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!

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120 Responses to “Helping Parents Survive Adolescent Rebellion”

  • Mom D says:

    15 year old daughter has went against the instructions, guidance and rules of putting personal information out on the Internet, we tried to help her and her sisters grow and develop their independence in the transition from teens to adults. With only 5 years between the first and the youngest 2 1/2 between each of them this hasn’t been easy. Each one of them hit the rebellion for similar reasons only approached it at a little different angle. The consternation I write to you about is now it isn’t just our 15 year old bursting into 90% or more of the unhealthy rebellion but her siblings are aiding and assisting her which are 20 and 18 right now. She was playing games on the Internet and through the later stages of my middle child turning 18 and her rebellion which we are still having struggles with her, the 15 year old began talking with an 18 year old boy in another state, I was watching subtle changes with her and even my oldest daughter began noticing it and starting playing the same game to see what she could see in concerns for her sister…. This is where things went for the worse…. I wasn’t informed on anything that may oldest daughter obtained throughout this situation though I heard on talk of them playing the game together…. And I pray over my children and family unceasingly, so one morning a little over a month ago I awoke early 5 am from my sleep and felt led to go get my daughters iPad and became very shocked that she had a Skype up and it was on with this 18 year old boy on the other connection… Because she went completely against several rules and the fact of the unhealthy decisions she was heading into the IPad hasn’t been returned.. She continued pleading with me when no one was around to at least let them talk under my supervision…. When I read through their Skype text messages there wasn’t anything I could find healthy or ok in not only the situation but the the conversations and their communication was unhealthy in itself that I find was part of the lowered self esteem in her than she already was battling and I was trying to work with her… She was slipping in her school, her sleep habits had changed drastically, many unhealthy risks, this along with the complications we have had in the last year in half with her sitter that is 18 has spiraled into some very complicated conflict and division in our family, though it has brought all the adults on board finally to work together which I know should have been all along which has been one of my deepest prayers for a long time l. Though in it coming to pass the three girls are coming together and now the oldest two are assisting the youngest to still have a connection by adding him to their social media and instead of blocking him they have blocked, in one of the first anger outburst our 15 year old had she was refusing to sit in her room to process all this and her disrespect myself and the adults in the home she became forceful and harmful to herself to where I restrained her from harming her hand and ramming into me like a bull… Her 20 year old sitter came over in the middle of all this after being asked not to because her anger didn’t need to be babied to escalate worse… She refused to listen came over any ways and the youngest claimed I hit her…. Which wasn’t true… It got out of hand and it couldn’t even be stopped with their dad asking the oldest to go and the youngest to go to her bedroom. So with us living with my husbands dad to stop the whole thing 911 was contacted by me…. The oldest ran out of the house before the cops arrived but later I would find out she went and got our middle daughter and the journeyed up to Social Services to file a complaint. Since then the 18 year old has been kick out of where she was staying after reveling against her us and was kicked out for similar things she was doing here and she walked out when we said no to a sleep over that wasn’t even going to be a sleep over at her friends house.. But our no wasn’t because we knew that it was because she wasn’t applying herself for her completion of her high school education to head on out to her free college education through my VA. And with her back the rebellion is charged and feeding off of one another to were us adults are at a loss in loving them with them running this home and ruining what we’ve struggled to get to for them. I apologize tis is as brief as I can get that truly just barely touches the surface, I cry my heart out to God unceasingly and I just want God’s best for my family, I don’t want to make wrong choices to get in God’s way of bring greater change in our family. But as a mom of a 15 year old seeking unsafe unhealthy relationship with someone she doesn’t really know ready to shut off everything in her life to this point and her sister assisting this when they aren’t even making wise choices in there life is quite challenging to discern and hear God and know what’s best to do…

  • Lina gardner says:

    My teenager daughter
    Having sex
    Failing and skipping school
    Disobedience
    Smoking cigarettes n pot
    Lying n manipulating

  • Aldo says:

    Lizzy, I know what you are going through with a rebellious child. They’ve made up their minds to do something, and that’s the way it’s going to be. The only thing left for a parent to do is to love them without condoning what they are doing, and pray and trust God to do the rest.

