Why Reactive Parents Increase the Risk of Greater Teenage Rebellion

Do you know the recipe for keeping your relationship with your preteen and teen strong and healthy? As a parent, are you aware of the critical responses needed to support and ensure vital teen brain development? Simple and crucial parental responses can make the difference.

One of the greatest concerns of every parent is keeping their teen safe when teenage rebellion and risk-taking are prevalent. Science shows that teens rebel more when parents react and are unable to regulate their own emotions. Too often, parents engage in fighting matches and arguments, flinging reprisals and wielding threats such as revoking phones or grounding their teen for a month. These actions are often ineffective, and can even be detrimental to a teen’s brain development and the teen-parent connection.

The Parent-Teen ConnectionThe Teen-Parent Connection Is Vital

The ideal parenting, particularly for teens, is a balanced and assertive approach: loving and firm. Teens need firm guidelines that allow them also to give input. Teenagers are often seen as unreasonable; however, they are amazingly creative in solving conflicts with parents when given the opportunity and are generally great at respecting adults when shown respect in kind. Meaning, teens need calm and emotionally regulated parents who dare to hold a safe space for their emotional intensity, laser-like honesty, and disdain for hypocrisy. A combination of kind and warm acceptance mixed with firm assertiveness allows parents to follow through and require responsible, respectful behavior.

The one safety valve you have as a parent is to stay connected with your teenager and make the relationship with them a top priority. The teen-parent connection is vital while the teenage brain continues critical development. This development is precisely why teen rebellion is normal. Teen defiance only gets out of hand when parents lack the skills to navigate this season of a child’s life.

Suppose we pause to examine our negative societal assumptions about teenage rebellion and redefine it as a teen’s transformation from childhood to adulthood. If we view it as a transformative journey, we can begin to embrace our parental role on that journey more confidently.

When we view our teens’ push-back behavior as a natural part of shoving off from one shore (childhood) to the opposite shore (adulthood), we are less likely to fear their defiance or react to their attempts to push us away. Teens must leave their childhood home with immense security and the comfort of a parent’s love to venture into the unknown. Teens are crossing a tumultuous sea from childhood to adulthood and forming their identity. What could be more monumental—and unnerving—than embarking on that journey?

As parents, we are the lifelines as teens cross this expanse. Rebellion, then, is a child venturing out and finding a solid ground of self-identity and independence while proving that they can navigate successfully on their own.

Mom fighting with her teen daughter

Before we dive into how to diffuse conflict with your teen, let’s take a moment to review why arguments arise in the first place. Conflicts often arise between parents and adolescents because:

  • Parents react instead of holding a calming space for teenagers.
  • Teens rebel against too much control.
  • Conflicts escalate when both the teen and parent get emotionally triggered.
  • Parents are scared for their teen’s safety and display this fear through anger.
  • As teens individuate, parents feel pushed away and rejected so they assert their authority.

In adolescence, teenagers are asserting their autonomy faster than they are able to develop self-regulation. Therefore, it’s critical for parents to provide emotional stability while converting conflict to resolutions that model a healthy dance between conflict and closeness. Negotiation that leads to understanding, connection, and mutual respect strengthen the relationship and support teens in their development.

Related reading: “Redirecting Teen Defiance into Healthy Self-Esteem.”

Three Keys to Diffuse Charged Interactions and Tame Teenage Rebellion

Below are some essential things that we can do as parents to help build a strong bridge for teens crossing over to the shore of adulthood.

1  Listen with an Open Mind to Your Teen. Be Interested in Them!

Your teen may be impulsive and mouthy with a tinge of disrespect, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t listen to them. Parents tend to dismiss what a teen says or invalidate their remarks because of how they are expressed. Every teenager wants to be heard and respected as a young adult—yes, even though they might act immaturely and inappropriately. They need you as their grounding wire!

When we reject what our teen says instead of getting curious, we cheat them out of our counsel and miss out on sharing their lives. Teens begin to shut parents out when all they feel is criticism or disapproval. Then WE miss the opportunity to get to know them as human beings!

Give teens guidelines for their social media and smartphones

Trust me, teens want to share with you, but only if they feel accepted and think you’re genuinely interested. Teens that I’ve coached tell me regularly that they believe their parents only want them to do what they’re told and aren’t interested in getting to know them as people. What a travesty!

Be interested in what your teen values and prioritizes. For instance, although I was never a big fan of the card game Magic, when my son and his friends took up this pastime, I made it my priority to learn—and I bought some winning cards, too. The payoff of my decision was incredible. Not only was I able to spend quality time with my teenage son in a way he enjoyed, but I even got invited to some of their tournaments!

When teens want to talk—drop everything. If your teenager wants to hang at home with their family, make sure you take advantage of this great opportunity. Carve time in your schedule to be available for those precious times when a teenager is looking to be with you and open up.

