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What’s Behind Your Teen’s Behavior?

by Mark Gregston

May 15, 2020

For over 30 years, Heartlight Ministries has been working with teens. While similar ministries focus on teen behaviors, we took a difference approach.  We knew that if our sole focus was on the behavior, nothing would ever change because the attention is placed on managing a symptom, and not the problem.  So, we dug deeper to discover what the behaviors represented.  We found that teen depression is typically caused by expectations not being met, dishonesty is a product of fearing consequences, and disobedience doesn’t happen on its own—there’s always a reason, so you need to figure out what’s driving the behavior.  Teens don’t typically wake up one day and say to themselves, “well, today’s the day that I shake things up.” 

All behavior is goal oriented, and you don’t get to an abnormal state of being without something abnormal happening.  One of the hardest tasks for any parent is to look beyond the outward behaviors to the motivation under the surface, and the only way to do that is to look into the eyes of their heart and discover what’s driving their actions. 

More than you See 

Behavior is a visible expression of an invisible desire.  We call them “heart-drivers.”  With their limited knowledge and understanding, teens use heart-drivers—coping mechanisms to try to correct the underlying issues that are overwhelming them.  It’s their way of seeking to resolve the issue. 

So, do you want to guess what the issue is behind the majority of these heart-drivers?  Control.  For example, loss causes a feeling of helplessness and uncertainty.  Most teens perform or act a certain way to impress people and gain control over situations.  Perfectionism is a perfect example—that behavior is one that’s often motivated by trying to balance out an imperfect situation.  And the same could be said for appearance, masking and avoidance, anger and vengeance.  All of these outward issues are motivated by the desire to act in a way that enables the teen to remain in control. 

It happens more often than we think, and it was certainly true in Blake’s life.  After his parents struggled to get a handle on his anger, disrespect, depression, and general disobedience to anyone in authority, Blake was enrolled at Heartlight.  Through six months of rage episodes and two arrests for destruction of Heartlight property, Blake finally started to open up to a couple of counselors he could relate to.  Everyone agreed that he was an amazing kid, so they knew there had to be something lurking under his tough guy exterior, but they didn’t know exactly what it was. 

It turns out that when he was fourteen, his 18-year-old babysitter had abused him.  And out of the guilt and shame he felt, Blake tried to compensate for his lack of feeling in control by controlling the situation and projecting a tough guy persona in order to protect himself from further hurts. 

Truth and Consequences 

If we are to love as God loves us, then we’re going to need to understand that he cares deeply about our hearts, and as such, we need to care deeply about the hearts of our kids.  And that means that we can’t just let things slide.  It’s important to have rules and guidelines. 

Consequences give power to the rules you set, and “attention getters” will let your teen know that their destructive behavior isn’t going to be tolerated. 

As a parent, your job is to know the heart of your teen, regardless of the acceptable or unacceptable behavior.  So, make sure that while you’re holding to the consequences you’ve set, you’re also finding out the reason behind your teen’s choices.  And remember, it’s only unacceptable behavior that comes from unsolved relational issues. 

Deeping the Relationship 

When you address the heart issues, you’ll be able to show your teen the only real source of value we have –God.  And when you begin to look behind the behaviors and seek a teen’s heart, you’ll be able to connect at a deeper level. 

Don’t forget to take action—talk, laugh, spend time together, and really show your teen that you’re more concerned about “who they are,” rather than “what they do.” 


Mom, Dad … people ask me all the time how I live with teens who are constantly violating expectations and engaged in inappropriate behaviors.  And I tell them this: you must love your teen more than you hate their behavior.  Don’t determine your love for your child based on whether their behavior is acceptable or unacceptable.  Love them for who they are … not what they do!  I’m not saying you should ignore their inappropriate behavior.  You can’t do that, but you can move toward them at a time when their behavior is pushing you away.  It’s called grace—loving them the same way that God loves you.  It’s not always easy, but it is essential in order to have a long-lasting relation with someone very special—your teen. 

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.