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!

172 Responses to “Helping Parents Survive Adolescent Rebellion”

  • Mel says:

    My niece is 17 and lives with my mum and dad as there her legal guardian as her mum is a drug taker and has never wanted her and she doesnt know who her father all her mum has done to her is lie to her who her father is, she was abused when she was 10 while on holiday, she was also raped just before her prom, and recently a family friend who she looked up to as a big brother abused her too, the whole family was like a family to me and i have lost all of them and now so has my niece, it has hit her hard i know, she also suffers from mental health problems and passes out and fits due to stress which she is under neurologist and cahms for but she is so set in her head she dont need help. since we found out about the last abuse she has just dropped it on us she dont want to come home, before she was so loveable all the time and since the day she told the police she has clammed up so there is nothing from her at all, she is getting in with the wrong crowd regarding drug taking people, the people that got her mum on drugs i think is now filling her head with rubbish, she has said she feels controlled and also has said she blames herself for me loosing my best friend ie this lads mum. we want her home, she passes out when out at night too, she has a 15yr old brother and an 8yr old brother that also lives at home with my parents and me they miss there big sister and want her home but its like so dont care about anyone or anything no more and its so out of character for her to behave like this. she is doing a music performance course at college as she wants to be a singer i am so worried her dreams are gonna be shattered. any help would be appreciated please

  • Unhappy mother says:

    My 16 year old son ranway last week with his GF. I caught them at home when they were suppose to be at school. My son lied to me and hid his GF in the wardrobe. See his GF is very bad news. Her family have no morals they thrive on drama. Gf’s mothers assulted me last year as a result of the GF and my son telling lies. We have allowed them to meet outside our home, but not allowed her or her family over. He has such a bright kid. I just don’t know what I should do. He made contact 6 days after he ran off. I believe God is in control but the pain is unbelievable. My daughters miss their brother. We are not sure as to when he’ll come home. I keep reassuring him that everything will be ok and to come back home. He was raised in the church but in the last few months do a complete turn around. What should I do when he comes back?

  • Aldo says:

    Glynis, I sympathize with the situation that you find yourself in with your daughter. I suggest that you go to focusonthefamily.org and do a search on Rebellious Teens. Then click on Rules and Rebellion. That is an excellent article (along with others) about how to handle teen rebellion.

    Of course, you can always talk one on one with someone by clicking on Talk to a mentor button at the top right of this page.

    May God bless you with the love, compassion, and wisdom that is needed in dealing with your teenage child. Amen.

  • glynis says:

    I have recently separated from my drug addict husband and am filing for divorce. Married for 20 years and his promises to stop drugging were never fulfilled. My daughter who is not 18.. is at a very tender stage of her life. She has tried drugs. attempted suicide, failed at school, bunked school, dated very unsavoury boys, started smoking, run away from home, treats me like trash, swears at me.. if she cant get her way she throws temper tantrums.. she is still at school so I can kick her out the house for fear of her not getting educated. She always throws the fact that she is 18 in my face.. I have cried so many buckets over her… I will not give up on her. To add to I have a 15 year old son, who gets so upset with all the drama at home.. shouts at her.. for shouting at me.. its a disaster… i set rules she breaks them.. I give her consequences for behaving badly.. she continues to do her own thing.. she steals from me… the list could carry on.
    please can you give me some guidance how to deal with her… desperate Mom

  • Carole says:

    Heavenly Father, we come to you this day in prayer for all parents with rebellious teens. Whatever they are rebelling against, open their eyes so that they may see what they are doing to their parents and themselves as well. They need your guidance Lord to have a safe, happy, productive life. In Jesus name, Amen.

