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Joyful Musings--a weekly blog

Joyful Parenting Coaching is focused on clarity, consistency, connection, being an effective parent, finding balance as a parent, and above all being a confident and joyous parent. Topics include communication, having difficult conversations, having constructive conversations, chores, routines, family meetings, 

How Can You Keep Your Teen From Rebelling?

Elisabeth Stitt

by Elisabeth Stitt

The first question to ask yourself, when considering how to keep your teen from rebelling, is what am I doing to help foster my kid’s independence and sense of autonomy?

What effect does biology have on the teenage brain?

It is a teen’s job to separate from you. As researcher Daniel Siegel says so beautifully, “Going from the dependency of childhood to the responsibility of adulthood requires not just a leap, but a transformation. The brain needs a transformative time to prepare for that” (Q&A: Daniel J. Siegel, neuropsychiatrist, on the power and purpose of the teenage brain | ZDNet).

A child’s biology is set up to help him make that transformation to adulthood. He can do it by rebelling against you, or you can start giving him challenges and opportunities to try out “adulting” when he is a teen by a) supporting him in taking on more responsibility for things and b) encouraging him to engage in “safe” high risk behaviors.

In the responsibility department, a teen should be able to do pretty much any task an adult does once you have trained him on it—cooking, cleaning, laundry, planning, coordinating, advocating for himself, etc. So as you train your teen to do these tasks, request more and more that he take full responsibility for them.

What are "safe" high risk behaviors?

What do I mean when it comes to “safe” high risk behaviors? Anything which feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar will meet the teenage child’s brain for novel experiences. For example, encouraging her to try out for something she hasn’t done before or to enroll in a class she doesn’t think she is good at. Additionally, tasks like making and getting to your own doctor’s appointment can feel very sophisticated. For suburban kids who have always been driven everywhere by their parent, just figuring out and taking public transportation to get somewhere feels very grown up.

If you have a physical child, push her towards challenges with her body. Rock climbing might not feel very safe to you, but it done right it is and it is a lot safer than using drugs or alcohol. It is fine to insist on safety gear, but still let her climb the highest peak and celebrate her (perhaps for doing what you would never be brave enough to do).

Perhaps you have a budding civic activist. Encourage him to use his voice and to speak out—to write letters, to post on social media, to go to marches and rallies. These activities are novel—and powerful in a very adult way.

For teens with the entrepreneurial spirit, guide them through the process of creating a business plan and getting funding, but don’t take over for them and don’t remove the inherent risk either of losing money or disappointing expectations. Let them experience that and help them move through their feelings, so they can go out and try again. Help them develop a growth mindset that successful adults learn from their mistakes and they come up with a new plan.

Becoming the organizer of an event or the leader of a club is a great way to for a teen to stretch outside her comfort level.  Whether it's robotics club or knitting blankets for the local baby ward, having other people depend on you is scary.  Good scary.  The kind of scary that satisfies a teenage brain's need for new challenges.  

Is your child really being rebellious?

The second question to ask yourself is what is your definition of rebellion? As long as your kids are basically on track—going to school and activities, helping out at home without screaming fits, doing okay in school—there is a lot you might consider overlooking. Too much make up? Dyed hair? Earrings opening a hole so wide a submarine would fit through? Listening to music that would make a sailor blush? Using foul language (I draw the line at saying it to me)? Once they are in high school all these things can be handled by a raised eyebrow and a shrug. (For middle school kids, I ask them to put it off until high school as much as possible.)

If you are concerned, do get help

But what if your teen is already engaging in concerning behaviors—drugs, alcohol, pornography, cutting, early sexual activity, etc. I would still look for where you can give your child chances to take actual adult responsibility, and at the same time I would seek out professional advice. The world is a much different place from when you were a teen. The internet means the speed with which things move and change can make it hard for a parent to evaluate the actual risk to a teen. A professional will be able to guide you both on how concerned you should be and what action you should take.