It may not seem like it when you’re in the trenches dealing with an out-of-control teenager, but pushing the boundaries is a normal part of adolescence. Learn the causes of rebellious teen behavior and how to manage the consequences as a parent.

By Kristi Pahr
May 21, 2019
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Once you're past the toddler stage, many parents think the worst is over. The tantrums, rule-breaking, and boundary-pushing are history and you are finally able to communicate with your child and know you're understood. For the next ten years or so, it's relatively smooth-sailing — until your compliant, cooperative, affectionate kid turns into a teenager.

Teenage rebellion and defiance are hallmarks of adolescence and can be difficult waters to navigate for families. Luckily, as with toddlers, in most cases, it's just a phase!

From disregard for family rules to defiance, experts weigh in on the different types of teenage behavior that can be downright baffling for parents, plus offer up ways to deal with teenage rebellion.

Causes of Teenage Rebellion

Adolescence is hard. Beginning as early as 9 years old, once happy and loving kids may begin to experience a bit of angst and chafing at being treated like a child. A flood of new hormones and a developing prefrontal cortex are at the center of the hurricane, resulting in mood swings, heightened emotional responses, an increase in arguing, and that infamous preteen/teen attitude.

The prefrontal cortex, which is located behind the forehead, is the region of the brain responsible for judgment, understanding outcomes and consequences, and impulse and emotional control and it doesn't reach maturity until sometime in the mid-20s. If your teen seems impulsive, moody, and you are constantly amazed by their poor decision-making skills, this area of the brain is to blame.

While the prefrontal cortex is still a work in progress during adolescence, the region of the brain responsible for the reward and pleasure responses, the nucleus accumbens, is well-developed. The result? Risk-taking behavior with little concern for consequences.

Driving over the speed limit, shoplifting, smoking and drinking alcohol, even blowing off homework in favor of SnapChat and other social media are all examples of this chemical phenomenon, and though the consequences of drinking can be much harsher than the those of missing a school assignment, the process is the same.

Added to the developing brain of teenagers, the flood of hormones experienced during and after puberty make for a potent mix of shenanigans. Teenagers want to assert their individuality and break free from their childhood identity as they develop their own opinions and world-views, all while navigating the treacherous waters of middle and high school relationships.

Unlike previous generations, today's teens also have social media to contend with, which is ripe for rebellious behavior. Creating secret profiles, online bullying and harassment, and promiscuous flirting/sexting are common and may be difficult for parents to uncover. Learning that their teen has been behaving inappropriately or engaging in potentially dangerous behavior online can leave parents feeling completely out of their depth in protecting their children and monitoring rebellious behavior.

Managing the Consequences

Yes, there will be an end to your teen's angsty behavior. But surviving the consequences that can occur before that can be tough. Since teens have trouble seeing past the immediate gratification of their actions to the possible repercussions, worst-case scenarios like addiction, injury or accidental death, and other long term life-changing outcomes are what keep parents awake at night.

It's not unusual for teenagers in the thick of their rebellion to experiment with drugs, alcohol, risky sex, or law-breaking behavior like shoplifting or reckless driving, not fully comprehending the devastating consequences they could face. Parents of teens who are experimenting with dangerous behaviors can easily feel overwhelmed or disheartened, especially when their rebellion leads to rifts in the parent/child relationship.

There are smaller, less traumatic consequences that bear mentioning as well. Fractured family relationships or slipping grades can have a real-world impact on teens. Even though they seem like small potatoes compared to other, more traumatic consequences, the loss of strong foundational relationships and emotional anchors can lead to more significant defiance and dangerous behavior.

Best Ways to Deal with Teenage Rebellion

Even though it can feel like their teens are a million miles away, there are steps parents can take to minimize or mitigate rebellious behavior. Indianapolis-based family coach and licensed school counselor Calvalyn Day explains to her clients that "what looks like rebellion is often just the developmentally appropriate boundary pushing that teens need to practice prior to getting out on their own."

The first order of business is to make sure your rebellious or defiant teenager's behavior isn't a response to some specific incident or problem. Day encourages parents to be aware of "friendship issues, family changes such as parents working more or conflicts between parents. If so, address the change and discuss appropriate ways of addressing the emotional need."

Day often reminds her clients that punitive consequences aren't always the answer and encourages parents to look for the source and not necessarily punish the symptoms.

"Make sure there isn't a fracture in your relationship. My favorite quote is that rules without relationship will always equal rebellion, so don't be so quick to focus on punishing away the behavior, when it really can be a symptom of disconnect in the relationship."

Being the victim of bullying can manifest as rebellion as teens can become sullen and withdrawn, often displaying symptoms of depression and other mental health issues. Solo or family therapy can be beneficial especially if teens are exhibiting self-harming behaviors or other mental health red flags.

When attempting to correct teens exhibiting rebellious behavior, sometimes the right way seems counter-intuitive. Parenting psychologist and author Dr. Jennifer Johnston-Jones suggests that loosening the reins of control might be just what your teen needs to explore and develop their own persona instead of fighting against parental rules and punishments.

According to Johnston-Jones, when teens say "Give me more freedom!' parents should do just that.

"Let go of the temptation to control your teen. The teenage brain craves risks and must feel independence in order to grow confidently. Now's the time to be less controlling, but still involved emotionally."

As teens get ready to leave home, parents can miss opportunities to connect and establish healthy relationships that follow children into adulthood.

"The teen years are most likely the closing of the window where we have a real opportunity to connect. Once they go off to college the window is mostly shut – you can still get in, but you need to knock first and they may or may not let you in."

Similarly, teens need the opportunity to think for themselves and build confidence in their ability to problem solve. Johnston-Jones explains that even well-meaning advice can be taken as criticism.

"Jumping in and trying to solve problems for your teen or telling them what to do, sends the message that you don't think they are able to do it themselves. If they don't ask for your opinion, don't give it. Unsolicited advice is received as criticism. Instead, say, "I'm here for you" and teach them a Growth Mindset thinking style that shows that it's ok to make mistakes."

Licensed professional counselor, Shannon Battle offers the following practical tips for parents of teens:

  1. Don't stress out. Adolescence is a time of separation from parental norms and the development of self-identity resulting in strained relationships and autonomous decision-making that goes against most values and family beliefs. Essentially, your child is trying to come into their own.
  2. Establish boundaries that allow them to feel empowered to make choices while clearly understanding the consequences.
  3. Stay consistent with your rules and structure for your home.
  4. Be open. Offer times to have family meetings where ideas can be expressed nonjudgmentally.
  5. Check in. Provide daily check-ins where you spend at least 3-5 minutes checking in with them about their day.
  6. Evaluate punishments. Make sure punishments fit the behavior and try not to over-punish where it no longer has an effect on your child.
  7. Be a united front. If you have a spouse, make sure both of you are on the same page.
  8. Address the behavior without bashing your child. You want to continue to build their self-esteem and self-worth and not give them a reason to consider you an enemy.

The main thing to keep in mind is that balancing a healthy relationship with your teen and the need to make them feel safe enough to express themselves is the primary goal in managing unpredictable and often unnerving behavior and making it out of the teen years unscathed.

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