Adolescent Rebellion: Good or Bad?

“No! It’s my hair, and I can style it however I want to! I’m tired of following your rules!” Have you ever experienced this, or any other form of rebellion? It can seem like your child is trying to make your life difficult, or that they are just out to oppose you. Contrary to popular thought, rebellion isn’t always a child’s attempt to defy you. It is simply a natural part of growing up.

During the teenage years, your child experiences a lot of changes: physical, emotional, and mental. Part of this change occurs in the prefrontal cortex (the area behind the forehead responsible for thinking and judgment), meaning that instead of relying on your ideas, your child can now form their own thoughts and ideals. Another facet to this development is that your child is now able to synthesize new information into ideas. According to David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University School of Medicine, teens argue with their parents as a way to develop their newfound ability. It doesn’t mean your child is arguing just to argue: it is all part of the natural maturation process.

Elkind notes another facet to teenage rebellion: social pressures. In today’s world, teens are pressured into experimenting with love, sex, fashion, drugs, and body modifications. It isn’t that child development has changed. We’re seeing the effects of peer pressure at a very young age when kids are too young to stand up to the pressure. Have you ever noticed clothing made for young girls and thought “those clothes look far too sexualized for a little girl”? Those are the pressures your children are facing from their peers every day: the pressure to keep up, to fit in, to be cool. When those pressures meet your rules, rebellion ensues. 

Strict parenting can also create rebellious teens. Research has shown that teens raised in strict households have a tendency to be angry and rebellious during the teen and young adult years. Children react negatively when their parents attempt to control them (adults experience this too, often as a reaction to some form of strict parenting from their parents). As your child grows, they will have problems regulating their reactions to any perceived attempt to control them. They may respond with anger or become resentful if they even think someone is trying to control them. Sometimes, these negative reactions manifest as rebellion against the limits you have imposed on your child.

During adolescence, children look for ways to assert their independence and individuality; conflict arises when teens cross the lines their parents expect to be followed. Parents dislike rebellion because it makes their job more difficult. Many parents worry about their teens rebelling because it has the potential to cause their child serious harm; this could be through physical or emotional harm, or rejecting interests and people from childhood.It is important to remember that rebellion is not meant to directly oppose you, but you will most often feel that way because your child is doing something you don’t like.  Rebellion may also serve as a way to attract parental attention if it is not being received in another way. Lastly, younger children may be more likely to rebel than older children. In his book “Born to Rebel”, Frank Sulloway gives his reasoning as to why younger children may rebel more than their older counterparts: younger children may not identify with their parents as much as older children, younger children do not want to become ‘clones’ of their older siblings, and younger children may want to grow in nontraditional ways.

In early adolescence (9-13), rebellion is a child’s way of shedding their childhood identity and the start of discovering who they want to be. Dr. Carl Pickhardt recommends using patient insistence to wear down adolescent resistance to parental requests. Ask your child to vocalize how they are feeling, instead of acting out. Dr. Pickhardt recommends asking “can you help me better understand what you need?” This shows that you care about their feelings and what they are going through. After having the chance to express their feelings, your child may be more receptive to your requests. To read more about Pickhardt’s recommendations on dealing with rebellion, read “Rebel with a Cause: Rebellion in Adolescence”.

It is important to remember that not all rebellion is bad. While it can certainly feel distressing, it is a natural process of your child’s maturation into a independent adult. Teens who continue to closely follow their parents rules and ideals may have greater difficulty in their adulthood then you realize. In order to grow into an independent adult, your child needs to learn how to depend on you less, take on more responsibility, make decisions and solve problems, form their own identity, and discover their own life values. Without rebellion, even a very mild form, your teen isn’t able to complete this process.

Rebellion is not inherently bad. It is viewed negatively by parents because their child is beginning to break away from the rules parents have outlined. While there are certainly dangers with more extreme forms of rebellion, the overall act does not reflect poorly on your child at all. Is it frustrating? Yes. But it doesn’t always mean your child is bad. Rebellion is a unique combination of hormones, developing biological processes, as well as emotional and mental independence.

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