Parenting Rebellious Teens: Navigating Unique Dynamics with Understanding


“IT’S SO UNFAIR!!!” Ah, the world of teenagers. To think that you once thought the toddler stage was the toughest of child development, and you’ve finally found a way to communicate with your child after all the tantrums and rule-breaking. 

Then comes the teenage stage, when you think you finally understand your child, then find out you don’t know them again. Parenting rebellious teens seems like an impossible mission. Fortunately, it isn’t.

To some extent, rebellion is a natural part of growing up. Your teen tries to find their own identity outside of your influence. It’s your responsibility as parents to provide them this space to find their own identity, of course with guidance. 

But when your teen’s ‘soul-searching’ becomes more and more risky each day, what can you do? This article will delve into teenage brain development and how to deal with a rebellious teenager. First, let’s learn about the teenage brain and how it affects their behavior.

Understanding the teenage brain and behavior

It seems like today, your teen can say one thing, and the next day, they change their mind. One day, they are well-behaved, and the next day, you get a call from school because your teen skipped class. Why are they doing this?

The answer you are looking for is the imbalance of your teen’s brain maturation. There’s a reason why teens are often labeled as rebels.

Adolescence is a time when teenagers rely more on the emotional region of their brains when making decisions. This region of the brain is called the limbic system, and it is responsible for the expression of emotions and motivations, including fear, anger, and the flight or fight response. 

The imbalance of emotional and rational decision-making

During adolescence, the brain develops, and the limbic system, with its bottom-up approach, matures. Meanwhile, some other part of the brain responsible for estimating future consequences called the prefrontal cortex, which has a top-down approach, hasn’t reached the same level of maturity.

The last region to mature is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for judgment-based decision-making. 

The prefrontal cortex consists of three major regions: the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). OFC is critical for reward-based decision-making. Meanwhile, ACC and DLPFC are critical to effortful decision-making that is dependent on working memory and reasoning.

Due to teens’ prefrontal cortex not yet reaching its maturity, they are more likely to be attracted to the positive rewards (looking cool, getting out of boredom, etc) than the possible consequences.

Teens are more likely guided by their ‘gut’ feelings instead of their rational judgment. For your teen, skipping school to hang out with the cool kids sounds more fun than attending extra lessons that you paid for.

Peer factor on teenage risk-taking

It’s an overstatement to say that teens do not sense any danger. Instead, they often overlook it due to their cognitive biases regarding social cues such as acceptance, rejection, or isolation from their peers. Teens are assigned the greatest priority to peer-related norms, hence the seemingly immature and reckless behavior. 

In short, it’s not unusual for teens to become rebellious because they do not fully comprehend the potential consequences ahead. Other factors, including high social media usage and peer/neighborhood exposure, can exacerbate teenage risk-taking.

Now that you know how your “rebel” thinks and the relationship between teens and risk-taking, how can you help them if even their physiology is going against you?

Believe it or not, the solution is closer than you think. The changes have to start with yourself first before confronting your teenager.

The best way to approach your rebellious teens

Often, parents and teens are not on the same page regarding the risk of certain behaviors. Sometimes, parents worry too much, and other times, teens are too reckless. Conflict between parent and teen stimulates the emotional circuits in teens’ brains and results in more risk-taking behavior. 

Dealing with a rebellious teenager will have to start with how you approach them. Here’s where to start:

Open communication and active listening

It might seem like a cliché solution, but it’s proven time and time again that communication between parent and child is important. Parent-child communication has to be a two-way relationship, where teens could feel comfortable sharing about what goes on with their lives without feeling like they are judged or berated. Here are a few tips on building communication with trust: 

  • Open a discussion with your teen. Often, it’s not that your teen doesn’t trust you, but they are unsure how to communicate certain issues with you. Opening conversation on various topics, especially about common risky behaviors such as smoking, alcohol, parties, etc., will give your child a picture of your stance on them. 
  • Provide an ear for your children. Sometimes, it’s easy to just talk your teen’s ear off about some bad things they could have been involved in instead of hearing their perspective on it. Lending your ear to your teens doesn’t mean you have to always agree with them, but showing understanding will also really help them feel supported.
  • Be open to learning more about their world. One way to engage your teen is to ask them to teach you how to use social media. Engaging them this way without being intrusive to their own social media lives is a sign of trust from you as a parent to them

Read more: Parental Influence on Adolescent Identity Development 

Setting clear expectations and boundaries 

Do you ever say the phrase “My roof, my rules”? It is so easy to fall into the pattern of harsh discipline on your children. 

However, when you utter this sentence to your teen, all they hear is, “I don’t care what you think.” Most of the time, teens refuse to go to their parents for their issues due to fear of punishment. Meanwhile, teens who perceive their parents as supportive and comforting often disclose their activities to their parents.

So, being supportive and not controlling will give you a chance to monitor your child without being intrusive. 

Being supportive doesn’t always mean unconditional compliance. Rather, it’s about being supportive and setting reasonable expectations and boundaries.

Some ways you can do so are to talk with your teen about their stance on certain behaviors and then share your fear about those behaviors. When they have a sense of your fear, they consider your perspective, and then both of you could come to negotiable expectations and boundaries. 

This way, your teen will feel heard and considered in the rule-making process. 

Finding common ground and shared activities

Spending quality time with your teen could be a protective factor against teen risk-taking behavior. Even something as simple as family mealtime is effective. Interesting research showed that regular family mealtime is associated with reduced likelihood of all risk behaviors and better mental health. 

Read more: Why Family Meal Times Matter 

The possible reason was that family mealtimes impact communication among family members. Any shared activities between families could also reap the same benefits. Shared activities also allow an opportunity to get to know your teen about their lives or their friends. 

Sometimes, disagreements could happen between you and your teen. Disagreements, to some extent, will arise whenever you try to implement some kind of control over your teen, but this is where you allow them to negotiate and find common ground. 

The negotiation provides more room for understanding and ultimately leads to a more secure attachment between parent and teen.

Seeking professional guidance if needed. 

Whenever you feel like your teen could be dealing with something potentially risky for their health, or if you notice your child becoming more and more reckless in their behavior. Always try to be mindful of your teen’s problems and refrain from berating or judging them early on. Instead, you can try to get a bigger picture of your children’s behavior. 

Try to get a second opinion about your child’s behavior, which could be from your teen’s school guidance counselor or professional licensed therapist. Professional guidance can serve as a mediator, bridging the gap between you and your teens. 

Research has shown that establishing an early therapist-child bond in therapy benefits the ongoing treatment process. 

Depressed teens who felt a bond and alliance with their therapist displayed reductions in depressive symptoms over time. This finding implied the importance of getting the help your teen might need and also considering their feelings regarding the treatment instead of coercing them into it. 

In conclusion

Parenting a rebellious teenager is challenging for both parents and teens. Research on teenagers’ brains shows that teens’ brains are highly sensitive to the perception of rewards but tend to ignore the negative consequences of their rebellious behavior.

Navigating your way through this stage could be challenging as your attempt to protect them becomes another conflict that could lead to more risky behavior. So, your approach needs to require more understanding and trust. 

Acknowledging that your teen seeks to be more independent, you can establish more open communication and active listening to your teen’s troubles without judgment. Set clear expectations and boundaries based on negotiation and find common ground to negotiate. Lastly, consult professional guidance when needed. 

It’s important to recognize that understanding is distinct from compliance. By equipping your teenager with ample information and fostering trust, you empower them to navigate the challenges of adolescence more effectively.

If you would like to see more resources on adolescent risk-taking behavior, check out the Parenting Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Visit the Parenting Science Labs today.

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