  • UPSET says:

    As a teenager sometimes I used to keep driving my child to study well (which parent doesn’t?) or avoid wearing revealing dresses or ask her to clean up her messy hair or tone down the make up. She would go seek solace in her classmates / friends who would tell her she looked great, mom is jealous, insecure etc. Can you believe that ? If mom cannot give a child honest criticism then whatever else can she do ? She was only looking for compliments which those friends provided for her,thus making her feel good about herself. I was only trying to help her prepare for adulthood, behave in a mature fashion. Seems they are all she cares about. She is now in college and lives in the dorm. Does not want to come on weekends. Has blocked me of the texts, locked me out of FB. I have no idea what she does on her time off, and no way to find out. I do know that she was sexually involved with a boy. Only communicates with my husband when she wants to bring the laundry basket home to wash her clothes or needs money for gas. We are paying for her education. Her grades have dropped. Over the years she has complained so much to her friends, other’s parents that they actually think we were not nice to her. Nothing is further from the truth. I have stopped saying anything to her. She is making her life choices and after my time she will live with them. That is my approach. You are accountable for every action you take. Maybe my parenting was well meaning but awkward but this is a cruel repayment of all we have done for her. I somehow cannot get over this pain and hurt.

  • Danny Snyder says:

    This stops just short….I have the unhealthy rebellion going on right now. One year out of HS 18 years old about to turn 19. Prior to giving him freedom and driving his own car, he was a model child. I saw behavior freshman and sophomore years that was what I believe you call was healthy rebellion. I was providing some guidance due to rumors I was hearing, that all fell on deaf ears. Once he was 16, with a car we hardly saw him. We tried to keep track of him, but he was handling everything pretty good, and digging himself out of problems and situations. We witnessed and suspected some things, but grades were okay, he was playing sports. HUGE WARNING….this was all a sign of unapproved behavior “DRUGS”…pot and more than pot. When you have kids hanging at your home and having a good time, know that things are good….let them trash the house and eat you out of house and home (boys those were the good ole days)! What we would do if out 19 year old could bring his friends over…he can’t there all pot heads. Any how now we are in all out panic mode, “UNHEALTHY REBELLION” as you call it. We took the phone, and car. Now he has a job, community college, and hates his parents and wants to move out. He has debt to take care of first, and if he moves out we are paying for NOTHING unless he flies straight. He must find different friends. We will let you know how it goes. All advice is appreciated, as well as prayers. We are raising kids in unprecedented times! God Bless.

  • chyna javier says:

    To L W:I had learned that in many ways that our teens behavior, we should respond not to react. Coz a lot of times earlier in our life that, everytime we have conversations like asking to do something in house, how to treat their younger sisters etc.etc we clashed.so what I did a lot of prayers I prayed, to lead me in a good way. Just try always as you can to calm yourself. Coz teens now adays are so immature, impolite, childish and so on. We have to learn that we should talk them with gentleness. When your daughter reacted badly on you, don’t respond with anger. If you do, it will turn into mess. When she’s in mood, in a peaceful manner, talk her, at first talk her with compliments,ask her how does it goes her school? Then open your feeling toward what was happened etc.etc.
    It’s hard to deal to the teens, even to me until now, oh gosh, terribly! I just keep on praying lot of times everyday :D

  • L W says:

    Our 16 year old has resorted to telling me strait up ” I won’t do it.” When asked to do a small chore. She has a lot of homework so I don’t ask much but I was raised with the training that you have to teach your children to work around the house in order to help them become successful in their adult life.
    But when the response is like that, where do I as a mother stand ? Should their be a consequence or should I just allow her to retort and get away with it ?? My husband thinks there is nothing that can be done about it. Is he right ? Should I just leave her with it ?? Could sure use some Christian advice. Thank you.

  • chyna javier says:

    Since I became Christian more than a year now, God leads me in righteousness to live. Gives me wisdom how to handle things, how to parenting 2 teenagers & 2 toddlers. It’s hard, really hard coz most of them they have really such a stubborn, strong will, oppositing attitude. My oldest always talking me back sarcastically, disrespectfull manner, shaming me when we have conversations, unresponsible. It’s really killing me, and I can’t even get support to my unChristian husband. He can’t even talk my children that she shouldn’t treated me like that coz I am the mom. He just do nothing. Sometimes it’s more hurting the way my husband doing nothing than my children’s miss behaviour. Oh dear I’d just keep on praying. Trusting God as much I can. Coz He keeps His promises. I love God, Jesus & Holy ghost. He is my refuge, my comforter, my stronghold.. ..

