Aggressive behaviour in teens

Updated February 21, 2017

Many parents find it difficult to distinguish between normal teenage moodiness and the potential for something more serious. Aggressive behaviour in teenagers can become dangerous and violent if it is ignored. Understanding the warning signs and knowing what to do when they are present is key to stopping teenage violence and curbing teen aggression.

Range of violent behaviours

Violent behaviour in teenagers can take on many forms. Some have bursts of anger that resemble temper tantrums, and others become physically aggressive, fight or attempt to hurt others. Teenagers who develop aggression during childhood are more likely to engage in more serious and frequent behavioural outbursts than those who don’t become aggressive until they reach adolescence, according to psychologists Tammy Barry and John Lochman, who in 2004 developed a handbook for the National Association of School Psychologists entitled "Helping children at home and school II: Handouts for families and educators". Early-onset aggression often involves bullying, assault, stealing, property damage, arson and even vandalism.

Increased risk factors

Many studies support the notion that several risk factors must exist for the likelihood of teenage aggression developing. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) website reports that these factors include previous aggressive or violent behaviour, or exposure to violence and aggression at home, in the community or on television. Exposure to physical or sexual abuse can also increase a teen’s chances of becoming aggressive. Research at Cambridge University, for a programme known as Systemic Therapy for At Risk Teens (START) being trialled in the UK, underpins these findings, suggesting that adolescent aggression is often the result of a wide range of social, cultural and environmental factors.

Warning signs

Several red flags, when coupled with the risk factors, warrant further evaluation. The AACAP says these warning signs include displays of intense and quick anger, irritability, impulsiveness or frustration.


Treatment for aggressive behaviour in a teenager should always begin with a thorough evaluation by a qualified mental health professional, such as a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist. Treatment helps a teenager develop rational ways of expressing anger or anxiety that manifest through aggression.


The reduction or elimination of risk factors can go a long way towards preventing teenage aggression, according to the AACAP. One example is limiting the exposure to violence in the community or on television to break the “violence leads to violence” cycle. The earlier the professional intervention and treatment, the greater chance you have for success in correcting teenage aggression.

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