Parents: Beware How You React to Your Teen’s Rebelliousness

These 6 guidelines will help you maintain a healthy relationship with your teen.

Posted Mar 25, 2020

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Typically, a person’s adolescence and early adulthood are hardly the happiest time of their life. Growth pangs aren’t simply physical but psychological. And unquestionably, the most extreme indicator of the emotional pain so common among this population is suicide. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the numbers of suicides among those ages 15 to 24 represent their second leading cause of death.

After all, when mere consciousness becomes unbearable, one quick way to “resolve” such anguish is through self-destruction. In these instances, suicide can be seen, ironically, as a last-ditch effort at self-affirmation and independence: the only solution capable of allowing them to escape the excruciating anxiety—or torturous depression—of their life.

So might teen rebelliousness, commonly recognized as universal across cultures, be best seen as a kind of modified suicide? a somewhat juvenile attempt to “kill off” a no longer comfortable childhood identity? Is it not a way for the teenager to fit in better with their peers, as well as to re-formulate their subordinate relationship with their parents?

Many writers have pointed out that, at least within permissible parameters, teens need, and indeed should, rebel if they’re to successfully navigate the next step toward adulthood. So finally, this so-challenging transitional period might be more accurately appreciated as primarily developmental—vs. simply rebellious, as though it’s mostly about defiance (which generally doesn’t reflect its intent or magnitude). For basically teens don’t feel compelled to be contentious as such but to discover who, in essence, they are during this difficult “self-shaping” stage. And that includes:

  • finding a new, less childlike identity through separating, or differentiating, themselves from their parents;
  • redefining themselves as more independent from their family and its now stifling rules, in order to make their own less constrained decisions;
  • updating, and upgrading, their self-image by trying out different roles, activities, and viewpoints to determine just where they belong in society; and
  • endeavoring to be part of a group (preferably, fitting in with the “cool kids”) and be accepted by their peers—for feeling different from others isn’t something likely to help them feel good about themselves.

If you’re the parent of a teenager—or, more broadly, a pre-teen or post-teen—here are a couple of questions to ask yourself:

“How consistent have I, or my partner, been in disciplining our child?” [for incongruities in parental discipline are likely to engender, or exacerbate, problems in responding to the child’s non-complying tendencies. Moreover, erratic parenting prompts kids to repeatedly test the limits because they’re uncertain about family boundaries—or, put more bluntly, what they might be able to get away with]; and

“What are the ways I can help my child best manage this so-problematic developmental stage?” [And the remainder of this piece will focus on offering some suggestions as to what you child needs from you that will assist them in not drowning in the troubled teen waters they so frequently find themselves immersed in]:

1. Guidance. When your child can’t help but see through a negative filter parental efforts to help them make the right choices, expect that such a bias is likely to lead them to react negatively to your suggestions—and especially, your criticisms. For better or worse, despite your so much wanting to keep them from making the same costly mistakes you yourself may have made at their age, this is a time that they need to learn for themselves how different decisions will affect them.

This is why child psychologists usually recommend that unless it’s imperative that you intervene, you allow the natural consequences of their behavior to teach them what they won’t allow you to. So if you witness their choosing as friends peers likely to have a bad influence on them, dressing in unorthodox ways that could draw negative attention to them, violating social rules that exist for their benefit, or engaging in self-defeating, self-sabotaging behavior generally, it’s best not to come down hard on them. That would probably only alienate them further from you and undermine the constructive influence you might later have on them.

All the same, restraining yourself doesn’t mean not “speaking your peace” either, for you want them to get that your intentions are meant solely for their welfare. As Carl Pickhardt  (2009) notes: “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.” But given how much they’re needing to act on their own, after you (briefly!) explain why the decisions they’re making may end up being harmful to them, it’s typically best to step aside and let them learn from their own experience. For that may be the best teacher they can have right now.

