Rebellion. It’s a word often linked with the descriptor “teenage.” Rebellion in the teenage years can come against parents and other adult authority figures—in the form of risky, dangerous, forbidden or illegal behavior. It can also come against the majority youth norms—in dress, music, lifestyle, etc. Carl E. Pickhardt points out different forms and expressions of rebellion that emerge even through the teenage years. (Pickhardt’s article “Rebel with a Cause” is an excellent resource for parents on the different faces of teenage rebellion.) Whatever the form, according to psychologists and sociologists, teenage rebellion appears to be something that supersedes race and cultural factors. This would suggest that teenage rebellion is related to the developmental changes of the teenage years as teenagers are wade through the limbo between childhood and adulthood.
All teens go through similar phases—the need for independence, a separate identity, testing authority. It’s part of growing up; it’s also linked to developmental changes in the brain that will eventually help them become analytical adults. (Davis)
It has emerged that the emotional region of the brain develops to maturity ahead of the part of the brain that controls rational thought. In other words, teenagers have well-developed emotions and feelings but have still not acquired the ability to think things through. When they act impulsively, and do the kind of dangerous things an adult would avoid, their brain’s late development might be to blame. (BBC)
During the teenage years, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is developing, which is responsible for critical thinking and judgment skills. Teenagers are becoming better able to form their own ideals and ideas as their brains become able to synthesize information into ideas (Davis). This new ability, in part, leads to the arguments and challenging of ideas so characteristic of most teenagers.
Another aspect of teenage rebellion is experimentation—often with activities that are “forbidden” in some sense, such as alcohol, drugs, and sex. This can lead to risky behavior, a worry of many parents.
Yet it is a myth that all teenagers are big risk-takers, says Amy Bobrow at New York University.
Over half of teenagers will experiment with alcohol, which means nearly half will not.
Roughly 40% of teenagers will try drugs at least once, which means 60% will not.
Even fewer teens regularly use illegal substances — less than 25% of those who try them — which means the majority do not. (Davis)
The Parenting Assistance Line at the University of Alabama points out that not all teenage “rebellion” is dangerous or negative. Rebellion points to growth towards independence, which can be a very healthy process. They delineate between “healthy rebellion” and “unhealthy rebellion”:
The adolescent examines and challenges parental values and ideas that were once accepted without hesitation.
Comes and goes. It is not characterized by continual increasing defiance. Some days are going to be a challenge for everyone, but rebellion is not a way of life for the teen.
Is a process that involves an increased desire to make personal decisions regarding things like hair style, clothing, music and what college to attend.
Defiant outbursts and explosive anger accompanied by destructive behaviors and abusive language.
Is marked by bitterness. Barriers of anger are built up between parents and teen, and constructive communication is impossible. The adolescent may manifest resentment towards all authority figures.
May be rooted in adults who insist on high levels of control. Instead of working towards independence, the parents tighten their grip on the teen therefore blocking the natural progression towards maturity. (University of Alabama, “Adolescent Rebellion”)
So what is a parent or guardian to do? The experts say—spend time together, looking for ways to connect to your teenager and engage with their life. Pick your battles wisely and remain flexible and approachable to your child. Be sure to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy rebellion.
“The bottom line is communication — and not just at times of disapproval, discipline,” says Bodrow. “Make sure you communicate with your child when you’re proud, when he did a good job. It’s important to balance that out. Otherwise, it becomes ‘why are you always nagging me, always on my back.’” (Davis)
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Did you learn anything new from this introduction to the topic of Rebellion? Would you add anything from your own experience? Is there anything you want to learn more about?
How are you in a position to help a teenager (or teenagers) navigate the trying season of adolescence? How can you be on the lookout for healthy forms of rebellion, to encourage or support? How can you be aware of unhealthy forms of rebellion and encourage that teen towards a healthy lifestyle?
What were you like as a teenager? What would you tell your teenage self now? What would you tell your parents now? How can this reflection help your current situation and the teenagers you work with now?
Do you think that teenage rebellion is a developmental issue? Or a self-fulfilling social expectation (we cast adolescence as a rebellious time and therefore teenagers rebel)?
The teenage years are not always—and do not have to be—a time of terror. There are particular challenges brought with it, surely, but even the rebellion of adolescence can be for a proper developmental transition. Parents and youth workers must be aware of their teenagers’ development and try to be involved in their lives—to guide and support them through the “rebellious years.”
Unhealthy or dangerous forms of rebellion should be taken seriously and addressed in an appropriate manner. There is a time for discipline.