  • Alfred says:

    Dear Anonymous, Jamie asks some good questions. I would add that I know of someone who was forced to attend church, and as a result hated church to his dying day. My suggestion is to allow teenage children the choice to attend or not attend church. By their lifestyle, love and example, the parents need to model the life they want their children to adopt. Prayer for children needs to be followed by the faith and hope that God will draw them in. This is in contrast to being anxious and doubtful about answered prayer.
    To Dj (Dec.19): You are in quite a situation. It is very difficult to let go so that God can take hold of this situation, but while you continue to pray, you need to let go of all anxiety and trust that in God’s perfect timing she will come in. I know that after back-sliding for many years, I finally hit bottom and cried to God to restore my soul. HE answered and lifted me higher Spiritually than I’d ever been before!
    Dear Heavenly Father, I thank you for hearing our prayers. May these change our hearts to be more loving towards our children and to thank You for drawing them in when it is the right time. In Jesus’ name; Amen.

  • Pam says:

    I am currently raising a 13-year-old grandson due to the drug problems of both of his parents. He’s been with me for almost 4 years. He’s always been such a good child – really has never given me a problem, but in the past year, it’s been extremely difficult. He has announced to the world that he’s bisexual via a social media site and I’m afraid I handled that very badly. Now everyone else in his life is telling him it’s ok to be bisexual, they love and accept him, etc. I’ve told him that I love him deeply and will always be here for him regardless but I cannot tell him that God is accepting of a lifestyle outside of what He originally designed. In the past few weeks, he’s become defiant over some things and very disrespectful. I know part of this is his anger over how his life has been ripped apart more than once because of his parents and I believe part of it is his anger towards me for telling him that it’s not ok in God’s eyes for him to say that he’s bisexual. He has a girlfriend, has never dated a boy, and isn’t sexual in any way. I feel like he’s making me the enemy when all I’m doing, all I have done, is try to give him a stable, loving home.

  • Jamie Jamie says:

    Hi Anonymous, I understand your struggle. It is hard to know when to push your child into religious action and when to allow them to make their own choice even if it is away from the church. In your conversations with your child, what are the reasons that he/she gives for not wanting to be at church? How old is your child?

  • Anonymous says:

    Need guidance on what to do about a teenager who does not want to attend church (not even once a week!) I know is a typical habit of Millenials but it still does not make it right. Do we require this? Do we not require this? Right now we are enforcing this practice, but we realize they will probably just go through the motions (but at least they will hear God’s word). Our child is also angry because we expect them to pay tithes (since they are working now). Need guidance please

  • Elkay says:

    Ayesha, I join with Aldo in grieving and in prayer for you. Many churches have Godly women groups who will come alongside you with support so I hope you can soon find such a resource. Jesus tells us that where His followers are, He is there in their midst and that if they are Spirit-led to agree about a matter in prayer, God will answer. Matt 18:19-20. That is why we are urging you to connect with a group of Christians.

    “Abba Father in Heaven, Ayesha is in a tough place with serious trouble on her hands. You have invited us to come to Your gracious throne to find help and mercy in our troubles. So we ask You to miraculously intervene in her family’s life a way that You know is best, that will ultimately advance Your Kingdom and bring honor and praise to You, to Jesus and to Your Spirit. We also ask that You bring her to a support group of God-fearing Christians whom she can pray with and be comforted by. In Jesus’ name, this is our prayer.”

  • Dj says:

    Our 17 year old daughter has been in rebellion for over a year. She WILL NOT leave her partying boyfriend alone (she calls him her ex but they are constantly professing their love to each other). Despite previously being on dangerous acne medicine that causes severe birth defects, they continue to sneak off and have sex. Our only reassurance is that she is on the pill. She wants nothing to do with church or God anymore. She is determined that she is ready to face the world on her own. We have her in Christian counseling but don’t know if she chooses to really participate or not. We are heart broken and this has aged us. We raised our kids in a Godly home with a strong support system. Need prayer desperately!!!!

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