Helping Parents Survive Adolescent Rebellion

Written by Dr. Dave Currie

teenagersAn alarming story recently made headlines across Canada. Desirae Shannon, an intelligent, well-liked teenage girl – raised in a strong Christian family, on the verge of graduating high school with straight A’s – ran away with her boyfriend. Not just any guy, mind you, but a young man wanted on charges relating to prostitution and physical assault on a child. The girl went by her own choice, and the couple spent nearly two weeks fleeing her parents, her church and the police before finally turning themselves in.

It’s the kind of story that sends chills up the spine of every parent. What makes an innocent girl, seemingly so well-grounded, make such a dangerous decision? And, more importantly, could it happen with my kid?

Having worked with teenagers and their parents for over 25 years, there is very little I haven’t seen in the way of teenage rebellion. Sex. Drugs. School expulsions. Runaways. Disrespect. Car accidents. Peer pressure. The list goes on.

On the topic of raising teenagers, Mark Twain advised, “When a boy turns 13, put him in a barrel and feed him through a knot hole. When he turns 16, plug up the hole.” Faced with the challenges that adolescence brings, this plan begins to look attractive! But is this really the only way to survive the teenage years?

Rebellion: Some facts about maturity into adulthood

Every parent wants to avoid teenage rebellion if at all possible, and for good reason. Who really wants to see their kids make bad choices and get themselves into trouble? And so I have parents asking me all the time, “How do I make sure my kid stays on the straight and narrow?”

You may be surprised by my answer. Here are a few things that will help us keep rebellion in its proper perspective:

1. Adolescent rebellion begins as a result of the desire for independence. It is a developmental norm. In fact, if you have the sneaking suspicion that teenage rebellion may be inevitable, you’re right! Pretty much every teenager will test the limits – and even cross the line – at one time or another. Of course, there are varying degrees of rebellion – one parent’s “rebellious child” may be another parent’s dream child! Nevertheless, even the best-behaved child will go the wrong way at some point.

The good news is that this does not have to be a crisis! In fact, believe it or not, rebellion can be a very healthy and integral part of your adolescent’s transition from childhood to adulthood.

2. Normal rebellion, though difficult to live with, is more praiseworthy than the desire for dependence. The opposite of rebellion would be the desire to stay at home, refusal to take responsibility for life, and fear of making decisions. Although this might make the teen years easier to handle for you as a parent, it is ultimately not what you want for your child.

3. Normal rebellion needs to be understood as the natural desire to grow, although being sought after in an awkward manner. Becoming an adult includes beginning to make decisions for oneself. Teens need to question the world around them and begin to own their personal beliefs and actions. Because the teen is inexperienced, this will inevitably lead to mistakes, but that’s okay. Failure plays a critical role in the learning process.

4. Because it does contribute to growing maturity, normal rebellion (increasing independence) should not only be expected by parents – it is actually desirable. Yes, you heard that right: a certain measure of rebellion is a good thing. Don’t force it by putting unrealistic expectations on your kids, but gradually and carefully transfer responsibility for life choices to the adolescent.

5. Much rebellion is fashioned after peer models. What other models do teenagers have of attaining independence? The need for having, doing or being like a peer is great. This can work negatively, but it can also work positively if you can help your kids choose friends wisely.

6. There are unhealthy causes to teenage rebellion, including:

  • parental discord
  • parental discipline methods
  • family confusion: alcoholic parent, abusive situations, financial pressures
  • peer influence
  • fear of failure
  • low self worth

If you suspect that any of these factors lie behind your teen’s rebellion, you need to deal with the root cause before the behaviour can be changed.

Healthy vs. unhealthy rebellion

One of the keys to helping your teen grow through their rebellion is being able to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy rebellion. How can you tell the difference? Here are some guidelines.

