JACKSON HOLE NEWS AND GUIDE:
Breaking curfew. Telling you they are spending the night at a friend’s house whose parents are home and you later find out they were at a party where alcohol was flowing freely. Not doing their assigned chores. Going out and binge drinking until blacking out. Sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night. Vaping, smoking pot or doing other drugs. Staying up until 3AM in their rooms playing video games. Talking back. Being mean, rude or disrespectful. Disobeying family rules or agreements. Pure defiance.
Teen rebellion can run from the relatively innocuous to the extreme. Like it or not, it is a normal part of teen development, and, like it or not, some level of teen rebellion is actually healthy and serves a positive purpose. As I wrote in my June 1 column titled “The gentle push and pull of raising teens”, teens are doing the important work of individuating from their parents and developing a sense of autonomy.
As Christine Carter, author of “The New Adolescence ” writes, teens no longer need their parents to manage their lives. “Parents who are too controlling – those who don’t step down from their manager roles – breed rebellion.” One of the main reasons kids break rules is not because they are bad kids but because they want a sense of control over their own lives. Rebellious behavior can also stem from other things including adolescents’ propensity toward risk taking – something I will discuss in a future column.
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman report in their book “Nurture Shock”, that “it’s essential for some things to be ‘none of your business’”. Lying or withholding information helps adolescents carve out an identity separate from their parents. Think about it – how much did your parents know about your whereabouts and activities when you were a teen?
What’s important is that this need for autonomy doesn't start at age 15. It starts at age 11 and even younger. We need to be able to give our kids the reins of their own lives as early as possible in an age appropriate way.
Despite the inevitable challenges, we as parents can help guide our teens through this stage using a few basic principles. It is important to note that some situations need intervention immediately, including threat to self, threat to others and declining mental health. It is important to seek professional help in these situations.
Setting rules. As Bronson and Merryman write, parents who are warm and have open conversations with their kids are those who are the most effective in setting rules that kids will follow. It’s not that these parents set an abundance of rules, but more that they’ve come up with agreements with their kids about certain key activities, talked about why the rules are in place, and allowed their teens autonomy and decision making over other aspects of their lives.
Balance between strict and permissive. While consistent rules are important, listening to your teen’s arguments and adjusting when it seems reasonable is equally as important. When kids feel heard, and when they are given concessions or amendments to rules when reasonable, they are more likely to adhere to their parents’ expectations. This is not being a pushover parent who concedes in order to avoid conflict, wants to save their child from disappointment or is afraid their child won’t like them. It is being a parent who listens, takes the time to make a thoughtful and reasonable judgment, and trusts that their child, who has shown they are ready, is able to handle the next stretch of the rubber band. As Bronson and Merryman say, this approach allows the “rule-setting process to be respected” and teens will actually divulge more and lie less.
Be OK with some arguing. While we parents may describe the arguing about limits and boundaries harmful to the relationship, teens actually find it to be productive. This is where they can voice their opinion, learn conflict resolution, hear their parent’s reasonable point of view, and even ease their parent’s fears by showing their parents how capable they really are. When concessions are made, teens can then feel empowered, respected and significant. The message they get is that their parents believe in them.
Allow natural consequences to play out. Unless morally or physically dangerous, allow the natural consequences of their actions to teach them what they don’t want to be taught from you. Allow your teens appropriate levels of independence once they’ve shown they are able to take responsibility for themselves and their actions.
What might this look like in practice? There may be a special circumstance where you bend their 11 PM curfew until midnight this one time. Or your teen has shown responsibility and you change it altogether. Or approach them first: “You’ve been consistently coming home on time and have shown accountability for your actions. It seems like you might be ready for a later curfew.”
Similarly, if you find your teen is unable to handle the new latitudes they have been given, you can rein it back in: “It seems like you are having a hard time with the later curfew you’ve been given. We’re going to have to make it earlier until you can show us you can take the responsibility to come home on time.”
Understanding and Empathy. As psychologist Leon Seltzer points out, understanding teen development and the rebellious stage most go through can help you meet their needs with calm, care and empathy. Blowing your top will only exacerbate the situation. Hard as it may be, try not to take their words and behavior personally. Take a look inside. Consider what is making you feel the need for such control. Ask where can you trust? Where can you let go? Have you taught your teen the skills she needs to meet the reasonable expectations you have? Is the relationship built upon mutual respect? Can you loosen the reins to allow your teen to grow into the independent capable being that he is?
Take a leap of faith. Hold limits where essential. Loosen them where you can. You’ll soon find that your teen will emerge from this stage with a sense of confidence in who they are and respect and appreciation for you.
Rachel Wigglesworth has an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education and is excited to explore the world of raising children with you!