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James A. Powell Psy.D.

Rebellion and Defiance in Adolescents

Why do teenagers argue so much and how can parents respond?

As pre-teens move into adolescence, their ability to reason like an adult and make choices based on relativistic moral bases expands. At the same time, they enter a period of ‘separation and individuation’ and the formation of an ‘independent adult identity.’ Both of these tasks can lead to tremendous parental frustration and angst.

Nadine Medlin, in her dissertation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, summarized these developments well when she stated:

Psychological separation-individuation is the process by which the young adult renegotiates the parent-child relationship. The resolution of the identity crisis involves the synthesis of past and present, as the adolescent reintegrates the self in such a manner that allows the young adult to assume his or her place in society. Both processes are a vital part of the drive towards healthy personal adjustment.

To accomplish these tasks successfully, many adolescents will initiate arguments with their parents, often for trivial reasons. This can be especially trying for adults, since there appears to be no rhyme or reason behind the quarrels that occur. Attempts to reason with the adolescent almost always end in failure. This has to do with the origins of the argument, which relate to the teenager developing two competencies:

  • Sharpening their verbal skills to make their viewpoint known
  • Understanding that they are an adult who can make independent decisions about their life

Neither of these necessarily has anything to do with solving problems or resolving conflicts, both of which tend to be the focus of the parents.

Accepting that the argument you are having with your adolescent is a necessary activity for them to go through is very difficult for the average parent, since we do not want them to repeat the mistakes we made as a teenager.

We want to impart our experiential knowledge that we have had to endure so much frustration in our own lives to earn. However, making mistakes from poor judgments is a part of growing up; the job of parents is to try and prevent the decisions from permanently affecting the way life unfolds. Trying to force the adolescent to make the correct choice seldom works and only results in confrontation.

Definitive prohibitions that worked with younger children tend to fall on deaf ears with adolescents. Say for example that your child wants to go to a party at a friend’s house where the parents are gone for the weekend. Vague moral statements such as ‘you might get into trouble’ or ‘something bad might happen’ are not acceptable to the teenager.

It is necessary for the parent to think through their own feelings of unease before they respond. What is it that you really fear will occur at the other person’s home? Is there going to be drinking or drugs? Are these fears just a reflection of your own adolescence?

When you understand what it is that bothers you about your adolescent engaging in an activity, then honesty is advised. Clearly state your moral concerns and why you will not give your child permission to do something, but be aware that this does not mean that there will be unquestioned obedience.

Most likely there will be protestations such as ‘Well, I am not you’ or ‘You just don’t understand!’ However, if you have given reasoned and logical explanations that are consistent with your personal underlying beliefs then grudging compliance with your decision is much more likely. Even though the adolescent will argue to ‘save face’ they will accept the prohibition at a deeper level.

If you use a calm tone of voice, you have considered the desires and arguments of your child, and the principles underlying your decision are consistent with the family moral values, these things are usually much more important than the words themselves. You should remember that what you want your teenager to take away from the discussion is the process of decision making that was followed. This is what will be remembered long after the party or other source of argument has been forgotten.


Medlin, Nadine Marie, ‘Adolescent Psychological Separation-Individuation and the Identity Formation Process” (1 January 1991), ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln, http://digital


About the Author

James A. Powell, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist with 48 years of experience working with children, adolescents, and adults. He currently works with the U.S. Air Force in a mental health treatment center.