Characteristics of healthy rebellion:

  • Healthy rebellion helps teens shed their cocoons and use their own wings. It is born out of increased independence, responsibility and autonomy. As the youth is allowed to make age-appropriate decisions, there may be some missteps, but it is a natural part of their progression to adulthood.
  • Healthy rebellion involves open communication between the parents and the teen. The parent is really willing to listen, taking an active interest in the adolescent and trying to understand their world. They ask lots of questions, and provide reasonable guidelines and restrictions where necessary. Both sides have freedom to share their feelings.
  • Healthy rebellion is gradual, occasional and varied in expression. Rebellion is not a way of life for the teen, and they are not consistently disregarding clear family standards. There is an ever-increasing dynamic of growing maturity.
  • Healthy rebellion is creative in that it makes a man or woman out of the teen. They learn to stand up for their deeply held beliefs in positive, constructive ways, and even to stand against the tide at times.
  • Healthy rebellion forces adults to let go and develop themselves. It can be difficult for us as parents to accept that our children are growing up, but it is critical that we adjust and drop the “My little boy syndrome.” Failure to give our kids the room they need to grow can actually cause them to act out in more destructive ways.
  • Healthy rebellion gives teens confidence and assurance with adults. It teaches them how to relate to adults as peers, and not just as subordinates.

Characteristics of unhealthy rebellion:

  • Unhealthy rebellion takes place in the context of closed communication channels. There is a lack of constructive discussion, and the relationship becomes increasingly strained over time.
  • Unhealthy rebellion features sudden, extreme expressions of independence. Defiant outbursts are common, and explosive anger surfaces.
  • Unhealthy rebellion leads to a lack of mutual trust. The teen may be flagrantly dishonest and deceptive. They are caught in lies as they attempt to cover up or explain away their actions.
  • Unhealthy rebellion results in increasing resentment of restrictions, explanations and discipline. Instead of discovering the necessity and wisdom of the family standards that have been set up, the youth becomes more persistent in pushing against the limits.
  • Unhealthy rebellion is marked by bitterness. Barriers of anger and withdrawal continue to build up between the teen and the parents, and the rebellion snowballs.
  • Unhealthy rebellion manifests itself in a negative attitude toward all authority figures. The adolescent closes themselves off from encouragement or guidelines from any adult in their life.
  • Unhealthy rebellion may be rooted in adults who won’t let go and insist on high levels of control. These parents fail to understand that their job, ultimately, is to release the child to live independently as an adult.
  • Unhealthy rebellion is damaging to all parties involved. Instead of leading to positive growth, it actually delays maturity.

Coping with rebellion: Every teen’s quest for freedom and responsibility

Once we have understood the nature of our teen’s rebellion and accepted that it may be an important part of their growth process, we are ready to begin dealing with it. Approaches will vary based on the seriousness and type of behaviour that is occurring, but here are some basic principles to keep in mind:

1. Practice loving and consistent discipline early. Inconsistent discipline encourages kids to test the limits, to see what they can get away with; discipline apart from love breeds resentment and bitterness. Instead, discipline in a way that your kids know exactly what the rules are and what to expect when they break them – and above all, assure them of your unending love and support even when you are disappointed by their behaviour.

2. Continue to set limits, but gradually work toward reasonable responsibility and decision-making opportunities. Decide in advance which hills you are ready to die on, and which areas have more room for flexibility. Remember that your ultimate goal is to release your child to live their own life.

3. Work on being approachable, flexible and understanding. Allow exceptions when you can, be willing to change, and apologize for your mistakes. Create a safe environment for your teen to take risks to grow, and be a safe landing place when they fail.

4. Seek to provide adequate substitutes for banned activities or practices; don’t continuously prohibit without providing an alternative.

5. Take time for and spend time with your teen! Do fun things together, attend their activities and show your interest. They don’t need less of you during the teen years, but more.

6. Never, under any circumstance, withhold acceptance, forgiveness or encouragement. Try to think of one justifiable reason before God why you could withhold these! We are to model the character of God to our children, and above all He is a God of grace.

Helping your kids through the teen years should not be feared. It has been a good time with all four of our kids, and now that the last one is graduating, I would take those teen years again in a heartbeat. It is a great time of life!


68 Responses to “Helping Parents Survive Adolescent Rebellion”

  • Doris Beck Doris Beck says:

    Thank you Christian for taking the time to pray for Lisa and her daughter! That’s what I love about this site, is people praying and encouraging one another…blessings to you today!

