"My seventeen year old daughter is so very angry. She is involved with drugs and has gotten in some legal trouble as well. She is verbally abusive to me and to my husband who is her stepfather. The problem is that other times she is a joy to be around. She is funny, and very bright and creative. I wonder if she may have a psychological problem or may be an opposition defiant child. Not sure what to think right now."
How can a parent tell the difference between normal rebellion and the signal that an adolescent is troubled? Ask yourself these two questions:
1. Is this behavior change drastic for my adolescent? Normal rebellious behavior develops over time, beginning with an adolescent wanting to be with friends more and disagreeing with moms and dads more frequently. Problem rebellion is sudden and drastically out of character. For example, a normally rebellious "A" student may get a few "Bs" and cut a class or two, but if he suddenly starts failing or refuses to go to school, this can be a sign that your adolescent is experiencing an emotional crisis.
2. How frequent and intense is the rebellion? Normal rebellion is sporadic. There are moments of sweetness, calm and cooperation between outbursts. If on the other hand, rebellion is constant and intense, this can be a sign of underlying emotional problems.
Dealing with Normal Rebellion—
The main task of adolescents in our culture is to become psychologically emancipated from their moms and dads. The teenager must cast aside the dependent relationship of childhood. Before she can develop an adult relationship with her moms and dads, the adolescent must first distance herself from the way she related to them in the past. This process is characterized by a certain amount of intermittent normal rebellion, defiance, discontent, turmoil, restlessness, and ambivalence. Emotions usually run high. Mood swings are common. Under the best of circumstances, this adolescent rebellion continues for approximately 2 years; not uncommonly it lasts for 4 to 6 years.
How do I deal with my teenager's rebellion?
The following guidelines may help you and your teenager through this difficult period:
1. Treat your teenager as an adult friend— By the time your youngster is 12 years old, start working on developing the kind of relationship you would like to have with your youngster when she is an adult. Treat your youngster the way you would like her to treat you when she is an adult. Your goal is mutual respect, support, and the ability to have fun together.
Strive for relaxed, casual conversations during bicycling, hiking, shopping, playing catch, driving, cooking, mealtime, working, and other times together. Use praise and trust to help build her self-esteem. Recognize and validate your youngster's feelings by listening sympathetically and making nonjudgmental comments. Remember that listening doesn't mean you have to solve your adolescent's problems. The friendship model is the best basis for family functioning.
2. Avoid criticism about "no-win" topics— Most negative parent-adolescent relationships develop because the moms and dads criticize their teenager too much. Much of the adolescent's objectionable behavior merely reflects conformity with the current tastes of her peer group. Peer-group immersion is one of the essential stages of adolescent development. Dressing, talking, and acting differently than adults helps your youngster feel independent from you. Try not to attack your teen's clothing, hairstyle, makeup, music, dance steps, friends, recreational interests, and room decorations, use of free time, use of money, speech, posture, religion, or philosophy.
This doesn't mean withholding your personal views about these subjects. But allowing your adolescent to rebel in these harmless areas often prevents testing in major areas, such as experimentation with drugs, truancy, or stealing. Intervene and try to make a change only if your teen's behavior is harmful, illegal, or infringes on your rights (see the sections on house rules). Another common error is to criticize your adolescent's mood or attitude. A negative or lazy attitude can only be changed through good example and praise. The more you dwell on nontraditional (even strange) behaviors, the longer they will last.
3. Let society's rules and consequences teach responsibility outside the home— Your teen must learn from trial and error. As she experiments, she will learn to take responsibility for her decisions and actions. Speak up only if the adolescent is going to do something dangerous or illegal. Otherwise, you must rely on the adolescent's own self-discipline, pressure from her peers to behave responsibly, and the lessons learned from the consequences of her actions. A school's requirement for punctual school attendance will influence when your adolescent goes to bed at night. School grades will hold your teen accountable for homework and other aspects of school performance. If your adolescent has bad work habits, she will lose her job.