    Father God, I lift Lizzy up to You and ask that You would minister peace to her heart about her daughter. Touch her daughter with Your Holy Spirit, and cause her to realize that You, and her mother has her best interests at heart, in Jesus Name I pray, Amen.

  • Lizzy says:

    I struggle too, my daughter is 19 now, since the age of 16 she started with her rebellion. Also raised as a christian, she run away with a married 26 year old man with 2 children at the age of 16. Left me to deal with the unhappy wife who just gave birth to a baby and demand answers from me!. Terrible time, heaps of crying and praying. Then after a few months he left her and went back to his wife…what a relieve. Then age 18 she met a 43 year old and moved in with him. He is an alcoholic with children same age as mine! She is still with him. SHe is angry with us and disrespecful towards us because we don’t except her choices. I am praying and praying and crying and crying…

  • Jamie Jamie says:

    Hi Anonymous, it is a difficult thing to try and determine what responses you have that enable her bad choices and which express your love for her. 19 years old is a time for significant changes in independence, and your role has shifted from disciplinarian to advisor. That is so hard to do when that transition takes place by making really poor choices. One way to help make that shift is switch from messages like “You can’t, You shouldn’t, You must” to questions like “What do you think will happen if…? How are you going to handle when…?” Questions are a great way of building openness in a relationship. You aren’t telling her what is right and wrong, but you are helping her think through different ideas and consequences. It takes a lot more work on your part to create questions that aren’t just a thinly masked “You can’t, you must”. You want to make sure she feels safe coming to you for counsel, and not judged or manipulated. Let her know that she is loved no matter what her decisions but that you want to help her find the best path.

    Does your family participate in any faith community? Is that something that has shaped your values?

  • Anonymous says:

    Hi Jamie,
    I believe that her behavior has changed due to the friends she keeps. She does have some OK friends but the others that are not OK she doesn’t bring those around. Once she left the house she would tell me one thing and sneak around to do another. It is very difficult as a mother to have to tell her she could not come home until her behavior changed, it didn’t even phase her, she left 5 days ago and hasn’t called me to at least tell me she’s OK.
    She plays this game of worrying her parents so that we are the ones going after her and we have done that before but no more. We can’t allow her to manipulate us any longer.

  • Jamie Jamie says:

    Hi Anonymous, What do you think changed? Have there been some events in your daughter’s life that has caused her to abandon the path that she was on?

    That must have been a terribly painful conversation to have, saying that she can no longer live at home. How did she respond? Where is she at now?

  • Anonymous says:

    I have a 19 year old daughter who has rebelled so badly in the last 6 months. She went from being an honor student to getting kicked out of college and having no job. She has legal issues with the court and she is actually facing jail time. I am so hurt as a mother because she has a family who loves her we tell her all the time that she is a beautiful young lady and it’s ok to make bad choices if we learn from them however, she is not learning from them and she doesn’t seem to care about her life or that it’s spiraling out of control. It doesn’t matter what I say she does the opposite. She leaves the house and sometimes doesn’t come home for days. I know she isn’t on drugs because she has to get drug tested through the courts. I finally had to tell her that she cannot come back home until she can get herself together. She cannot stay in my house and ruin her life. I cannot help contribute to her down fall. She doesn’t follow the rules, she doesn’t contribute in the household and she stays in her room all day. I want to give up and allow her to figure life out but the mother in me can’t seem to let go!! I feel like I have failed her as a mother.

  • Kathryn Kathryn says:

    Hi Mary (and everyone else) We live in very difficult days and I feel for teenagers whether or not they have been brought up in Christian homes. There is an old and maybe trite saying that time changes things and I think it is often true. Like many parents in full time ministry, we too had rebellious children and found it most hurtful and bewildering but one daughter in particular has 2 teenage children now and they are both at uni. One is plodding along doing fine except she complains he never looks smart like he used to and the other is a scatter brain who causes her mum quite a bit of heartache. I cheered her up the other day by saying that she (my daughter) was much more of a challenge to us at the same age than her daughter is to her! I do hope that makes sense. I firmly believe that we can trust our children to the Lord. He loves them, even the wayward ones, maybe them more so. It isn’t easy and it does not mean that there will always be a “happy ending”. However, our worrying and fretting achieves nothing good and may even be a sign of lack of faith in the mighty way God acts to save those whom He is calling. There are plenty of characters in the Bible, men and woman who we may not have approved of if we had lived in those times but their stories are there for us to learn from. So, let us encourage one another when we face difficult and hurtful situations, That way we will be built up in Him and more able to hear His voice and follow His wisdom and discernment. Thank you Lord that although many things seem insurmountable You have all the power and might to resolve every issue to Your glory and the extension of Your kingdom. We may not see this come to pass here and now but we have the joy of discovering how great You are when we get to spend eternity with You. Meanwhile Lord, give us loving empathy and holy wisdom in all we say and do. Amen

