How To Recognize Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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There are many struggles that teenagers may face as they grow up that can lead them to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Though it’s perfectly normal for teens to experience and work through stressful situations, finding healthy ways to do so can have a significant, positive impact on their mental health and make a huge difference in their ability to handle conflict and negative thoughts later in life. If they develop unhealthy ways to cope at a young age—which may be damaging to themselves and others—they will likely return to the same behaviors in adulthood. Recognizing them is the first step toward encouraging healthier behaviors.

Noticing unhealthy coping mechanisms in your teen?

Examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms for teenagers

It’s difficult to change behaviors that you’re not aware of meaningfully. Recognizing the signs of some common unhealthy coping mechanisms in your child can be the first tool you need to support them in making changes.


One of the most common methods teens use when dealing with difficult feelings or circumstances is to withdraw and isolate themselves. It may take the form of avoiding social situations, spending most of their time in their rooms, or seeming quiet or closed off. Spending some time alone is perfectly normal and even healthy, but getting too comfortable feeling cut off from others can lead to suppressed emotions or trouble relating to people in the long run. 

Research shows that having a strong social support network in one’s life correlates to a lower risk of physical and mental illnesses such as high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, and depression. Plus, having connections to people they trust can be an important resource for teenagers as they work through challenging situations and emotions. Developing the habit of reaching out for help in tough times instead of isolating can help a teenager through life’s ups and downs and set them up for a more supportive and emotionally stable future.


Risky behaviors

If a teenager is feeling anxious or believes that they’re not in control of the circumstances of their lives, they may begin to engage in risky behaviors as an unhealthy coping mechanism. These behaviors could include underage substance use, excessive substance use, engaging in risky sex, spending large amounts of money on shopping (sometimes referred to as “retail therapy”), or participating in illegal activities. They may be seeking the attention or support that they’re missing in their lives, they may want to feel like they have control over their own situation, or they may be interested in the rush of instant gratification. Whatever the motivation, these behaviors can be dangerous—especially since they’re likely to escalate over time if left unchecked, which, in the case of substance use, can turn into a slippery slope to addiction. 

To help teenagers avoid these practices, giving them adequate attention and support is usually important. Helping them find appropriate outlets for their emotions can be useful, too. Educating them on safety and how to make good decisions is generally important as well. Taking up boxing, running, journaling, painting, or meditating can all be healthier options for expressing emotions and expending excess energy than turning to alcohol, for instance.


Self-harm is an increasingly common problem among adolescents that involves intentionally physically hurting one’s body to relieve emotional pain or distress. Again, it may be a teen’s response to a feeling of not being in control of their own lives or a sense of low self esteem. Acts of self-harm can also release a short burst of endorphins, which can result in a temporary numbing sensation. While you can sometimes recognize self-harm injuries on a teen’s arms or legs, teenagers will often take care to hide such signs from view. In this case, you may only become aware of self-harming behaviors if you find the tools they’re using, or you notice that they lock themselves in their room for extended periods, especially after a tough day or upsetting news. Teenagers who are self-harming may benefit from professional help, including group or individual therapy. 

Examples of healthy coping mechanisms for teenagers

Helping teenagers learn healthy coping mechanisms can provide benefits for the rest of their lives. Recognizing and shifting unhealthy behaviors is usually an important part of this, but so is making them aware of other options.

Some examples of healthy coping skills for teens to build include:

  • Cultivating healthy habits like eating well, sleeping enough, and exercising regularly, as a variety of studies have found that physical and mental health are intertwined
  • Practicing positive self-talk. Many teens are prone to negative self-talk, which often takes the form of being too hard on themselves as part of their internal dialogue. Since studies indicate that positive thinking can have a range of benefits for physical and mental health, building this ability at a young age can have life-long benefits.
  • Finding an outlet, whether it’s sports, art, or whatever else they may be interested in. A hobby can give your teen a way to express emotions, build confidence, and find joy. It can also be a healthy way to build community – evidence suggests that when kids have at least one trusted friend or family in their lives that they feel they can rely on, they have improved physical and mental health outcomes.

(Mental health research is constantly evolving, so older sources may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.)

A teen boy sits cross legged on a leather couch in a therapists office as he talks with his female therapist.
Noticing unhealthy coping mechanisms in your teen?

Online therapy for teens

For teens who are encountering mental health challenges, engaging in unhealthy behaviors, or simply wanting to learn about healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms, a therapist can be a great resource. A trained mental health professional can provide teenagers with a safe, nonjudgmental space to express their emotions and receive guidance on identifying positive strategies for working through stress and life’s tough situations. Since research suggests that both in-person and online therapy can be effective, you can seek treatment for your teen in either format. If you believe virtual therapy would be the best fit for them, an online therapy platform like TeenCounseling can connect them with a licensed therapist that they can speak with via phone, video call, and/or online chat.


Adolescence can be a difficult time of life since so much is changing and there is significant pressure on kids to figure out who they are and what they want for themselves. Healthy coping mechanisms can help teenagers make it through these often-tumultuous years and build skills they can use for the rest of their lives.

Learn to cope with the challenges of adolescence
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