Related reading: “Parenting Your Teenager with Emotional Intelligence.”

Father with teenage sone doing dishes

2.  Set and Enforce Firm Limits and Boundaries for Teens, but Get Your Teen’s Input and Agreement First.

Rules are unique for every family because our values are different. These rules flow out of our family principles and values. For one family, helping with chores is non-negotiable; for other parents, if the teen has a paying job, they feel that’s enough. Some parents are adamant about not having phones at meals; others are more flexible. Some limit screen time, while others leave its use up to their teens.

Regardless of the guidelines, teenagers need clear rules to know what to expect and succeed within that structure. And even though teens might squawk, they actually like being a contributing member of a family, too. What they don’t like is being told exactly what to do and how to do it. They want to have some say-so about their social lives, smartphone usage, family chores, school grades, and work and life decisions. After all, they are learning how to be on their own, aren’t they?

Discuss what you think are the most important rules and share your reasons why. Then get input from your teenager. Ask them what they value and think the rules should be. When I make this suggestion to parents I’m coaching, many times they are aghast. Parents exclaim that their teenagers will take advantage of them, fight to have it their way, or not want any rules at all. Not so. Once tried, they are pleasantly surprised.

I remember when one of my sons missed his curfew in high school. After sharing our worry with him, we inquired about his lateness. He shared that after his work shift ended, he only had a small amount of time with his friends. We agreed to make the curfew later to allow him more flexibility. Not only was his need legitimate, but he wasn’t late again; teens like solving problems and working together to come up with solutions that work for everyone. Mutual respect creates enormous understanding.

Once the rules are agreed upon, follow through consistently. Healthy boundaries are vital for all children, especially teenagers. Clear and firm boundaries help teenagers by giving them opportunities to practice and build skills in a safe and loving environment.

Every time a teen encounters conflict, a limitation, or an answer they don’t want, they get to practice:

  • Calming their frustration
  • Expressing emotions constructively
  • Self-control
  • Seeing others’ perspective
  • Respecting others
  • Resolving conflict
  • Self-soothing
  • Emotional regulation

Skill building is imperative for teenagers to navigate life successfully. If teens have not learned self-control by the time they leave home, they’ll have a much harder time.

Not only must teenagers learn to make good decisions and modulate themselves, but they also need to learn to set emotional boundaries for others. And parents are key here. Modeling the behavior and self-respect you want is one of the most powerful teaching tools.

Related reading: “Establishing House Rules for Teenagers”
Connecting the dots of behavior to consequences

3. Help Your Teenager Connect the Dots Between Behavior and Possible Consequences.

Because teens’ brains are still developing and making connections between the limbic (or emotional) brain and the logical decision-making center, they are often impulsive and emotional. (Ask any parent of a teen!) Teens tend to live in the moment without much consideration of consequences. Add this propensity to an increase in risk-taking and novelty-seeking behaviors that accompany their brain development, and it’s safe to say that teens don’t always think clearly. They apply more weight to positive experiences and rewards than negative ones and have lowered impulse control and diminished decision-making capacity.

Since many of their decisions can be life-threatening (i.e., driving while drinking), parents must be the guardians of logic while understanding these tendencies. Teenagers need parents to slow things down and ask questions that lead them to conclusions of how their actions could negatively affect them. As the brain makes these connections through a parent’s assistance, it helps the brain hardwire the relationship between behavior and consequences, enabling them to make better decisions in the future.

Bottom Line

Knowing the complexities and challenges caused by your teen’s brain development does not justify dangerous or disrespectful behavior; however, it gives us a roadmap for guiding them. As parents, we can provide an arrow to point them in the right direction and serve as bumper guards for their safety. We can impact the neural wiring by directing their attention and regularly encouraging thinking skills, cause-and-effect considerations, and supplying a secure foundation for them to return to every day.

Conscious parenting combined with lots of love and patience will grow healthier brains and resilient teens.

If you’d like support through our parenting class, "Hacking the Teen Brain," check out our resources. And if you'd like personalized parent coaching, contact us at 406-577-2100 or email jennifer@heartmanity.com today!

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Jennifer A. Williams / Parent CoachJennifer A. Williams / Parent Coach
Jennifer’s mission is to create thriving relationships at home and work. She coaches children, teens, and their parents in her private practice located in Bozeman, Montana. Jennifer is a parenting instructor of Redirecting Children's Behavior and an Instructor Trainer for the International Network for Children and Families. She's been a parent educator for the past twenty years. Jennifer is also the author of "The Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence for Children" and co-author of "Hacking the Teen Brain" courses. She frequents homes and schools as regularly as a behavioral consultant to help with challenging behaviors. Jennifer is married to her beloved husband and is the mother of three grown children.

Posted in Perfectly Imperfect Parenting, Parenting Favorites

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