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Can rebellion be a good thing?


As parents we often make the mistake of confusing our teenager’s non-conformity or unusual behaviours as rebellion.

“What the heck is that disgusting thing doing in your eyebrow!  Get it out before your dad comes home!” “Oh, Come on mum! It’s just a ring!” “Are you crazy?  You look ridiculous. What next? Piercings all over your body!  You are going off the rails!”

Expressions of identity such as weird haircuts, strange clothing and body piercings are typical of adolescence. Albeit daunting for parents, these actions are usually quite harmless.

Rebellion is simply behaviour that deliberately opposes the ruling norms or powers that be.

Many experts distinguish between healthy and unhealthy rebellion. Before labelling your child’s behaviour, it is useful to determine whether what you are interpreting as adolescent rebellion is actually quite innocuous or is in any way destructive. Strange as it seems this behaviour may contribute positively to your child’s personal development.

Rebellion is one of the ways in which teens proclaim to their parents “I am not you” or broadcast to the world “I am different.” The quintessential feature of adolescence is the establishing of a strong personal identity.

It is a period of time when a young person moves away from his parents and edges in closer to his peer group.

Although the teen may think he is cool and part of a counterculture, it is often nothing more than another form of conforming, but he feels independent.

Rebellion typically begins at the outset of adolescence, and when it does many parents think this opposition is primarily against them. They are usually mistaken. Rebellion is not against them; it is only acted out against them.

The establishing of a separate identity is a necessary and healthy part of development into adulthood. These teenagers often go overboard in their need to show just how different their ideas or opinions are from their parents or society in general. Many experts term this “Healthy Rebellion”. This newly proclaimed identity is simply conforming to a teen subculture rather than the defiance of adults and authority.

The need for independence, a separate identity and testing authority are not only parts of growing up but linked to developmental changes in the brain that will eventually help them become analytical adults.

Many of these behavioural changes are linked to significant reorganisation and rewiring of the brain structures. The good news is that with loving insightful parenting, most teens move through this rebellious phase into responsible self assured adults.

When a teen ‘rebels’ in a single area but is generally responsible in other areas of life, there is usually very little to worry about explains Foster Cline author of “Parenting with Love and Logic.”

Take for example a family who places enormous emphasis on the appreciation, love and learning of music. The children play piano, violin and other instruments and the study of music is central in their education. The mother is a lecturer in classical music and dad plays in an orchestra. Much to his parent’s dismay, teenage son declares that he no longer wants to play his instruments or study music and is no interested in any of it anymore.

He states that he needs a break and wants to pursue other interests. He is a decent well mannered youngster who continues to perform well in all aspects of his life, but is single-minded about this issue.

This raises potential for a huge family conflict and is easy to label as rebellion.

Allowing some space for him to express his views and the choice to pull out of some of the predetermined family choices enables their teenage son to feel validated. More often than not, as an emerging adult or in later years he will return to the family’s interests and values. Regardless of whether the issue at hand is religion, personal choices, or academic pursuits in most families, it becomes labelled as rebellion and creates significant conflict.

When parents remain fixed and inflexible and outraged with their choice, there is often an unnecessary spiralling out of control into discord, disharmony and unpleasantness.

Unhealthy or serious rebellion on the other hand usually involves associated rage; bitterness, destructive behaviour and significant contempt and disdain for authority figures. It can cause them to engage in self-defeating and self-destructive behaviour – refusing to go to school, damaging property or even physically hurting themselves.

It can cause them to experiment with high-risk excitement – accepting dares that as a children they would have refused.

Unfortunately, some kids go as far as blatantly flouting rules or breaking the law, often with tragic results. So adolescent rebellion is not simply a matter of parental aggravation; it is also a matter of concern and needs to be taken seriously.

However, not all teenagers go through a rebellious phase. Adolescents, who have been given choices and a fair amount of personal control and the room to express themselves, are far less likely to rebel.

The data shows that children from both extremes of parenting: the over involved or smothering hovering helicopter parent as well as the hyper-disciplinarian sergeant major or tiger parent will most likely manifest with some form rebellion. But there are no rules and the perfect mix of raging hormones and massive brain expansion can trigger a rebellious phase in any teenager.  Many parents today lack the confidence in their ability and influence. Although we all have different parenting styles, all parents agree on the need to maintain a strong value system.

I am personally far more rigorous when it comes to values and principles (social responsibility, compassion and decent manners for example) and far less rigorous about rules governing conduct.

Too many rules tend to create a punitive environment in which to raise a teenager and sets up an environment so conducive to rebellion. With firm guidance and good role modeling, most teenagers will develop an internal focus of control and a strong sense of morality.

However, even with the best parenting, you may encounter defiant adolescents who push the boundary time and again.

Now more than ever we can reclaim our influence and give our teens tremendous strength. Providing our children with guidance and social and moral skills allows them to adapt to the myriad challenges confronting them.

What you can do to help your teen:

  • Practice loving and consistent discipline from an early stage.
  • Attempt to understand the reason for the rebellion.
  • In the midst of a rebellion, keep focused on the direct issue.
  • If it is simply harmless rebellion, let it go or if you feel strongly simply express your view.
  • In the case of more serious destructive rebelliousness, try to avoid confrontation at all costs. Direct confrontation never works with teenagers. On the contrary, it makes them more rebellious and more willing to push their parents’ limits.
  • Avoid lecturing. If you lecture, they feel accused and defensive and fight back.
  • When communicating, begin by ‘editing out’ a vast amount of what you feel.
  • Try to keep the indignation and outrage out of the discussion. The emotion incites their anger and you want them to have some clarity to see what they did was wrong.
  • Do not bring up every mistake of the past. It has no value and is destructive.
  • Acknowledge your child’s responses and when they are reasonable recognise this.
  • Remember this is not about who is right and who is wrong or who wins or loses. This is to direct and guide your child or shift to a new behaviour.
  • With serious destructive rebellion consider seeking professional help in the form of a chat with your family doctor or a counsellor to guide the family through this difficult stage.

This article has been written by Dr Linda Friedland who is a medical doctor, mother of five and the author of the new book, Raising Competent Teenagers now available at good book stores and online here. article appeared on

Image By TheCarColony 

Linda Friedland for Mouths of Mums – 08 April, 2015