Teenage Rebellion

“You’re tearing me apart!”— Rebel Without a Cause, a 1955 Warner film starring James Dean

Rebel Without a Cause is a story about a rebellious, troubled teen, Jim Stark, and his family, friends, and enemies. The movie starred James Dean, who died in a tragic automobile accident only a month before its release. Teenage rebellion wasn’t a new story in 1955, and in 2014 it still rings true to the trouble some parents have with their teenagers.

So why do certain teenagers tend to participate in dangerous and anti-social behaviors? Acting out can vary widely, from irritating stunts to serious or life-threatening larks, but these episodes have one thing in common — they worry most of their parents.

According to David Elkind, PhD, in an article on WebMD, “Teenagers: Why Do They Rebel?” (written by Jeanie Lerche Davis and reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD), the prefrontal cortex is developing during the teen years. Teens are now able to construct ideas and form opinions, and much to parental dismay, generally these opinions are in direct opposition to their own. In other words, the teenager is flexing his new muscles (so to speak) as he learns new skills and abilities on his way to becoming a full-fledged, responsible adult.

Teenage angst may not be a new problem, but it’s a fact that the societal pressure of many firsts (alcohol, drugs, sex) comes earlier than with previous generations. Peer pressure on these fronts used to come at the ages of 17 or 18, when teens were better equipped to make sound judgment calls. “Now,” Elkind says, “they’re getting pressure at 13 and 14, when they’re too young to resist. It’s not that child development has changed, it’s that the demands are coming at earlier ages.”

In his article “Rebel with a Cause: Rebellion in Adolescence” for Psychology Today, Carl Pickhardt, PhD, explains there are two common types of teenage rebellion: rebellion of non-conformity — dissent against socially fitting in, and rebellion of non-compliance — going against adult authority. He goes on to state, “The reason why parents usually dislike adolescent rebellion is not only that it creates more resistance to their job of providing structure, guidance, and supervision, but because rebellion can lead to serious kinds of harm.”

This can be particularly hard for parents when the teens themselves go against their own best interests, participating in behaviors that may be destructive in nature. Self-esteem can suffer, leading the adolescent to do all sorts of crazy things as they struggle toward what they believe is their hard-won independence.

Testing authority and seeking a new, separate identity as they leave behind childhood are normal phases that all teens go through — a rite of passage into adulthood. Still, it’s behavior that strikes fear in a parent’s heart. So, what can you do to make this transition easier, both for yourself and your teen?

Simply put, spend time with your teen. Even something as simple as driving them somewhere might be a learning experience for you. Provide positive guidance with a healthy dose of patience and persistence to wear down their resistance. Communication is extremely important, and not just when things are going bad. If some conversations are awkward, find something that might make it easier, like a movie or TV show that provides an opportunity to start the discussion.

Teenage rebellion can be a parent’s greatest aggravation and last from early adolescence (9 – 13), through late adolescence (15-18), and beyond into their trial independence (18-23). It can also be a time you feel tremendous concern, and rightly so. If at any time, normal adolescent behavior turns high-risk and dangerous, do not hesitate to seek professional help. This is not always a journey that should be taken alone.

Arguing, driving too fast, smoking, drinking, tattoos, piercings, shoplifting, underage sex, adult videos, strange music, wild clothing, and ignoring curfews: These may all be considered normal teen behaviors in modern America, but the typical teen fare is generally considered a parent’s worst nightmare. The good news is – it doesn’t last. Hang on to that thought, parents.