  • Christian says:

    Lord, please help Lisa and her daughter. Protect them both from the wolves in sheep’s clothing in the Christian church. Father, I pray that you would crush their enemies, and that they would know that you are a loving Father, a loving God.

  • Shelley Shelley says:

    Dear Father God.

    Lord I lift up Karen to You at this time in her life, that you will heal her son of the drugs and get him to know You as his Saviour.In Jesus name amen

  • karen says:

    Hi. My son Michael is 18. He will be 19 in January. He has smoked pot since he was 14. He was raised in a Catholic home by both parents until he was 13. He started smoking and then moved to something called “waxing”. He barely graduated from high school. He was enlisted in the Marines and then was discharged b/c he failed to show up at several mandatory events. They said he could re-enlist. He will, but he has a drug charge he needs expunged before he can re-enlist.
    Today he dropped out of college. All he does is hang out with friends away from my house and comes home high. I threw him out(his dad threw him out last year and he’s been with me full time). I took him back telling him he was not allowed to smoke or bring pot in my house, which has always been my rule. I couldn’t be nicer to him. I have two more sons younger than Mike and they deserve to have a safe home. They don’t need their older brother behaving in this manner.
    I have zero support from his father either fiscally or emotionally. He had Mike emancipated in January. I am working with an attorney to get more help, bt I can not handle his behavior by himself. He’s belligerent and mean, then nice as pie later. Is there anything you could suggest for me as a newly single mom? I didn’t chose to be this way. I never thought he would be such a stinker.

  • Doris Beck Doris Beck says:

    Thank you for sharing that great resource! It’s always good to hear from someone who has found a resource that is helpful when it comes to parenting! Way to go!

  • Heather B says:

    We felt the urgency from the time our son was a young age to equip ourselves to help him. I just have to share this great new book I’ve been reading called called “Middle School: The Inside Story- What Kids Tell Us, But Don’t Tell You,” by Cynthia Tobias and Sue Acuna. It has interviews and feedback from middle schoolers, parents and teachers (and a little humor) to help us deal with faith, purity, puberty, communication, independence, discipline and accountability, tackling social media, technology, Internet, gaming, and deepening and strengthening a positive, loving relationship. It’s so rich in valuable help as we face these transitional years with our kids. I think everyone with a middle schooler or who will have a middle schooler will benefit from it. I would highly recommend it!

  • Shelley Shelley says:

    Dear Father God.

    Lord I lift up my sisters to you at this time in there lives, that You help them with there teenagers, that You will take full control and as they lean on You for guidance. In Jesus name amen

  • lisa says:

    My heart breaks for my 18 year-old daughter. She is the third of our 4 children. Very strong-willed, has some ADHD (unmedicated). Very creative and bright, but always struggled academically. Homeschooled until 8th grade, then placed in private, Christian school with her older siblings, who did well there. Her year was a disaster!!!! I can’t go into all the specifics as it would take some time, but she was bullied all day long, 5 days a week for a whole year. It was unknown to us (her parents). By the time we found out, the damage was done. She had been to the assistant principal 4 times for help and nothing was done because these were the good, Christian kids who had been at the school their entire lives and their parents were on the board and the large donors. This experience devastated our family. And because the perpetrators met with no punishment, they became empowered and upped the attacks. It eventually consisted of the majority of her class. She later told us that “this is the kind of thing that will make a kid commit suicide”. She has never been the same. We also found out that there was some sort of sexual abuse that year, however, she will not share the specifics. She struggles with the need for acceptance. She will move from one group of “friends” to another. Basically to anyone who will accept her. This has involved dangerous, risky behavior at times. Experimental drug use, sex (but without even a relationship with a boyfriend, even correspondence with a young man jailed with the charges of first degree murder. She was placed in public school after the bad year at the private school, and seemed to do well at first. But we live in an area of less than 100,000 and the social media is destroying the kids. Some of the bullying from the first school carried over, and the social media drove it. She feels labeled, so she has sunk to lower levels. She ended up homeschooling again, but started floundering, so she obtained her GED 2 weeks ago. She is trying to decide between community college and cosmetology school for the fall. She just needs to be able to move forward and feel successful and valued. She leaves tomorrow with our older daughter to spend a month in Spain with family friends of 22 years. We pray that the time away will encourage her to see that the world is larger than our little mean part of the “bible belt”, and that the future has endless possibilities. Above all, I pray that she could grasp the love of Almighty God for her and look to him, alone for significance.

