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Preventing Teenage Rebellion

Posted Aug 23 2008 3:15pm
The other morning at 7 am I was laying in bed floating in that luscious I'm-still-half-dreaming state, remembering with pleasure my son's last words as he drove away to start his new life in the Coast Guard: "Bye Mom. Been nice living with ya!"



My sleepy ears heard an indistinct female voice call out a few brief words in the distance. Rapidly this was followed by a young male's exasperated voice shattering the quiet of my townhome parking lot with a piercing, "I HATE YOU!" I'm sure the intensity must have awakened any of my neighbors who were still asleep. And then, as soon as the echo dissipated, all was quiet again.



The next morning, I happened to see a boy of about 16 walking through the parking lot wearing a backpack. Right behind him, running a comb through HIS hair, was a woman who appeared to be his mother. And suddenly it all made sense.



I think it may be unfortunate that our culture seems to expect teens to be angry, disrespectful, and rebellious, as if it's a normal part of human development. It seems to me that teens act out for a good reason: We are smothering them, and it's often the only way they can carve out any autonomy or identity for themselves.



If we think anger and rebellion are normal, we are missing the opportunity to notice how we could be contributing to the dynamic that creates it. Instead of looking at our relationship and asking ourselves where we might be too controlling, we sort of symbolically pat our teens on the head condescendingly. Aww, look, how cute that he is going through that angry stage and he hates me.



I've known plenty of teenagers who didn't hate their parents and didn't need to rebel. These are the kids whose parents, as often as they could, said things like:



Check it out.

It's your choice.

Experiment.

Let's find out together.

Go ahead, try it.

I'll help you if you want me to.

It's okay to make mistakes.

What do you think about that?

How does that feel to you?

Can we talk about what might happen if you decide to do it that way?

How did that turn out?

What are your options?

Anything I can do to help?



These kids developed strong decision making muscles at an early age. They got to feel their own competence, learn from experience, and develop identities as individuals. Their boundaries were respected, not violated, so they had no need to build walls of anger for protection. They either comb their own hair or wear it messy because they like it that way.



What is there to rebel against when they are exercising their own judgment?



Maybe teenage rebellion is a cultural phenomenon, not a biological one. If your teen hates you more often than he likes you, take a look at how you are treating him. Have you handed over as much control over his life to him as you possibly can, including decisions about what to wear, where to work, how to spend his free time, and how to manage his schoolwork?



Have you moved into the position of advisor and resource rather than director and boss?



If not, then you are still metaphorically combing his hair. It's no surprise that he hates it. Wouldn't you?



(For all I know, that kid had some kind of combing disability and he wanted and needed his mom's help. I can't say for sure what their situation is. Her behavior might have been perfectly appropriate. But I think these kinds of questions are still useful for most of us who are parenting teenagers to ask ourselves periodically.)
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