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Rebel with a Cause: Rebellion in Adolescence

...and why the antidote is not punishment but real independence.

Key points

  • A teenager who finds a lot of challenges to engage with, and who has parents who support it, doesn't need a lot of rebellion for self-definition.
  • Rebellion in early adolescence involves resisting parental authority.
  • Rebellion in the last stage of adolescence (trial independence) is about resisting one's own authority.

It's the poster characteristic of the teenager years: adolescent rebellion. And it's one that causes many conflicts with parents.

Two common types of rebellion are against socially fitting in (rebellion of non-conformity) and against adult authority (rebellion of non-compliance). In both types, rebellion attracts adult attention by offending it.

The young person proudly asserts individuality from what parents like or independence from what parents want, and in each case succeeds in provoking their disapproval. This is why rebellion, which is simply behavior that deliberately opposes the ruling norms or powers that be, has been given a good name by adolescents and a bad one by adults.

Parents usually dislike adolescent rebellion not only because it creates more resistance to their job of providing structure, guidance, and supervision, but because rebellion can lead to serious kinds of harm.

  • It can cause young people to rebel against their own self-interests, rejecting childhood interests, activities, and relationships that often support self-esteem.
  • It can cause them to engage in self-defeating and self-destructive behavior, like refusing to do school work or even physically hurting themselves.
  • It can cause them to experiment with high-risk excitement, like accepting dares that as a children they would have refused.
  • It can cause them to reject safe rules and restraints, like letting impulse overrule judgment to dangerous effect.
  • And it can cause them to injure valued relationships, pushing against those they care about and pushing them away.

So adolescent rebellion is not simply a matter of parental aggravation; it is also a matter of concern.

Although the young person thinks rebellion is an act of independence, it actually never is. It is really an act of dependency. Rebellion causes the young person to depend their self-definition and personal conduct on doing the opposite of what other people want.

That's why the antidote for rebellion is the true independence offered by creating and accepting a challenge — the young person deciding to do something hard with themselves, for themselves, in order to grow themselves. The teenager who finds a lot of challenges to engage with, and who has parents that support those challenges, doesn't need a lot of rebellion to transform or redefine him or herself in adolescence.

To what degree a young person needs to rebel varies widely. In his fascinating 1997 book, Born to Rebel, Frank Sulloway posits that later-born children tend to rebel more than first-borns. Some of his reasoning is that they identify less with parents, do not want to be clones of the older children who went before, and seek to give themselves more latitude to grow in nontraditional ways.

From what I have seen in counseling, rebellion tends to have different roles in a young person's growth depending in which stage of adolescence it is expressed. Stage by adolescent stage, then, here is how rebellion seems to function:

Rebellion in Early Adolescence (9-13)

Serious rebellion typically begins at the outset of adolescence, and when it does many parents think this opposition is against them. They are usually mistaken. Rebellion is not against them; it is only acted out against them.

Rebellion at this age is primarily a process through which the young person rejects the old "child" identity that he or she now wants to shed to clear the way for more grown-up redefinition ahead. Rebellion at this age proclaims: "I refuse to be defined and treated as a child anymore!" Now he knows how he doesn't want to be defined, but he has yet to discover and establish how he does want to be defined.

How should parents respond to strong rebellion at this stage? When requests are met with delay, use patient insistence to wear down resistance. And try to move the early adolescent from acting out to talking out. Begin by asking, "Can you help me better understand what you need?" See if you can get the young person to put their feelings into words. Having been given a full hearing and having had his or her say, the young person may now be more inclined to let parents have their way.

Rebellion in Mid-Adolescence (13-15)

In mid-adolescence, during the late middle-school and early high-school years, most rebellion is about creating needed differentiation to experiment with identity and needed opposition to gather the power of self-determination.

When parents feel hard-pressed by these acts of rebellion — breaking social rules, running with wilder friends, for example — they are best served by allowing natural consequences to occur and by repeatedly providing positive guidance. They do this by continually making statements about, and taking stands for, choices that support constructive growth.

Each time they do so, they provide the young person a fresh choice point to cooperate with them. Particularly when rebellion pushes hardest, as it usually does in mid-adolescence, it is the responsibility of parents to keep communicating a reference that will guide the young person down a constructive path of growing up. In the words of one veteran parent who had shepherded two adolescents through periods of high rebellion, "What it takes is the gentle pressure of positive direction relentlessly applied."

Just because they won't heed what parents say and want at the moment doesn't mean that reference is not worth giving. Since rebellion is often reinforced by messages from peers, parents should keep getting their message in there. The son or daughter who ignored that direction today may decide to follow it tomorrow. Why? Because young people know that is parents and not peers who ultimately have their best interests at heart.

Rebellion in Late Adolescence (15-18)

Many high-school rebellions I see occur as a result of delayed adolescence, the young person dramatically rebelling at last to liberate himself or herself from childhood dependency on parental approval for always being the "good child."

For example, only children are often slower to separate from parents because of strong attachment and protracted holding on by both sides. Finally in high school these young people, with graduation into more independence looming, may need to initiate late-stage rebellions to get the separation, differentiation, and autonomy they need to undertake this next momentous step.

This is painful and scary for parents. At this older age, risk-taking can be more dangerous, while they miss the loss of closeness and compatibility with their son or daughter that they have enjoyed for so many years.

What parents need to remember at this point is that the young person is just as scared and pained as they are. So their job is to allow more independence while expecting commensurate responsibility, staying empathetic during disagreements, and providing calm and clear guidance about any significant risk-taking that may be going on.

Rebellion in Trial Independence (18-23)

Rebellion starts in early adolescence with the young person resisting parental authority by saying, "You can't make me!" It ends in the last stage of adolescence, trial independence, with the young person resisting personal authority by saying, "I can't make me!"

Having dethroned parental authority for leading her life and supplanted it with her own authority, she finds herself rebelling against it. It's like the young person is saying, "Nobody is going to order me around, not even me!"

For example, the young person knows he has to be on time for a job, but he can't make himself get up in the morning. The young person knows she has to study, go to class, and turn in assignments, but she can't make herself do the college work. Both he and she know they shouldn't drink so much at parties because of how they act and what they let happen, but in the company of friends, they can't make themselves stop. The old Walt Kelly quote really captures this conflicted age: "We have met the enemy and they are us."

What can parents do at this point? They must let the consequences of the young person's resistant choices play out and not interfere. Ending this rebellion against self-interest and accepting their leadership authority in life is the last challenge of adolescence. It must be met before young adulthood can truly begin.

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