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Teenage Independence: Rebellion as a Good Sign?

As a parent, I’m sure many of you have had the experience of your teen pushing back at your authority. As frustrating as this is, it is quite tempting to say statements like, “Because I said so!” or “Do it or else!” However, being able to take pause to understand their pushback may provide the opportunity to shift conversational patterns, alleviating you of stress and attending to your teen’s potential need of more flexibility. Some level of defiance can be expected in these years and even a positive indication of a healthy developing teen.

During your child’s adolescent years, teens seek to develop a sense of personal identity and oftentimes this entails exploring their independence. Part of this exploration can present itself in a number of seemingly unruly behaviors such as rule breaking, disagreements over house rules, or an increased focus on developing and maintaining relationships outside of the family. Though some “rebellious” behaviors can be positive there should be some behaviors that are deemed unacceptable such as those that can put themselves and others in danger, or that are overtly disrespectful such as hitting others or cursing you out.

What can you do to help encourage the development of independence?

Collaborating with Your Teen

A great way to fulfill your teen’s need for autonomy is allowing them to play an active role in creating the house rules. As your child moves through adolescence (ages 12-18), there can be anticipated changes in the expectations and roles they play in the family. Working with your teen on creating reasonable boundaries of behavior and rules can encourage a sense of autonomy and deepen their understanding of the responsibilities that are expected of them.

For example, say Tom and Jane had a house rule for their daughter, Sophia, to show them all her completed homework and be in bed by 9:30pm in middle school. Throughout middle school this worked well for Jane and helped her stay on top of her assignments. Now that she is in high school, there have been some arguments about not following through with being in bed and showing her parents her completed work. Instead of viewing Sophia’s behavior as blatant defiance, this would be a great opportunity to sit Sophia down and renegotiate some of her expectations.  Having created good study habits, Sophia felt as though she was being “babied” with her assignments and perceived as being too irresponsible to maintain her own academic responsibilities and bedtime. With Tom and Jane having a new understanding of Sophia’s perspective, they were able to collaboratively negotiate not having to monitor her schoolwork as well as a new bedtime of 10:30pm.

Transforming Arguments into Conversations

This skill may not come easy, especially on days that have been taxing for the two of you, resulting in a limited capacity to calmly approach conflict. However, times in which arguments may take place may be an opportunity to show that disagreements are not always bad. When done in a respectful manner, debating an issue is a great way to develop critical thinking skills in your teen. The ability to negotiate and compromise are experiences many of us anticipate in the adult world. Allowing your teen some flexibility in asserting their needs and wants is a great opportunity to model respectful listening and open mindedness, even if you are unable to meet their demands.

For example, Mark is a father to 17 year old Chelsea. Chelsea has had a curfew of 10pm for the past year and believes she deserves to have it extended. Even though Mark is not fully comfortable with the idea, he allows Chelsea the opportunity to argue her case. Mark tells Chelsea that if she can effectively argue why she should be allowed this privilege, he will change her curfew. Chelsea presented Mark with a series of reasons that demonstrate she is responsible enough for this new privilege. Mark was impressed by what she proposed, so he allowed the new curfew but challenged Chelsea to create fair consequences for having the curfew return to 10pm which included her coming home late, getting in trouble at school, or any grades below a B-. Using this approach with Chelsea, it encouraged her to use reason, critical thinking, and hopefully made her feel more invested in respecting this new privilege.

Expect Independence

It may be hard for some parents to not want to jump in and do everything for their child. After many years of leading your kids’ lives, meeting their needs, and being rewarded with the occasional cuddles, stepping back even in times of emancipated failure may be hard. A healthy developing teen will learn to rely more on their friends and outside social support systems and sometimes this distance may feel personal. Though having deep and meaningful conversations with your teen may not be impossible, it may not always be the norm. It may be tempting to give lectures and philosophize on how the world works but this may just shut your teen down. It may be more helpful to take those moments to be curious about who your teen is becoming. Some distance can be expected during adolescence, and it is not always a sign of anger, secrecy, or isolation.

James is a 16 year old boy that just experienced an incident of bullying with some name calling in school. Julia, his mom, has always been the person James has come to with any issues in school. James has turned to his friends to sort out the ordeal and get support, but Julia is concerned about why James suddenly has “gone underground.” She remembers that this is a normal process of growing up. Julia extends support to James, offers a safe space for him to talk, and reminds him to come to her if he truly feels in danger. Though Julia has a hard time allowing space, especially when James is facing a challenge, she knows this may be an opportunity for him to problem solve and develop social support skills. (Disclaimer: depending on the specifics of bullying there is definitely a time and place in which parents should intervene in bullying.)

Learning how to navigate your child’s adolescence can undeniably present many challenges and moments of feeling “stumped.” Ensuring the safety of your teen should be above all else but it is typical to experience some push back and even rebellion in these years. As your adolescent develops into young adulthood, modeling behavior in and outside of the home is a great way to demonstrate how to live in the adult world.

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