The image is deeply embedded in pop culture. From movies (think Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause) to music (“You’ve got your mother in a whirl,” David Bowie wails in Rebel, Rebel) to literature (“The foul-mouthed teenage rebel dropout became required reading,” as one critic says of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye).
There’s just one problem with this ubiquitous take on adolescent agitation: It’s wrong.
Rethinking Teenage Rebellion Psychology
“Most teens don’t rebel,” says Nancy Darling, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Oberlin College and one of a growing number of experts who say the notion of “teenage rebellion” is invalid. “They disagree, which is not the same thing.”
Introduced by Sigmund Freud at the turn of the 20th century, the idea of teen rebellion was later popularized by G. Stanley Hall in his two-volume tome Adolescence, considered the bible on the subject through the 1970s.
Today, however, most scholars see teenagers’ tendency to challenge their parents—about everything from curfew to politics to religion to what to wear out on a Saturday night—as a natural part of growing up.
Dealing with Teen Rebellion
“It would be like saying your husband is ‘rebelling’ when he disagrees with you,” says Laurence Steinberg,Ph.D., a Temple University psychologist and author of more than a dozen books on adolescence, most recently the Age of Opportunity. “Parents become accustomed to little kids not questioning them, so when their kids get to an age where it’s natural for them to question, they see it as defiance.”
None of this is to say that dealing with a teenager who is constantly being contrarian is easy. Having someone in your house who rolls his eyes at your every utterance, slams her bedroom door when you tell her to clean her room, or stomps off when you set bedtimes or curfews can be extremely stressful.
But the distinction between actual rebellion and what most adolescents do—which is to push back in a normal, healthy way—is crucial.
3 Ways Parents can Make the Teen Years a Little Smoother:
1. Compromise where it makes sense.
It is important to understand that the major battles between teens and their parents are usually about control.
A typical example is when your kid has a messy bedroom. Mom and dad can’t get past the dust and dirt, piles of clothing, and grimy dishes. All they want is for things to be cleaned up—and now. Meanwhile, the kid says, “It’s my room. If you don’t like it, I’ll close the door.”
The key to solving this kind of argument is not to give your teen an ultimatum. “Clean your room or you can’t go out this weekend.” Instead, Steinberg suggests that parents find a way to reach a reasonable compromise. Acknowledge your teen’s point of view while asserting your parental right to have a clean home.
“Brainstorm with your kid to figure out a way you can both be happy,” Steinberg says.
In my own house, we’ve reached just such a compromise. My 17-year-old is required to pick up the mess in his room once a week so it can be cleaned. The rest of the week, I let him have his space. (I just try not to look.)
One way to find a middle ground is to test things on a pilot basis. Says Darling: “If there is an area where they want more freedom and you are uncomfortable, you can say, ‘Let’s try it—if it works out, great. If not, we’ll step back.’”
2. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
On big issues—abiding by curfew, attending school, never drinking and driving—parents have an obligation to be firm. And research shows that most teens are more than comfortable with that.
“In our studies we find that kids actually complain that parents don’t set rules—not that they do,” Darling says. “They may not like the rules, they may not agree with you, but they believe in your right to set them and they want those boundaries. It lets them know that you care, and it gives them something to rub up against.”
At the same time, parents shouldn’t be rigid on things that don’t matter as much, if at all.
“These are areas where you could make a case that the kid should have a say,” Darling explains. “Like what music they listen to, who their friends are, who they date, what they wear, and what they do in their free time.”
Steinberg agrees. “On most of the big issues, teens and parents usually see eye to eye,” he says. “It’s the little things that they get hung up on.”
3. Communicate early and often.
One way to lower the temperature in your house is to keep the lines of communication open. This is important no matter what age your child is. And if you are not in the habit of talking with your kids, it’s never too late to start.
That said, the earlier the better.
“Don’t wait until they are 13 or in trouble,” says Amy Bobrow Gross, Ph.D., a New York psychologist whose private practice focuses on children and teens. “You want them to feel comfortable talking to you well before they become teenagers.”
This isn’t always easy—especially if you have a tendency to argue. That’s why it’s best to walk away in the heat of the moment, Gross says. Then come back when everyone is calmer so you can have a more productive dialogue.
How To Talk To A Rebellious Teenager
If you want to talk to your teen about a particularly touchy topic, Gross advises, try sitting down with him and watching a TV show or a video that hits on the subject. That way, the conversation will feel less personal; the lens will remain on the larger issue, not on your child per se.
Another tip: sometimes the best time to chat is in the car, on a hike, or before bed when the lights are out—all occasions when you’re not looking your kid right in the eye. “Avoiding eye contact can take some of the pressure off,” Gross notes.
Finally, don’t lose sight of the fact that communicating with your teen is a two-way street. Keep your ears—and your mind—open. “A healthy argument is a good time for you to really listen and consider what your kid is saying,” Darling counsels. “It may be a good time to reconsider some of your rules.”
Of course, there are still situations in which teenagers act out in ways that are not normal or healthy. As a parent, you must be alert to the red flags.
Experts agree, for instance, that if your child is arguing with you about absolutely everything—“You can’t force me to go to school,” “You have no right to tell me not to drink”—it’s a cause for concern.
“In families where teenagers are being oppositional just for the sake of being oppositional, there is usually something wrong,” Steinberg says. “There are usually deeper problems in the family’s relationships.”
The same is true if your adolescent is lying to you, abusing drugs, or withdrawing completely. “If they are having unsafe sex, if they are drinking too much, if they are in trouble, you need to step in and get them to stop,” Darling says. “That is your job as a parent.”
But remember, this kind of behavior is more often the exception. In most families, a certain amount of pushback from your teenager is to be expected—even embraced. “They are just becoming more independent and autonomous,” Darling says. “They are doing what they are supposed to do.”
Just don’t call it rebellion.