At Risk Youth Psychology

At Risk Youth Psychology

We get a lot of questions about how to help at risk youth. People want to know what places youth at risk and what the protective factors are that can reduce risk. This lines up nicely with the mission of our site: giving you the tools to make a positive difference in a teen’s life. So let’s explore it!

First of all, what is today’s youth at risk for? The most common problems that get kids labelled as “at risk youth” are depression, drug and alcohol use, lying, stealing, violence, moodiness, and vandalism.

But hold up. These problems all seem so different, right?

Researchers don’t want to examine each of these problems individually because we’re super lazy. So instead we group them into two main categories: internalizing problems and externalizing problems.


Externalizing Problems

The first category, externalizing problems, includes everything that people colloquially refer to as “acting out.” The technical definition is that these are behavior problems that are manifested in a child’s outward behaviors and involve the child acting negatively on the external environment.

That sounds way too complicated for us so we like to think about it this way instead:

Picture a grumpy old general store manager chasing a group of teenagers out of his shop yelling “you darned kids…!” and wagging his finger. Whatever the kids did was likely an externalizing behavior.

One example is aggression. Anything that involves harm to self or others.

SIDE NOTE: Aggression during childhood is one of the main things that places youth at risk. In fact, studies show that childhood aggression is the strongest predictor of whether an individual will be incarcerated as a adult.

Externalizing problems in at risk youth.

The second main type of externalizing problems among at risk youth is delinquency. This would be lying, cheating, stealing, and vandalism.

Again, just picture that general store manager…

Internalizing Problems

The second kind of problems, internalizing problems, arise when teens have trouble regulating negative emotions.

Have you ever bough an entire pint of Haagen Dazs pralines and cream ice cream and then eaten the entire thing in one go while you sat on the couch watching I Love Lucy reruns and crying your eyes out?

Yeah…uh…me neither…

But even though you have your life together way too well to do something like this you have probably at least seen a romantic comedy where someone does something like this. It generally happens right after they went through a bad break-up. Cue the feeling-sorry-for-himself montage.

OK, sorry if this sounds non-scientific but this image is actually the quintessential example of a person who is having trouble regulating negative emotions. We have someone who is feeling crummy (i.e., stressed, depressed, anxious, bored, etc.) and copes with this negative emotion in an unhealthy way: pralines and cream.

Internalizing problems also place youth at risk.

At risk youth often find themselves experiencing negative emotions (duh, being a teenager is HARD! Don’t you remember?!?). And, problematically, teens generally lack the resources to cope with this in a healthy way. Instead of reaching for the pralines, teens might turn to alcohol, drugs, and even attempt suicide when they experience severe negative affect.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms can be really scary.

So there are two big questions here. First, what causes teens to experience these negative emotions in the first place? And second, what leads teens to select unhealthy coping strategies? If we understand this process then we can step in to prevent or minimize internalizing problems.


OK, now we can get into the juicy stuff! We’ve identified two distinct classes of problems among at risk youth: externalizing and internalizing problems. We’ve seen examples of each. We’ve fantasized about cranky store owners and sweet, creamy frozen pralines.

Next let’s look at the two different sets of risk factors and protective factors that cause and prevent these problems.

Causes of Externalizing Problems

When teens act out the classic parent response is: “Oh it’s those friends he’s been hanging out with. I knew they were trouble!”

No one wants to admit their own kid is to blame.

Is this naive? YES. But actually there is some truth to it. Studies show that the strongest influence on teenagers is their peers. In fact, numerous studies have found that much of the way parents influence their teens is indirect.

Here’s how this looks:

Parents make decisions about things like what environment to place their children in and what values to impart. These decisions, in turn, affect the peer group that teens find themselves in, which has a huge impact on their attitudes and behaviors.

Risk and protective factors influencing at risk youth.

This is why researchers say that a large portion of parent influence is “mediated” by peer influence. It doesn’t mean that parents don’t have a direct impact, it just means that direct influence is only part of the equation. That’s why the direct arrow from parents to teens in the diagram above is relatively skinny compared to the other arrows.

The take-away is that if you see at risk youth engaging in externalizing behaviors like vandalism, violence, or theft, this is almost certainly a result of the child’s peer group. Any teen who is participating in this stuff has likely become a member of a peer group in which these behaviors are seen as normal, acceptable, and “cool.”

Importantly, internalizing problems and externalizing problems are not mutually exclusive. It’s common to have a teen who is frustrated and bored and doesn’t have a good way to deal with this (internalizing problems) who is a member of a peer group in which stealing is considered cool (externalizing problem).

The two issues often feed each other in a feedback loop that leads to more and more serious consequences.

You probably want to learn how to reduce this risk, not just what causes it.

FINE. We’ve got you covered in the protective factors section below. But first, let’s take a closer look at what causes internalizing problems.

Causes of Internalizing Problems

Mark Goulston, one of the world’s leading experts on internalizing problems in at risk youth, explained to us what leads teens to engage in negative internalizing behaviors. Mark said that teens often feel alone and “unpaired”; like nobody understands them.

Frustration and alienation by themselves aren’t bad. However, Mark says that when youth at risk try to talk to adults in their lives about these feelings, the adults often respond by giving advice and solutions. Unfortunately, this generally makes things worse because the teens see the advice as either another thing to fail at or as another indicator that the adults don’t get them.

As the negative feelings build up, teens look for an outlet to relieve the pain. At this point they will generally latch onto whatever is easy and available.

Even if positive outlets are technically available teens may still opt for negative ones (drugs, alcohol, even suicide) if these seem easier. It’s hard to fail at getting drunk. There’s little risk. Whereas if you tell someone something dark about how you are feeling you open yourself up to getting rejected and criticized.


Wow, this article is turning out to be a real downer. Sorry about that.

Don’t worry!  Now that we know the key factors that are placing youth at risk we can start to understand how to mitigate this risk.

For instance, while a negative peer group is one of the top risk factors for externalizing problems, a supportive peer group is one of the top protective factors. If you’re dealing with at risk youth who are doing things like stealing, vandalism, or violence, the problem is almost certainly peers. The solution is either to remove the teen from the peer group that is placing the youth at risk or to focus your efforts on positively influencing the entire group of at risk youth simultaneously.

Protective factors for at risk youth.

If this sounds difficult, that’s because it is.

But don’t worry though, we’ve got you covered. It’s kind of our thing. Click here to check out our extensive guide on how to leverage peer influence to make a positive impact on youth at risk. There is also a full lesson about this in our online course, Talking to Teens.

When it comes to internalizing problems there are a few options. A recent study found that all the programs to successfully reduce internalizing problems among at risk youth have involved either promoting understanding and stronger relationships within the family, teaching teens skills for coping with negative emotions, or imparting skills for building stronger relationships outside the family.