So you've watched your child transform from a fragile and adorable baby, into a mobile and inquisitive toddler, then into a verbal and playful child, and again into an increasingly independent and somewhat awkward tween. And I bet it all went way too fast! During every step you probably wished this whole growing up thing would just slow down.
But now your child has arrived at what might be one of the most difficult stages in their life. Yes, that’s right, your child is now… a teenager. It is likely that you have suddenly gone from wishing time would stop to counting the minutes until he is 18 and able to move out!
The definition of rebellious is: showing a desire to resist authority, control, or convention. Sound familiar? During this stage your teen can be emotional and very sensitive; they may be disrespectful, self-centered, and argumentative; they sometimes do things that appear to be eccentric, unusual, or downright defiant. The more rebellious your teen the more difficult parenting can be and you may be feeling confused, frustrated, angry, worried, and overwhelmed.
This is not the time to panic! How you respond to your teen’s rebellious ways is very important and could determine whether she heads in the direction of healthy independence, or in the direction of angry isolation. So what do you do?
Do understand what is going on
Your child has not been abducted by aliens and replaced with a cantankerous impostor. What has happened is that he/she has entered into the developmental stage known as Identity vs. Role Confusion. During this stage (approximately age 12-18), your child is essentially taking his new and not fully developed identity for a test drive. Teens are trying to figure out who they are amid a multitude of influencing factors, including their peers, family, and their very own self-perception.
When your child enters this stage, they enter a time filled with conflict, fear/fearlessness, and searching. The good news is they are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing! That doesn’t make you feel any better, does it? Okay, but keep reading.
Do start by determining if it is an appropriate level of rebellion or not
Before you jump up screaming that there is no way this can be appropriate, keep in mind that even healthy and appropriate rebellion can feel horrible to you as a parent.
Here are some questions you want to ask yourself: “Is my teenager putting herself or others in danger?” “Is my teen engaging in high risk behavior (i.e unprotected sex, using illicit drugs, getting arrested)?” If you answered yes to either of these questions then your teen is in danger and needs immediate help and support. You should certainly read and apply all the following guidance, but it is very important that you start by finding a therapist for your child who has experience with adolescents.
If you did not answer yes to these questions, then your teen’s behaviors have thankfully stayed within the realm of appropriate rebellion. In addition to considering the following advice, you may still want to find a therapist for him or her as they are still going through a very challenging time and could use a little non-parental support.
Do stop trying to correct and start trying to connect
So your child has become an argumentative and discontented teenager. They argue with you over anything and everything. They have an attitude and you can be sure that whichever side of a topic you are on, they will be on the other.
But, underneath every comment, criticism, argument, and stomp up the stairs there is a whole lot of emotion. Which simply means some of the time you really need to stop trying to correct and start trying to connect. Instead of reacting to the powerful urge to correct them, teach them, or engage in a debate, try to just listen to them. This may be hard because they can have such sharp little attitudes that you can’t help but to cut right back, but sometimes you need to take a second and just wonder what they are feeling. Listen to them, hear them, and believe them. Just being present with them and saying nothing can sometimes be the best response you can give.
Connecting with your teen and recognizing how they are feeling (whether you agree with their feelings or not) is one of the most powerful things you can do as a parent.
Do let them have purple hair
If it is temporary or otherwise harmless, let your teen be who they want to be at that moment. Tattoos and overly revealing or inappropriate clothes will require a bit more discussion and boundary setting, but if what they are looking to do is simply expressive, then use it as a moment to connect and better understand your teen.
Do go from coaching during a practice to coaching during a game
Okay, your role is changing from being the parent of a completely dependent child to the parent of a much less dependent young adult.
You may want to picture it like this: During training and practice a coach: teaches, guides, addresses weaknesses and validates strengths; starts and stops scrimmages, create drills, and assigns players to different trainings; they model a team culture and instill values and sportsmanship. Very hands on. But once the team is ready and they start playing in games the coaches’ role and approach changes. He or she can’t be as hands on during the games as they were during the practices. The coach is still there during the game to observe, assist, and guide, but the reality is their players are on their own during the game.
Teenagers are just starting to get in the game of life. It will reduce a great deal of resistance if you change your approach with them to reflect the change in circumstances. Let them figure things out a little more on their own. Call a timeout and step in when you feel it is necessary, but other times let them think and even deal with consequences a little.
Do not lose control
Just as with parenting a young child, it is your job to stay under control. No one ever said it was going to be easy, but do your absolute best to stay under control when your rebellious teen is being their rebellious self. If you lose control, you model for them how to lose control.
Do not be reactive, be responsive
The ability to respond as opposed to react is an important skill to develop within every relationship, but it is particularly important in regards to parenting a teenager. What’s the difference? Being responsive requires a few steps. First, you need to hear and clarify the other person’s perspective. Next, you need to identify and understand your own perspective. Then, you have to decide on a desired outcome. In other words, do you want to emotionally hurt this person or do you really want them to understand how they have hurt you? Finally, you have to express your formulated response in a way it will most likely to be heard. Now being reactive is simply having an emotional reflex. When we are reactive there is a tendency to be misunderstand and be misunderstood.
Because your goal is to reconnect to your teenager you want to practice giving responses rather than reactions.
Do not be inconsistent
As much as you need to listen, connect, and be more responsive to your teen, you also need to be consistent and predictable. This is not the time to make threats that you can’t keep. If you say you are going to shut off their phone the next time they skip school, be prepared to do so. If you say they are not going to Sally’s sweet sixteen if they fail another class, stick to it. Your actions speak louder than your words.
You don’t have to yell and scream if they trust that you mean what you say and say what you mean. They will believe you the first time you warn them. Something like this, said with eye contact and no distractions, “My love, I care about you. If you choose to skip class again your texting and data will be turned off for a week. It is your choice honey.” “My dear, the next time you come home past 10 and you don’t call, you’re not going out at all the following two weekends. Keep that in mind.”
Firm boundaries, structure, and reliability are very important during this time.
Do not underestimate the power of the past
This is not going to be easy for some of you to hear, but it has to be said: The quality of your teens’ childhood matters. How you parented them and what they experienced as children will have a significant impact on how your teen functions. Was there a significant death, divorce, move, or Illness? Were you constantly stressed out and not as emotionally available as you should have been? Was there a lot of fighting in the home? Were you consistent and nurturing? Were you a strict disciplinarian or were you aloof and occupied?
These are a few of the tough questions you have to ask yourself. The assistance of a psychotherapist during this process will be extremely beneficial. A professional can help you better understand the impact that your teens’ childhood is having on his present behaviors as well as offer ways to cope and improve your relationship with them.
Do not forget to be spontaneously positive
Tell them you love them, that you are proud of them, that you like their shirt, tell them a funny joke, smile, hug, laugh, have dinner together, play a board game, etc. Even if you don’t get a positive response initially, keep doing it. It will make you feel better too.