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Teenage Rebellion or Establishing Independence?

Adolescence often seems to take on a life of its own while parents are left wondering what alien has taken over their child’s mind and body.

One minute they are reasonable and then you would think they have lost their mind … and you believe you might lose yours.

It’s easy for parents of teens to confuse what is developmentally right on time with rebellion. Adolescence is typically fraught with emotion and difficult moments for teens and parents.

While your child’s body and brain has been growing and learning since birth, some pretty incredible amounts of change start happening during puberty. Having already reached 90% of its full size by age 6, the brain doesn’t grow much during this time, but a study by the National Institutes of Health showed that our brains undergo a massive reorganization process between ages 12 and 25.

teen girl with pink hair and a ear gage piercing

Simultaneously, teens are in the throes of establishing their independence. They’re learning to do things on their own, becoming more self-aware, and figuring out how to deal with people aside from their family.

Rebellion is defined as the action or process of resisting authority, control, or convention. Your sweet, caring, fairly compliant child suddenly begins to resist authority, takes risks, is more independent with a mind of their own, and has beliefs that are opposed to yours. This can look like rebellion, and the tricky thing is, it may be. But, it is also possible they are doing exactly what they need to be doing developmentally, and believe it or not, they are as uncomfortable as you are.

Perhaps one of the most important questions a parent can ask is this: How do you define rebellion? One morning your teen walks into the kitchen with green hair, an exceptionally creative mohawk, an interesting outfit, or perhaps they announce they are going to get their nose pierced. Is that rebellion, or is your teen seeking to assert their independence?

Psychologist Bruce Narramore describes what is normal and what is inappropriate when it comes to your child’s sense of negativity during their teenage years. Normal examples include increased assertiveness, direct expression of opinions and ideas, complaining about chores, making decisions parents disagree with, keeping secrets from parents, and occasional stubbornness.
Inappropriate negative behaviors include chronic irritability, chronic negativism, defiance, isolation, depression, raging outbursts, and prolonged, angry withdrawal.

Before your family encounters the teen years, it will be helpful to anticipate how you will navigate these years and make the most of this developmental growth period.

For starters, don’t imagine that this precious, happy-go-lucky, respectful, compliant child won’t cause you any angst down the road.
Also, recognize that the teen years can often feel frightening, out of control, and intimidating. There is a lot expected of your child and a lot at stake in their eyes. The pressure is on, and they tend to feel it magnified times 10 even though they may not act like it (or maybe they do).

  • Give your teen freedom, but hold them accountable.
  • Expect your teen to treat you with respect. You should also be respectful to your teen. This is vital for future success.
  • Help them understand that everybody’s thoughts and feelings have value, even if you completely disagree with them.
  • Use non-threatening communication, and listen well. Words, tone of voice, and body language all matter.
  • A sense of humor helps! Laugh and find ways to have fun with your teen.
  • Be consistent. Your teen is paying attention to every move you make and the words you say. You are a rudder to them as they navigate uncertain waters, and inconsistency is scary. They are counting on you to be the parent – even when they push back.
  • Ask for help! Sometimes an objective third party can make all the difference.
Julie Baumgardner

Julie Baumgardner

President and CEO, First Things First

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