Mean Behavior Is a Warning Sign of a Teen in Trouble

Verbal threats and physical aggression in adolescence aren't normal

mean teen girls teasing another in cafeteria
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The movie "Mean Girls" helped make cattiness in adolescence a cultural phenomenon, but mean behavior in teens, such as verbally threatening or physically hurting another person, is not a normal part of growing up. Acting cruelly towards others strongly suggests a serious underlying problem for the teen exhibiting this behavior. 

That's why adults shouldn't overlook this behavior in teenagers. If you have a teen in your life whose behavior has crossed the line, don't hesitate to talk to the teen about her behavior or to seek out counseling or other behavioral interventions.

Mean teens may be crying out for help.

Reasons for Mean Behavior in Troubled Teens 

There are generally two primary reasons for teens to act mean: abuse or a disorder. Either something terribly painful has happened to them and they don’t have the resources to deal with it, such as being physically, sexually or emotionally abused. On the other hand, the teen may be getting severely bullied or threatened by peers.

In addition, the mean behavior may be a symptom of drug or alcohol use or the onset of a mood disorder such as depression or anxiety. There are other emotional and psychological disorders that can cause this type of behavior as well, including oppositional defiant disorder or bipolar disorder, but this is not an exhaustive list.  

In both cases, something significant is causing the mean behavior. The teen feels powerless in addition to other difficult feelings she is not equipped to deal with.

Meanness in teens is an extreme form of acting out that signals the teen may be in serious trouble. Since this is likely the case, adults should not turn a blind eye to teen meanness. 

An Example of a Mean Teen

Joey, age 14, has been expelled from school for beating up a student who had to be hospitalized as a result of the assault.

Prior to this incident, he was fighting and threatening students and teachers, so the student he hurt pressed charges. Joey was then court ordered into individual therapy during which time he revealed having been molested by a baby sitter.

He has never told anyone about what happened and has turned his anger into violence towards others. This is called externalizing behavior and differs from internalizing behaviors that include behaviors such as overeating, under-eating, cutting or substance abuse. While "mean teens" certainly need help, so do teens who fly under the radar by internalizing their pain.

Why It's Critical to Respond to Mean Teen Behavior

Although it’s tempting to want to stay as far away as possible from mean teens, this acting out behavior is a clear warning sign that they are in a significant amount of pain. Parents need to pay serious attention to teens who are mean. An evaluation by a mental health professional specializing in adolescents is recommended to get teens the help they need before the situation gets any worse.

Parents may also reach out to a school counselor, a clergy member or pediatrician if they're concerned about their teen but don't know where to get help.

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