Once you’re beyond the terrible twos, many parents think the worst is behind them. The tantrums are suddenly replaced by restful nights, and the rest of your child’s adolescence looks like it will be smooth sailing…
Of course, that is until they enter middle school. Teenage rebellion and defiant behavior are hallmarks of child development. And unfortunately, few families are exempt from navigating those tumultuous waters.
Is your teenager rebelling? If so, rest assured that rebellious behavior is usually just a phase, and mood swings play a big role. Keep reading to discover some evidence-based reasons why teenagers rebel, as well as what to do about it.
Why Do Teenagers Rebel?
By the time they are raising kids of their own, many people have already forgotten that adolescence is complicated. As children cultivate their sense of self, they face difficult choices about friendship, academics, sexuality, gender, identity, alcohol, drugs, and the like.
Not only that, but major developmental changes happen around the teenage years–causing many young adults to act out as one of the natural consequences:
Mixture of Hormones
Throughout puberty, the adolescent brain undergoes a drastic change as it starts pouring out adrenal stress hormones, sex hormones, and growth hormones. Teenage boys, specifically, experience a thirty-fold increase in testosterone production. And that new mixture of hormones causes changes in mood and behavior including aggression, risk-taking behavior, and depression.
Many parents don’t realize that major brain development happens throughout the teenage years. Essentially, the prefrontal cortex—which is the region of the brain responsible for judgment, understanding outcomes and consequences, and impulse and emotional control—is developing. (And it doesn’t reach maturation until the mid-20s.) That’s why so many teenagers appear moody, argumentative and engage in poor decision-making.
However, while the prefrontal cortex is still a work in progress, the nucleus accumbens—AKA the part of the brain responsible for reward and pleasure responses—is fully developed. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for teenagers to engage in pleasure-inducing, risk-taking behavior without considering the consequences.
Many studies have linked media exposure to violence, aggressive ideas, actions, and desensitization. Additionally, researchers have found that social media exposure leads to increased bad behavior – including drugs and alcohol abuse, sexual activity, and dangerous behaviors. Not only that, but social media creates pressure to conform to certain societal norms and expectations, which often inspires rebellion against authority figures and traditional values.
So, is your teenager rebelling? Social media could very well be to blame. A recent study found that the average 8 to 10-year-old spends nearly 8 hours a day with a variety of different media. And the same study found that older children (including teenagers) spend more than 11 hours per day.
While teenage brain development and hormonal changes have always contributed to defiant behavior and rebellion, the growing presence and influence of social media simply exacerbate it.
How to Deal with Teenage Rebellion
Is your teenager rebelling? If so, it might feel like they are a million miles away. However, there are steps parents can take to mitigate unhealthy behavior:
1. Know that Punitive Consequences Are Not the Answer
If you’re a parent of a teen who is acting out, it can be incredibly tempting to ground them for their behavior and call it a day. However, according to Jennifer Williams, a parenting coach, “When you try to overpower teenage rebellion, it confirms for your teen that their parent desires to control them, thus compounding the tension. Skewed perceptions of both parties create a gulf of misunderstanding that strains your parent-teen relationship. This dynamic often results in unnecessary conflicts, disagreements, and fights.”
Therefore, it’s far more important to ensure your teen’s defiant behavior isn’t a response to a specific incident or problem (like friendship issues or family changes). Additionally, being the victim of bullying often manifests in rebellion, as young adults become sunken and withdrawn. If that’s the case for your child, solo or family therapy can be incredibly beneficial.
2. Stop Controlling Your Teen
Some teenagers rebel because they don’t feel like they have as much freedom as they need. The teenage brain craves risk, and teenagers must feel independence in order to grow confidently. Similarly, young adults need ample opportunities to practice making decisions for themselves and expanding their problem-solving skills.
For these reasons, avoid using controlling language with your teenager and forbidding them to do this, that, and other things. Instead, set healthy boundaries around risky behaviors that are supported by clear explanations. Remove your own feelings and emotions from the equation and express your concern for the consequences of their behavior directly.
Instead of pulling the ‘because I said so’ card, parents should involve young adults in the decision-making and boundary-setting process. Not only will this make teenagers more likely to obey house rules and boundaries, but it will strengthen the parent-teen relationship overall.
3. Model Calmness
As your teenager’s brain continues to develop, he or she needs parental stability and calmness to modulate their emotions. And as parents, how you choose to respond to their rebellion directly influences their brain development.
Therefore, you should try your best to refrain from discussing their rebellious behavior until after processing your own emotions.
“When we get angry and yell, we teach them to react the same way,” says Williams. “When we overpower them, we teach them to either dominate others or to be submissive to those stronger than themselves.”
To be a self-reliant and respectful adult requires maturity and emotional regulation. Therefore, it’s important for parents to consistently model those attributes – even when it seems difficult.
4. Create Opportunities for Open Dialogue
Rebellious or not, parents should support their teenagers in their personal growth and identity development. They should create a safe space for their teenagers to be themselves–without extreme censure or judgment. Additionally, parents should welcome friendly arguments, as they provide a phenomenal opportunity to understand one another (including your thought process) on a deeper level.
Here are some things to keep in mind when creating open dialogue to find out how your teen feels:
- Suspend judgment
- Release the need to be right
- Empathize with their emotion
- Accept your teenager for their unique personhood
- Be curious and interested in what they have to say
5. Set Empathetic Limits
Psychology Today says that “as parents, we are, unwittingly, too critical of our children [and] research findings from recent studies… provide ample scientific evidence to support my personal experience… We all know, from our own lives, how [demoralizing] criticism feels … It is surprising, then, how often we fail to consider this in relation to our children.”
Many families find themselves trapped in dysfunctional cycles where the parent constantly criticizes and punishes the child, and the child responds with angry, argumentative, and withdrawn behavior.
According to Laura Markham, a child-rearing specialist, “research studies on discipline consistently show that strict, or authoritarian, child-raising actually produces kids with lower self-esteem who behave worse than other kids–and therefore get punished more!”
Instead, Markham suggests setting empathetic limits that “give children essential practice in shifting gears between what they want, and something they want more – which is to cooperate and contribute.” She tells us that children will only ever make that choice [of cooperation and contribution] if the limit is set with empathy. Why? Because empathy allows children to feel understood and willing to accept limitations.
Is Your Teenager Rebelling?
So, is your teenager rebelling? If so, their brain development, hormonal changes, and social media habits might be to blame—it’s normal. Many parents should be comforted by the fact that it’s just a phase.
While parenting a rebellious teenager is a journey, adopting these empathetic strategies and maintaining a positive outlook can help. If you loosen your parental grip, ditch the punitive consequences, and create open dialogues with your child, we’re confident you’ll cultivate a safe space for your teenager to grow and thrive.