Recent studies suggest that teenage rebellion and obnoxious behavior are considered a normal and universal part of growing up. But is this assumption valid? First of all, we have to distinguish between rebellion and individuation, specifically, the psychological/biological process of becoming one’s own person. At some point in the adolescent years, a young person starts to form his or her own opinions about people, viewpoints and life activities.
What many people refer to as rebellion is actually nothing more than individuation. “My child is no longer acting like a child,” the parent sobs. But the parent must be careful not to take this personally; it’s a healthy and inevitable part of growing up. Rebellion, on the other hand, implies a rising up against something – something that the teen opposes as invalid or unjust.
In “Parent Effectiveness Training,” Thomas Gordon wrote, “I am now convinced that adolescents do not rebel against parents. They only rebel against certain destructive methods of discipline almost universally employed by parents. Turmoil and dissension in families can be the exception, not the rule, when parents learn to substitute a new method of resolving conflicts.” He’s on to something. I once asked the parent of a highly functioning twenty-something if her teenager had ever rebelled. She replied, “No, there never was a serious problem. We never gave her anything to rebel against.” In other words, they always used reason with the young person, even when setting rules. The rules were based on “if/then” assumptions where the young adult was permitted, within certain parameters, to do as she pleased, so long as she paid the emotional or financial cost for it.
Things like cars and clothing were not treated as entitlements, at least not beyond a basic level. As a result, their daughter grew up feeling more or less in charge of her own destiny, and when she experienced frustration or disappointment she tended not to blame it on her parents, but either on herself or the factors involved (including her own errors in thinking) that led her to the frustrating experiences. The authoritarian approach to parenting almost inevitably leads to rebellion. By authoritarian I don’t mean the setting of rules; until a young adult is able and willing to fend for himself, a parent must set rules. But it’s the kind of rules and the way they are presented that really matters.
Consider a curfew, for example. Let’s say the young person has to be home by 11 p.m. When asked why, the authoritarian parents will say, “Because I say so. So long as you live under my roof, you will do as I say!” This might work fine for a little child who doesn’t want to stay out late anyway, but it will not work for a young adult or teenager. It will only foster resentment and rebellion. The same rule could be more effectively enforced this way: “I’m saying you have to be home by 11 p.m. If you’re not home by 11 p.m., you’ll be tired when you get up and I don’t want to drag you out of bed. And I don’t want you to do poorly in school.” This is an example of an if/then approach. “If you stay out late, you’ll pay the price in the morning, and so will I.” The young person is free to understand, not understand, agree or disagree. It’s ultimately up to the parent to decide how much discussion to have over such matters. However, it’s in the parent’s self-interest as well as in the interest of the young person to have these discussions.
Granted, there’s no guarantee that every young person will respond well to this approach. I hear some parents say, “Nothing works!” What they usually mean is that they cannot control everything the young person does and thinks, and unless or until they find an approach that accomplishes that idealistic condition, they won’t consider it effective. Good luck with that, by the way.
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