2. Independence. Your teen may be demanding more autonomy. And it makes good sense to grant them this—although not without contingencies. If greater independence is made conditional on their also taking greater responsibility for themselves, you’ll be assisting them in their growth toward maturity. Still, if they slip up (and at times they definitely will), you need to let them know that, for now,  they’ve given you the message that you need to curtail the additional latitude agreed to earlier. In other words, at the same time you’re willing to loosen the reins, you’re not letting go of them entirely. Rather, you’re exploring with them what they’re ready to handle, while regularly monitoring their performance.

3. Understanding and Empathy. Particularly as relates to your child’s rebellious tendencies, it’s incumbent on you to learn as much as possible about adolescent psychology. It’s hard to feel compassionate toward your child without understanding where their irrational and sometimes unkind, mean or nasty behavior is coming from. And if you’re gnashing your teeth when such behavior is blatantly on display, you’ll only increase their antagonism. Remember, empathy is most needed when, paradoxically, it seems least deserved. But if you’re committed to improving your relationship with your teen and having them take your divergent viewpoints seriously, try not to take their latest indignity or affront personally. The more you can remain calm when they’re attacking or dismissing you, the more likely they are to realize they’re being unfair to you. As justified as it may seem, angrily criticizing them when they’re acting hatefully only lessens the possibility that they’ll recognize this for themselves.

4. Acceptance, Calmness, and Patience. It may seem an awfully tall order to accept behavior that you regard as flat-out wrong-headed. But since that isn’t how it feels to your child, it’s best to acknowledge that that’s just what they’re experiencing right now and to appreciate that not challenging their outlook gives them that much more space to personally reevaluate it. They may not show it, but they’ll probably be grateful for your restraint, which—so overrun by unruly emotions—they can’t summon up for themselves. In the article “Why We Think Teenage Rebellion Is Normal” (2020), the author counsels: “Remain calm when your teen is upset; if you can’t, calm yourself before responding. Being a stable, calm sounding board helps teens see their behavior [more] accurately.”

5. Forbearance, Not Punishment. Trying to stop a teen’s rebelliousness through directly punishing it can easily backfire. Rohit Garoo (2020) reminds us that “punishments do not work the same  way as they once did when your teen was a young kid. A teen can get aggressive and may even try doing wrong things deliberately to display defiance.” And related to this precautionary advice, this author also counsels parents to avoid taking an authoritarian approach by pulling rank over the teen in the attempt to compel obedience. At this stage, feeling respected by their elders is crucial to your child, so talking down to them is likely only to increase their resistance to you.

6. Negotiation. In respecting the teen’s need to be listened to and have more of a voice in family matters, negotiate everything that, realistically, can be negotiated. To reduce their opposition to rules unilaterally established for them, involve them in limit-setting and decision-making. Solicit their feedback, as well as invite their suggestions. Although you can’t give them the last word here, allowing them more authority to determine what is acceptable conduct gives them more space to be themselves. And your increased willingness to accommodate them is almost guaranteed to mitigate their rebellious behavior. For they’ll honor your authority more if it feels less demanding or dictatorial to them.

Finally, the last thing you want to do is get into a power struggle with your teen. Even if—through proclaiming superior authority—you may in the moment appear to have won, you’ll still end up losing. Because the price of your (pyrrhic) victory could be the relationship itself.

© 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.


Currie, D. (n.d.). Helping parents survive adolescent rebellion.

Davis, J. L. (2019, Aug 11). Teenagers: Why do they rebel?

Garoo, R. (2020, Feb 17). Teen rebellion: Why do they rebel and how to deal with it?

Merrill, M. (2012, Jun 26). 5 reasons why your teen is rebelling.

Pickhardt, C. E. (2009, Dec 06). Rebel with a cause: Rebellion in adolescence.

Teenage emotions: Teenage Rebellion. (2014, Sept 17; n.a.).

Teenage rebellion. (2019, Nov 22).

Why we think teenage rebellion is normal. (2020, n.a.).

Woody, P. (2009, Jan 1). Teen rebellion.