Have you ever asked yourself as a parent, "What does a normal teenager act like?" Teenage rebellion and defiance are common challenges that parents often navigate. On top of teenage push-back are social media and smartphones competing with the teen-parent connection. (Or shall I say "screen addiction"?) As a parent coach and parenting instructor, I get scores of S.O.S. calls from parents. Many parents are fearful and remark, "Where did my 'sweet child' go?!"
So is teen rebellion normal? And what is dramatically outside the realm of healthy development and accompanying behaviors? Let's explore the teenage years and brain development that affects behavior.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
The Parent's Job Is to Stay Calm and Set Firm, Healthy Boundaries
When I was teaching a parenting class years ago, a mother told the story of the time her son came home from kindergarten with green hair. She went ballistic as soon as she saw him. When I asked what triggered her anger, she replied, "All I could see was a teenager standing there with green hair, tattoos, a ring in his nose, and a chain belt hanging from his waist reeking of marijuana."
Her mind had catapulted her into an imaginary future scene, and her fear quickly set off a chain reaction. The green hair was left over from a Saint Patrick's Day celebration at school when the teachers dyed the children's hair using a washable dye so they could pretend to be leprechauns. Innocent enough, so why the knee-jerk reaction?
What is it about the teenage years that feels so intimidating and causes parents to react so hastily? My husband and I noticed that whenever we mentioned we had teens, people would gasp, immediately extend their condolences, or tell us the latest horror story they had encountered personally or heard from a friend. We kept waiting for Damocles' sword to fall, but it never did.
The Misconception of Teenage Rebellion
In our culture, a belief has formed that is creating a misconception. It would appear that we are accepting hook, line, and sinker the idea that teenage rebellion is inevitable.
It's true that the teenage years are a time of massive growth in many areas, which comes with an enhanced desire for exploration and a need to test limits. It is a critical period for brain development and defining individuality. However, it's just not true that rebellion is a normal teenage state. Instead, teenage rebellion indicates that we need greater understanding, more effective skills, and more patience.
Until recently, many believed that hormonal fluctuation, negative peer pressure, or poor parenting were the primary causes of erratic teenage behavior. However, some remarkable scientific findings offer a more encouraging explanation.
Even though 95% of brain development is completed by age 5, the most advanced parts of the brain are not completed until at least age 25. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for moral judgment, emotional restraint, rational decision-making, impulse control, and critical thinking, does the bulk of its maturation from ages 12 to 20.
So not only are teens growing rapidly emotionally and physically but due to extraordinary brain growth, they are literally cut off from the part of their brain that helps make good decisions!
Parenting a Teenager Plays an Important Role in Teen Brain Health
We as parents and teachers can assist our young people by being loving, firm, and neutral mirrors. When we remain calm, teens are able to gain stability, increase self-awareness as well as empathy for others, and learn to moderate their emotions, desires, and impulses.
Remember that you are modeling and teaching emotional intelligence to them even when they are pushing your buttons!
The calmer we are and the more respectful our response to teenagers' behavior, the more quickly they can calm down and give mutual respect.
Parents' firm and loving calmness provides emotional safety to a rapidly developing brain on edge.
Parenting Skills to Support Your Teen and Their Brain Development
Below are vital steps for parenting teens. These actions will help your teen navigate the years safely when their brain development leaves them vulnerable to irrational behavior.
By responding effectively to a teen's erratic behavior, parents provide a loving sounding board that allows them to regroup. With this safe space, teenagers are better equipped to integrate skills and connect the dots of their behavior, making better choices in the future.
How to Handle Teenage Rebellion: Steps for Parenting Teens Successfully
Create a nonjudgmental environment in which your teen can openly discuss what's on their mind.
A good way to mute teenagers is to criticize or seek to control them. When we take time to listen, it allows teens to explore and discover themselves while more quickly taking ownership for their mistakes and short-sightedness. Attentive listening also shows respect, which encourages teens to express themselves more openly.
Remain calm when your teen is upset; if you can't, calm yourself before responding.
Being a stable, calm sounding board helps teens see their behavior more accurately and encourages them to self-correct. If we react, they are now dealing with our emotions—and just like looking into a wavy pond, they can no longer see their reflection clearly. Frequently, if a parent reacts, a teen will make it about THEIR PARENT's unreasonable behavior instead of looking at their own.
Apologize to your children whenever appropriate.
Not only does apologizing provide many opportunities for teaching moments for your teens, but empathetic apologies also gain trust, teach humility, and heal or strengthen the relationship in a way nothing else can. Teenagers are alert to spot times when you're not living your values and what you've taught them. Apologizing can be a powerful model.
Set clear and healthy boundaries for your teen.
By setting healthy boundaries that have agreements consented to ahead of time, many conflicts are avoided. Teenagers will soon be out of the house and on their own, so it is important to involve them in making decisions and setting limits.
Giving your teen opportunities to practice skills in a safe environment will help build emotional muscles, and they will be better equipped to set limits for themselves and others. For example, when you need to set a curfew, involve your teen in the decision. Find a time that works for both you and your teen.
Typically, when freedom is given responsibly, it is respected and adhered to. Setting boundaries with teens is another way to let them know you care.
Allow plenty of space for them to be themselves without taking too much distance.
Even though teenagers are quick to push back our guidance, they still need constant love and reminders that we're always there for them. And even though youthfulness may make them feel invincible, they still look to us for direction. Many times, teen rebellion can be a cry for connection and love.
Parenting teenagers requires a focus on keeping your relationship with your teen strong and communication open.
A strong, connected relationship will be a lifeline to them when they need support and a source of joy when they don't. No matter what the situation, it's unhelpful to label teens as rebellious. Let's create families and communities where teenagers can thrive and grow into loving, responsible, contributing members of society.
For additional reading, please see our article, "Redirecting Teen Defiance into Healthy Self-Esteem." For parent coaching and support, contact us now or check out our parenting class on "Hacking the Teen Brain."