  • Raechel says:

    Hello, I found this article by searching for anything to help me regarding my 15-year old. He has some serious issues and I am afraid for him. He has been on probation for almost three years because he keeps violating the original offense which was a basic handslap with a few months probation…Now he is totally out of control. He has been in juve three times and has spent 90-days in rehab. He was schedules to be off probation in just one month and now my ex has found paraphenelia on him, caught him drinking and sneaking out, etc and my ex has once again turned him into the probation officer. I am feeling really hopeless and don’t know what to do for him anymore. We have counseled him, had grace with him, warned him, allowed him to suffer consequences but he just keeps making wrong choices as if he doesn’t care about his life anymore. I am totally at my wits end with what to do. Obviously jail and rehab did not work. What next? Please help!! I am a broken-hearted mother. And yes, my ex and I got a divorce.

  • Shelley Shelley says:

    Dear father God.

    Lord I lift up anyone who is struggling with the teen years and rebellion. I pray that Under Your leadership and friend, that they will work together with You as there guide. In Jesus Mightyname amen

  • […] cheating, being disrespectful, and more. Find out everything you need to know about parenting. Tackling the Teenage Crisis: Helping Parents Survive Adolescent Having worked with teenagers and their parents for over 25 years, there is very little I […]

  • Claire Colvin Claire Colvin says:

    Hi Don, I am not a parent, so I don’t have any practical advice to offer but I would ask this: does your teenage daughter wake up every morning knowing how much you love her? It’s always a challenge in blended families, but even more so when there are some kids that are your together and some that are not. You’ve got the two littlest ones and even the child who was 6 when you joined the family – they’re all still pretty little. Chances are good that they still like some of the same things. They’re still little girls. And then you have this teenager, who isn’t one of the babies and isn’t little enough to play their games and I wonder if she just feels incredibly left out, possibly left over and wonders about her place in your family? As you all tried to figure out how this was going to work your wife was pregnant, the 6 year old was just a little kid, was the teen ever told to grow up or get over it or handle things better? Were there any times when she was told to just grow up already or to be more mature about it? I’m wondering if unintentionally a greater burden was put on her when everyone was suffering and struggling and having a hard time?

    Teens are always trying to figure out how they fit in, but in a blended family, especially one where as you said yourself, the parenting was harsh at the beginning, an older child can become insecure about how she fits in and sometimes that manifests as “Fine if you’re going to kick me out, I’m going to make sure it happens sooner rather than later.”

    I’m not asking this to judge you, but only as a person who would genuinely like to help if she can – think back over the past week. How many of your conversations with your daughter were positive? How many times did you compliment her, thank her, acknowledge or praise her? How many were confrontations? How often did you yell? How many times did you correct her, punish her, threaten her, get frustrated with her or tell her you didn’t have time for this? A friend of mine has a daughter who is adopted and struggles with attachment. It often shows as disobedience and constant struggle. One of the things her therapist suggested trying was to always, in every situation, look for something she can praise her daughter for. It’s counterintuitive, but she’s noticed a real improvement in her relationship. With kids dealing with attachment they are convinced that they are bad, or unloved, and so they act out and then every time they act out they get in trouble which reinforced their false belief that they are unloved. If your daughter is feeling like she doesn’t matter try responding to her in love. In the example with my friend, she’ll ask her daughter to go to her room and pick things up and then get there and she’s barely started. She’ll still thank her daughter for being obedient in going to her room, remind her that the task still needs to be done and then stay and do the task together. your daughter is not a little kid, but I wonder if the same idea would work?

