extreme and more harmful than average:

  • Your child is hurting herself by cutting, burning, pulling out hair, etc.
  • Your child is damaging his own or others' property, or intentionally injuring other people.
  • Your child has developed an eating disorder (bulimia or anorexia), or is unable to curtail his or her eating and has gained a great deal of weight.
  • Your child is abusing alcohol or drugs.
  • Your child is engaging in excessively risky and/or illegal behaviors such as serious gambling, stealing, cheating, or sexual promiscuity.
  • Your child is a compulsive liar.

If you see behaviors such as those described above, it is important to take action. You might start by checking your impressions with other adults in your child's life, to be sure that you are seeing the full picture of your teen's daily life experience. If you find that your impressions are supported by others in your child's life, it is appropriate to contact a mental health professional who can help you to help your teen.

In some cases, pathological behavior in a teen is caused by biological changes -- anything from a head injury to illness to a mental illness can lead to such behavior. In other cases, pathological behavior can be the result of environmental stress, abuse, or anxiety.

In many cases, once you understand the causes of the problem, you can begin to change the situation or provide medical intervention to help change behaviors.

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