If your teen makes a poor choice of friends, she may find her confidences broken or that she gets into trouble. If she doesn't practice hard for a sport, she will be pressured by the team and coach to do better. If she misspends her allowance or earnings, she will run out of money before the end of the month. If by chance your teen asks you for advice about these problem areas, try to describe the pros and cons in a brief, impartial way. Ask some questions to help her think about the main risks. Then conclude your remarks with a comment such as, "Do what you think is best." Teens need plenty of opportunity to learn from their own mistakes before they leave home and have to solve problems without an ever-present support system.
4. Clarify the house rules and consequences— You have the right and the responsibility to make rules regarding your house and other possessions. A teen's preferences can be tolerated within her own room, but they need not be imposed on the rest of the house. You can forbid loud music that interferes with other people's activities or incoming telephone calls after 10 p.m.
While you should make your adolescent's friends feel welcome in your home, clarify the ground rules about parties or where snacks can be eaten. Your adolescent can be placed in charge of cleaning her room, washing his clothes, and ironing his clothes. You can insist upon clean clothes and enough showers to prevent or overcome body odor. You must decide whether you will loan her your car, bicycle, camera, radio, TV, clothes, and so forth. Reasonable consequences for breaking house rules include loss of telephone, TV, stereo, and car privileges. (Time-out is rarely useful in this age group, and physical punishment can escalate to a serious breakdown in your relationship.)
If your teen breaks something, she should repair it or pay for its repair or replacement. If she makes a mess, she should clean it up. If your adolescent is doing poorly in school, you can restrict TV time. You can also put a limit on telephone privileges and weeknights out. If your adolescent stays out too late or doesn't call you when she's delayed, you can ground her for a day or a weekend. In general, grounding for more than a few days is looked upon as unfair and is hard to enforce.
5. Use family conferences for negotiating house rules— Some families find it helpful to have a brief meeting after dinner once a week. At this time your teen can ask for changes in the house rules or bring up family issues that are causing problems. You can also bring up issues (such as your adolescent's demand to drive her to too many places and your need for her help in arranging carpools). The family unit often functions better if the decision-making is democratic. The objective of negotiation should be that both parties win. The atmosphere can be one of: "Nobody is at fault, but we have a problem. How can we solve it?"
6. Give space to a teen who is in a bad mood— Generally when your teen is in a bad mood, she won't want to talk about it with you. If teens want to discuss a problem with anybody, it is usually with a close friend. In general, it is advisable at such times to give your adolescent lots of space and privacy. This is a poor time to talk to your teen about anything, pleasant or otherwise.
7. Use "I" messages for rudeness— Some talking back is normal. We want our teens to express their anger through talking and to challenge our opinions in a logical way. We need to listen. Expect your teen to present her case passionately, even unreasonably. Let the small stuff go — it's only words. But don't accept disrespectful remarks such as calling you a "jerk." Unlike a negative attitude, these mean remarks should not be ignored. You can respond with a comment like, "It really hurts me when you put me down or don't answer my question."
Make your statement without anger if possible. If your adolescent continues to make angry, unpleasant remarks, leave the room. Don't get into a shouting match with your teen because this is not a type of behavior that is acceptable in outside relationships. What you are trying to teach is that everyone has the right to disagree and even to express anger, but that screaming and rude conversation are not allowed in your house. You can prevent some rude behavior by being a role model of politeness, constructive disagreement, and the willingness to apologize.
When should you seek outside assistance?
Get help if:
- you feel your teen's rebellion is excessive
- you find yourself escalating the criticism and punishment
- you have other questions or concerns
- you think your teen is depressed, suicidal, drinking or using drugs, or going to run away
- your family life is seriously disrupted by your teen
- your relationship with your teen does not improve within 3 months after you begin using these approaches
- your teen has no close friends
- your teen is skipping school frequently
- your teen is taking undue risks (for example, reckless driving)
- your teen's outbursts of temper are destructive or violent
- your teen's school performance is declining markedly
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents