Why Your Teen Self Sabotages? Understanding Self Destructive Behavior

Are you tired of helplessly watching your child's destructive, defiant behavior?  

Many parents feel exhausted, frustrated and lost when their teen continues to be their own worst enemy. Looking at your child's destructive behavior from the outside can be disheartening, disconcerting, and disturbing. This post explains what self sabotaging is, how you can spot it, and WHY teenagers continue harmful, toxic behavior. After reading this post you will have more of an understanding of the motivations and benefits of the actions your kid takes and what to do about it

What is Self Sabotage? 

Self sabotage is any recurrent self destructive behavior (actions, words, or positioning one self) that creates challenges, obstacles, or roadblocks to living a happy, healthy, independent life. Sabotaging happens when we get in our own way of our goals, hopes, and aspirations. 

10 Ways Teenagers Self Sabotage: 

  1. GIVING UP: When your child continues to quit something before they ever gave it a real shot. "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take" - Wayne Getzky

  2. PROCRASTINATION: Persistently not staring projects/initiatives or making decisions (e.g. forgetting to bring home assignments, not choosing a college/major, or starting the diet 'tomorrow').

  3. TRUANCY: More than being sick, when your child is chronically late, ditching classes, or skipping altogether (e.g. not waking up in the morning).

  4. SUBSTANCE USE: Consuming marijuana, vaping at school, drinking alcohol, taking pills, or using illicit drugs.

  5. RISKY BEHAVIOR: Any action that puts your teen's life or future at risk (e.g. driving to fast, unsafe sexual activities, stealing, etc.).

  6. LACK OF SELF-CARE: Poor hygiene or nutrition, not exercising, insufficient sleep (e.g. under or over eating, staying up too late, not showering, etc.).

  7. DENIAL: Blaming others, refusing to ask for help, or evening denying that our actions are self sabotaging.

  8. AVOIDING: Escaping from emotions, avoiding social situations (especially ones that could be awkward), or running away (e.g. overusing tech and video games, staying over at a friends house after a fight, making hasty decisions to avoid uncertainty).

  9. SELF HARM: Participating in cutting, burning, scratching, or hitting one's self.

  10. DESTROYING RELATIONSHIPS: Blowing up or shutting down, overstepping boundaries, betrayal, or pushing buttons (e.g. constant arguing, ignoring people, or gossiping).

Why do people self sabotage? 

Attempting to understand 'why people do what they do?' is the fundamental question that the fields of psychology, human behavior, and economics have been asking for years (oh.. and parents). Trying to understand 'why' leads us to theories of motivation (or drive) which essentially supposes we behave in a way that brings us towards a reward (benefit) or away from a punishment (consequence). In other words, all behavior has a purpose; the key is to understand the pros (benefits) of our behavior and how the situation may influence the action.   

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10 Reasons for Self Destructive Behavior

  • BRAKING: Teens may self sabotage in order to slow the process of 'adulting' and the entering into 'real world.' 

  • SHAME/WORTHLESSNESS:  Shame tells us that we are not good enough, not wanted, and that we are not worthy of love. We self sabotage because we do not feel we deserve success in life.

  • PROTEST: Teens may self sabotage in order to 'make a point' or 'send a message' that they are not happy with how they were raised. They may be unwilling to give parents the relief, pride, or freedom that they are going to be healthy, independent adults. 

  • FEAR OF INDEPENDENCE: Young people may fear who they are without the childhood identity, fearing true responsibility. 

  • FEAR OF FAILURE (AND SUCCESS): The growing pressure to succeed in school and decreasing tolerance of failure of students increases the likelihood of self sabotage (partying instead of studying) so youth can have an excuse to fall back on ('I failed the text because I wasn't feeling well'). 

  • LOW SELF CONCEPT (Self-Esteem, Self-Efficacy): Teens seek consonance between their beliefs and their actions. They may have a barrage of negative self-talk (running thoughts) and a belief that change is not possible - naturally actions will fall in sync.

  • NEGATIVE THINKING: Faulting, irrational, and automatic thinking usually can explain this type of behavior. 

  • MOOD DISORDERS: Neuroscience (brain research) is providing more and more evidence that chemical and neurotransmitters influence irrational, dysfunctional thinking resulting in actions that are counterproductive. 

  • RESISTING CHANGE: Teens often start to self sabotage their own treatment in therapy when the work is getting close to them feeling the need to change themselves, they'll often not participate outside of session, try to quit, or restart negative behaviors (lashing out, panic attacks, etc.).

  • SEEKING POWER & CONTROL: People will do almost anything to retain a sense of power and control; self sabotaging is a misguided attempt to do just that. 


Self sabotaging is a reoccurring self destructive behavior that stops us from achieving the very goals we set. Parents can support their teen or young adult by trying to understanding the motives and roots causes for such illogical actions. Teens often need to wade through the dark painful process of healing through exploring and understanding the origins of self sabotaging behavior, set and intent towards forgiveness, and then develop small, strategic solutions towards success. It's not easy, it's not quick, but it is possible. 

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Reach out to a teen specialist

My name is Scott Treas, I provide life coaching and therapy for teens and young adults struggling in creating and maintaining change. For over 13 years I've helped young people design plans for more happy, healthy, successful lives; while developing the skills, strategies, and techniques that make change possible. As a licensed professional counselor, I provide life coaching and therapy for young men in the Littleton Colorado area.