    You mentioned that you don’t want this daughter in your home if she can’t live by the rules. She has probably picked up on that. If she knows that her place in the home is conditional she may interpret that your love is conditional also which is going to drive her right into the arms of the friends who don’t judge her or tell her that she needs to grow up. If she’s starving for love and affection of course she’ll willing share her body with someone who pays attention, tells her she’s beautiful and maybe pretends to love her a little. If you want her back in the house, back in the family, she needs to know that she has a place there, that she’s loved and wanted and welcome.

    Is there any chance she’d be willing to go to counselling, either with or without you and her mother?

  • Don says:

    We have a difficult situation with our teen. You see, three years ago I married a single Mom of two girls, one 12 and one 6. My new wife became pregnant immediately and had a horrible pregnancy, our first year as a family was extremely difficult. I was not an easy new Dad for the girls, I hated the disrespect and abusive attitudes the girls had towards their mother, and with a new wife that was sick, I wasn’t very patient, kind or loving towards my new family. To make matters even more difficult, we moved our family about a year and a half later, and a year after the move got pregnant again, with another difficult pregnancy. I have tried to connect, have apologised for my harsh parenting in the beginning and have a fairly decent relationship with number two. But I’m afraid it’s too little, too late. Our last child is now four months, and our oldest recently told us that she had been experimenting with drugs like cocaine, and has had at least half a dozen sexual partners in the past year. When we found out, we grounded her, hoping to stop the opportunities, but she simply didn’t come home from school and ran off to her ‘friends’ place to party and do drugs. We went and got her, against her wishes, and had a couple of hours of confrontation at home, with her wanting to go back to the party, the younger kids crying because of the yelling going on by our teen. We finally let her leave. She’s fifteen, and we couldn’t forcibly confine her for the rest of her life. There is so much going on, we fear for our girl, but we also want to raise our other children in a healthy environment. Our teen is so self destructive and refuses to hear any advice. She consistently chooses poor friends, and seems intent on ruining her life, not simply stretch her wings. She has zero tolerance for rules or discipline, refuses to be honest with us about her whereabouts or activities. We’re afraid to allow her into our home because of the damage she does to our other kids, but also love her and want what’s best for her. I feel like I’ve given up, but really don’t want her in our home if she refuses to live by some rules. Any advice would be great.

  • Jamie Jamie says:

    Hi Sima, It sounds like you are in a very difficult situation. First of all let me pray for you: Heavenly Father, I pray for this family and all the stress that they are going through right now. I pray that You would help bring healing to Sima’s daughter. Help her to find peace in your Son Jesus Christ and make Him her Saviour and Lord. I pray for Sima to have wisdom to know how best to communicate her love and Your love to her daughter. Amen.

    Sima, I think the best thing you can do for your daughter is to show her your love. You can’t force her to make decisions she does not want to make so show your love to her. It is God’s love for us that draws us to Him and so when we show His love it points other people to Him as well.

  • sima says:

    my gaughter is giving hard time she is in her21 but try to kill herself i have kept her in the hospital but she dorsnt want to come back to mi seeing this her friend is trying bring her in her house i want to make her christian my giel is innosent and doesnot understand we r very upset do not want to loose her she has a bf who ruining her life wht should i do help mi

  • Barbara Alpert Barbara Alpert says:

    HI Holly, Do not feel that you have done anything wrong in raising your daughter. That is a lie from the enemy. You mentioned that you raised her well with good values and a heart for Christ and others. At this time it seems that she has become a prodigal child BUT rest assure the Lord is watching out for her.

    The Bible says, “Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the Lord has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.” Holly, may you find peace in knowing that the battle is not yours BUT the Lords. As you remain steadfast in your faith and continue to pray on behalf of your daughter God’s Spirit within her will begin to work in her heart.

    Here is a prayer that perhaps you would like to recite on behalf of your daughter.

    Please, Lord, hear my prayer today for help. I need Your mighty power in my child’s life. I pray against disobedience and defiance, and I ask that my rebellious child would return to obey both You and me. O God, I need You! Speak to my prodigal child and have mercy. I pray for restoration and forgiveness as Your gracious love revives this child’s heart. Bring my child back to You and to our family again.

    Holly, Have you ever sat down with your daughter and let her in on your family budget and finances? Have you and your daughter ever thought about seeking counseling with a pastor at your church?

