Is Teen Reckless Behavior a Sign of a Mental Health Disorder?

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Reckless behavior in teens isn’t unusual, particularly during a time when even everyday activities have become risky. Because the adolescent brain isn’t fully developed until a person’s mid-20s, teens often lack the ability to make informed, impulse-free decisions. And that can lead to choices that are dangerous to themselves and others, whether that’s flouting COVID safety guidelines, driving while intoxicated, or engaging in unsafe sexual activity.

Moreover, risky behavior can be a way for teens to express their developmentally appropriate desire for independence and autonomy, particularly when they are faced with the severe limitations imposed by the pandemic. Not surprisingly, research gleaned from the Understanding America survey found that younger people were the first to return to less safe activities following the initial shutdowns in spring 2020.

However, in some cases, reckless behavior indicates more than just poor choices or teenage experimentation. It can be a sign of a mental health disorder, such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), trauma, or PTSD. Therefore, it’s important for parents to understand what distinguishes typical teen behavior—during an atypical time—from reckless behaviors associated with mental health challenges.

Reckless Behavior Could Be a Sign of Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder in teenagers manifests as mood swings and difficulty in regulating emotions. As a result, adolescents with BPD may experience intense and inappropriate outbursts of anger, sadness, and other volatile emotions. Furthermore, studies show that risky behavior can be catalyzed by deficits in emotion regulation.

In addition, Borderline Personality Disorder behavior patterns include extreme impulsivity. As a result, this impulsivity also leads to risky behaviors. BPD symptoms also include suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. In fact, the suicide rate among those with BPD is 50 times that of the general population, according to research by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Therefore, it’s helpful to understand what triggers a person with Borderline Personality Disorder. One of the most common BPD triggers is a difficult interaction with friends, family members, and romantic partners. Moreover, because childhood trauma is an underlying cause of Borderline Personality Disorder, memories or reminders of a traumatic event can trigger BPD symptoms.

Why Trauma Can Cause Reckless Behavior

Both acute and chronic trauma—“Big T” and “little t” trauma—can lead to trauma and PTSD in teens. Acute trauma includes accidents, natural disasters, fires, crimes, childhood abuse, the loss of a parent or other family member, and other tragedies. These acute traumatic experiences are accompanied by feelings of fear, horror, and/or helplessness. Teens may also suffer from chronic trauma as a result of ongoing exposure to experiences such as childhood abuse, domestic violence, or gang violence.

For many teens, the pandemic encompasses both types of trauma—the “little t” trauma associated with constant change, uncertainty, and small yet impactful losses, as well as “Big T” trauma if a teen has lost a relative or friend to the virus. Moreover, indirect exposure to traumatic events like the pandemic, via mainstream media, social media, or people they know, can also lead to vicarious traumatization in teens.

Teens dealing with trauma often turn to coping mechanisms such as substance abuse and other reckless behavior. One study found that adolescents who had experienced trauma reported higher-than-average drinking, delinquent behavior, and non-experimental drug abuse. In fact, more than half of the sexually abused adolescents in the study reported both a lifetime history of delinquent behavior and a PTSD diagnosis.

Speaking with Teens About Reckless Behavior

Close observation is the key to telling the difference between average teen behavior vs. behavior that indicates an underlying mental health disorder. Pay attention to the frequency, intensity, and types of behaviors. If a teen’s reckless behavior is ongoing, extreme, and life threatening, it’s essential to seek professional help immediately.

Moreover, how a teen reacts to a conversation about risky behavior will also give clues to their state of mind. First, parents should approach the topic at a time when both they and their children feel calm. Next, ask open-ended questions and refrain from judgment and criticism. Try to gauge their mood and understand their motivation. Any information parents can glean may be clues to what’s driving their reckless behavior.

Treatment for Underlying Causes of Reckless Behavior

The following modalities are proven to be effective for addressing mental health disorders that may underlie a teen’s reckless behavior or co-occurring disorder.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps teens identify the negative emotions and thought patterns that can lead to maladaptive behavior.
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) helps teens work with trauma triggers by reframing black-and-white thinking.
  • Experiential therapy, such as art therapy, music therapy, Adventure Therapy, and Equine-Assisted Therapy, helps teens explore their emotions and build stronger connections with self and others.
  • Mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation give teens healthy coping skills for dealing with PTSD triggers, rather than engaging in maladaptive behavior.

To learn more about treatment for teen trauma, PTSD, and Borderline Personality Disorder, contact us or reach out to your healthcare provider.

Sources:

PLoS One. 2020 Nov 10;15(11):e0241950.

Curr Opin Psychol. 2015 Jun 1; 3: 22–29.

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