Helping Parents Survive Adolescent Rebellion
An 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!