  • Holly Noel Gunter says:

    I am very proud of my daughter and the relationship that we have had. Her rebellion is merely based on her embarrassment of our home, car, and finances. She is obsessed like other teen girls with her cloths and looks, only wanting the most expensive things that we can not afford. When she was younger she was so spiritual and did understand more and was receptive to our circumstances, still reaching out to help others with kind words. Now her vanity has brought fear into my heart and I am at a loss. I have no idea of how to help her back onto the correct path. She will not come home because she feels we are not good enough for her. I don’t know where I went wrong? I have raised her with Jesus and his words everyday, teaching her to be like him towards others. In school, she would always reach out to the weaker kids; that is one of the things that made her popular. We can’t pass a beggar in the street without her wanting to help them eat. All that is in the past now? I don’t understand how this Vanity can have taken such a hold on her? Can you help me help her?

  • Monica says:

    Tony, that is so awesome how you raised your daughter. I have 4 children, 26yr old son who is happily married for almost a year. A 20 year old son going to a local college. They love to hang out with my husband and I. I have been honeschooling our 2 youngest daughters the last 4 years. We are a blended family. My husband and I both come from a drug lifestyle and we are now pastors of a church, do jail ministry & recovery. We try to plan fun things for the girls on a regular basis. My oldest girl is 16 and was being bullied horribly in school. She has had some counseling. We do a lot of Word therapy. Studying the gospels together and pray for our needs together. Everything was going along good. My daughters consider me their best friend. We are part of a homeschool group. Their dad does not have the same values and does not moniter their Internet use. Danielle (my oldest) had been talked into disrobing on the computer and on the phone with people on the Internet. Sexting. Barbi my 13 yr old told me and Danielle admitted that yes she had been doing that. So I got her more involved with the honeschool group – cheering for their basketball games. She made a good friends with the girls and with a guy. At first it looked really great he helped her quit all those Internet friends while at her dad’s ( he wouldn’t do anything to help) then this boy started becoming controlling. She had to talk to him whenever he wanted, no excuse. Had to see her or he would yell at her. I had already told him and his mom that we didn’t want Danielle dating til she was 18 and they said they agreed so they have never been alone except on the phone. Anyway the controlling and the bullying got worse, but in person he was charming and she was falling for him. It got to the point that Danielle didn’t want to go to her dads because she would get in trouble with this boy abs she started talking about living with them when she turned 17. This November, some weed was found by the coach in his bag. He was grounded for a week. The boy began to bully me on the phone whenever it was time to put the phone away! My husband texted him back to key him know that was not acceptable abd his dad would be told, so he quit bullying me and seemed to be mire respectful. Then I learned that he and his mom were enticing Danielle to live with them when she turned 17. I asked the mom who I thought was a reliable Christian and she said that would be fine! Then she started talking about moving, and how they have stayed in one area long enough (4 yrs). Barbi told me that his mom said when I was out of airshot that they shouldn’t have told me. My daughters have always been close to me and I knew this was not of God. We have tried hard to work with thus family only because Danielle really liked this boy but we realize he is not a good influence. We disconnected the girls phones ( blocking didn’t work because he would call from another n#). I blocked him and his mom from my phone so they can’t bully me, we are now hanging out with another homeschool family on our regular fun days as an alternative to this one for now as we can no longer allow this young man to be around our daughters. Barbi was mad but now she seems relieved ( he had been trying to control Danielle thru Barbi also) and is lovey dovey with me. But Danielle is angry with me. She knows deep down that he isn’t good for her but now she is angry and I’m being loving but I am not going to back down. I’m believing God’s promises as I do what I know to do. The word says bad company ruins good morals. (this young man wouldn’t even let Danielle hang out with her girlfriends) please agree with me that Danielle would be completely free and healed and they both fall in love with God and his word – His good plans in Jesus name. Now I’m sorry I ever got them phones. Im glad my husband and sons are in agreement and we are being patient. I talked to their dad abd he is in agreement too – although I don’t know if that means he will moniter their Internet. I refuse to worry. Thank you for listening

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