  • Mary says:

    I can relate to the posts here as our granddaughter has chosen to leave our home and live in an alternative lifestyle, We have done everything we can to change this situation and help her, all to no avail. I have been praying constantly. One problem is that she has left home,quit school, the other problem of the alternate lifestyle is another serious matter. The parent of the other 17 year old allows this to go on in her home. We have pleadded with her to tell our granddaughter she cannot stay there, but she does not listen. Also the person whom she has chosen to live with has been abusive and the relationship is very unhealthy. Sometimes I feel so sad and discouraged, but I have faith things will change and get better. It may take a crisis, I don’t know.I will pray for Melannie and you all and I hope you remember us in your prayers , our granddaughter will be 18 the end of this month. Thank you

  • Alfred says:

    Dear Melanie and KD, I am distressed at hearing (with my heart) of your daughters! A thought I have, is to stop opposing the girls, get onto their side of the issue, and together attack the problem rather than each other. Now, that’s a very big mouth-full, but I think you know what I mean. The question is, how? Some people drop out-of-school because they are genius, others for different reasons. KD is your daughter’s friend holding down a job, or is he actively looking for work?
    You have no doubt discussed the fact that just because the body is ready to make babies, the mind may not be. I know a psychologist who said “you, girl, don’t even know how much you don’t know!” Being together sexually produces an attraction for each other that is difficult to resist. So, I agree: Take it to the Lord in prayer!
    Often there is no easy solution. Yet, once a person has fallen, he/she will more clearly realize that God alone is able to help! As humans we all have the freedom of choice (and need to live with the consequences). Sometimes all we can do is hold them up to the Lord of mercy and grace. I, personally had let go of God, but He held onto His end of the live-line. After years of backsliding I was brought to my knees and again found Jesus as a Savior and Friend! That “homecoming” was a thrill for me, and I will never let go again!
    Praying for you (both) and your daughters, Alfred.

  • KD says:

    Melanie, my daughter, like yours is making bad choices. She has been raised in a Christian, loving home. Our daughter began rebelling at 16 when we didn’t approve of her boyfriend (who had dropped out of school). As we stood firm on our rules, she began to rebel even more. She began sneaking out to see him. Now she is a week from her 18th birthday and she is still seeing that same boy, threatening to move in with him. She has now began staying over night with the boyfriend and we are at a loss because we do not know where he lives. We have taken her car away (5 weeks now) and we have had calm, heart to heart discussions with her. I have prayed myself to death over the last two years, but the one blessing that has come out of it is I have learned to truly TRUST HIM and my faith has increased. So sorry you are dealing with this, Melanie. I think we have to hand them over to the Lord and know that this too shall pass, but it sure is heartbreaking as a mother who loves her daughter more than herself. I still wish for any advice on how to handle this & please add us to your prayer list. Thank you & God bless.

  • Chris says:

    Melanie…lifting up your daughter to jesus now so that he truly draws her to him and becomes her true lord and savior. lord touch this daughters heart and let her know of your love for her that your love is the only true love and without it she is nothing. show her her real need for you and bring her to her knees for her own good and well being. in your name i pray amen

  • Melanie says:

    Having a difficult time with our 16yrs old daughter who has made similar bad choice of running away and outbursts of anger toward family. We are a Pastoral family and I’m sure it hasnt been easy on her and her siblings. She seems t hold in more of her feelings and then acts out in bad choices and rebilon. It seems that she maybe harboring anger towad us because we hadn’t apporved of her boyfriend. Need help prayer.

  • Elkay says:

    Let us simply pray that Jackie is able to receive those words. The comment about joyously planning her daughter’s wedding came from personally seeing my wife do just that and it has remained a favorite memory many, many years later.

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