Dealing with a Rebellious Teen

At about 12 or 13 years of age, it’s as though a timer has gone off that has gone off that tells teens they need to make their own decisions. With their shoulders back and their head held high, they inhale and say, “After all, I have lived 13 years on this earth. I ought to make my own decisions.”

Most parents respond with something like, “As long as you’re in my house, you are going to do it my way!” It becomes a perpetual argument in the home as to who gets their way. Parents feel they are doomed to fight the battle of teenage rebellion for the next five years. “Why are they so rebellious? Why do they fight me on every little thing?” What is a parent to do?

This is what some teenagers have to say about their rebellion:

“I have a rebellious attitude and every time my parents tell me I do, it makes me even more rebellious.”

“About three years ago I got in some trouble with the police. I knew my parents were gonna trip out about it, but they got a little violent. It did make me want to never do it again, but it made me fear my parents instead of feeling like I could talk to them about stuff.”

“Understand why I’m rebellious or selfish and help me to change in a way that won’t make me want to rebel.”

In dealing with rebellion, we first need to ask ourselves a couple of questions. First, how frequent and intense is the rebellion? According to Kathleen McCoy, Ph.D., “Normal rebellion is sporadic. There are moments of sweetness; calm, and cooperation between outbursts. If on the other hand, rebellion is constant and intense, this can be a sign of underlying emotional problems.”

Second, has this behavior developed over time, or is it a drastic thing where their behavior is completely reverse of what it was? If you answered the second choice, it may be a sign of a deeper problem.

Why do teenagers have such a propensity for rebellion? Dr. James Dobson attributes it two main reasons. One is hormonal in origin. Because of all the hormonal changes, both males and females may get easily set off. The other is social in nature. Their peer group has become far more important to them than anything else, and the pressures bombarding them to be their own person and identify with a generation have been much more intense than ever before in their lives.

In Josh McDowell’s book, Handbook on Counseling Youth, the author gives several causes for rebellion:

  • Poor relationship with parents
  • No effort to communicate
  • A need for control
  • Lack of boundaries and expectations
  • An expression of anger and aggression
  • The absence of an honest, vulnerable role model

Obviously there are different stages of rebellion. Some are just minor things like, “I want my own way!” Some teens have an emotionless attitude of resistance and a hardened heart that says, “I don’t care what you say or do, I’m going to do my own thing!”

Let’s look at few principles that will help you understand where your young person is coming from. One of the most important is that rules without relationship equal rebellion. As one young lady said, “One of the worst things my parents have done is given me a ‘no’ answer, without explaining why.”

Most people think the rightful responsibility of a parent is to provide food and a roof over their teens head without developing much of a relationship with them. As a result, your young person might as well be living in a boarding school – just a place to live with a bunch of rules. When asked about a rule, most parents never explain the reason for it. “Because I said so, that is why!” Many times parents don’t even know why they have that rule. Their parents had that rule, and if it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for their kids.

I can remember when my mom told me people shouldn’t have sex before marriage. I was probably 13 or 14 years old and I asked, “Why is it wrong?” She replied, “Just because it is.” In an innocent, not condemning way, I said, “Well you did it.” She said, “Well that was different.”

Kids want to know the why of the rules and understand the reason behind them. That is why it is important to understand the principles in this book.

When your teen is forced to obey a rule but feels that you do not know the or care about them, it produces a rebellious attitude that says, “You don’t care about me, so I don’t care about your stupid rules. I’m going to do what I want!”

One of the biggest goals as a parent is to have a final product of young adults who are responsible, productive members of society, church and the Kingdom of God. It’s never been our dream for our kids to be sitting on our couch, eating potato chips and watching television until they are 35 years old. We want them to be responsible and they begin to itch for responsibility when they are teenagers. They want to have some of their own “say-so” regarding their lives.

Some parents are like an iron fist: “As long as you’re in my house, I am going to make the decisions. Just do it my way.” This approach doesn’t give teens a chance to make any decisions or learn responsibility. They don’t want to be dictated to anymore. Even though you may still see them as young and not knowing what to do or where to go, they see themselves as quite skilled in life and wanting to have some control of their destiny.

A teen’s desires to be given some responsibility may be perceived as rebellion. But just because your young person wants to make their own decisions in life doesn’t mean they are rebellious – it means they are starting to grow up! Give them some opportunities to make decisions about what they do with their free time. It doesn’t mean you let them make decisions about everything. Start out with small decisions, such as spending the night at friends even though they need to study for a test. You know they have a test, they say they’ve already studied, but your inclination would be to make them stay home and study more. Give them the opportunity to decide what would be best.

Once they show themselves faithful in the small opportunities by making good decisions, you can allow them to make bigger decisions. The goal is getting them to make all their own decisions before they leave the house. I know parents who have said they don’t have any rues for their 14-year-old because he makes all the right decisions on his own. “I tell them they can stay out as late as they want and they always come back before 10:00 because they have learned responsibility at a young age.”

Children need rules. Adults need responsibility. Adolescents need advice.

We know we have to set very strong and clear rules for children or they will not have any structure in their lives. We just discussed the adults’ need for responsibility that they start thirsting for when they are young. Think about the first job you had. You were so excited to be making your oen money. You were thrilled over the responsibility that was yours. That yearning for taking responsibility for your own life started when you were a teenager. What do teenagers need? They don’t just need a bunch of rules, nor do they need all the responsibility to decide everything about their lives. Meet somewhere in the middle by giving wise advice.

Your teen will make some bad decisions. They’re a young person. One of our biggest tasks is to teach our teens how to make wise decisions. We do that by giving them advice. Say you gave your teen advice but they didn’t take it. They went and spent the night at a friend’s house the night before a big test, and then they got an ‘F’ on the test. Talk through that decision with them. Say, “Let’s talk about it. What made you want to go even though I advised you not to?” Listen to what they tell you. Then ask, “If you were in the same situation again, would you do the same thing? Why or why not? Look at the people who got F’s all the way through high school. Where are they today? Is that the kind of person you want to be?” The next time they get a chance to make a decision, give them advice and let them choose for themselves again.

There are going to be decisions that you might let them make too early. The big question is, what decisions do you make for your young person and what decisions do you let them make on their own? That is between you and God. Pray and find out from the Lord. Sometimes you’ll say, “I’ll let them make this decision,” and you realize that maybe you shouldn’t have. They are too young or not mature enough. Some young people are ready for certain decisions earlier than others. There is not a magical date and time to use a deciding factor.

It is much better for teens to make bad decisions under your protective umbrella, where you can go back and talk about the failure and how to do it right the next time, than for them to leave your house and make all wrong decisions. Once out from under your protective covering, they don’t always seek your advice or care what you have to say about it. Instead of propping them up all the time to keep them from falling, allow them to make a few bad decisions. Then go back and talk through those issues so they can make better decisions for the rest of their life.