Between Parent and Teenager: Responding to Teenage Rebellion

Teens naturally rebel and perceive their struggles as private and personal, not recognising them as universal, while seeking answers to difficult existential questions.  Rebellion is to be tolerated for the sake of growth and learning. They face an overwhelming number of changes and transitions all at once. There are physical growth spurts, intense psychological urges, social awkwardness, and a difficult self-awareness that can be painful to navigate. When your teen does the opposite of what you would like, as a way of establishing identity, parents adopt various modes of response such as being tough, being kind, then reasoning, ridicule and rebuke, threats and punishment, which is not helpful. Below are points to consider.

In response to rebellion:

  • “Accept his restlessness and discontent.

When a teenager is restless, it’s not helpful to ask them, “What’s the matter with you?” or “Why can’t you sit still?” These are unanswerable questions.

Sixteen-year-old Brian shares his frustration: “I’m in love and there’s no girl. I’m overcharged and there’s no outlet… I want to learn by tasting, not talking. I hunger for experience, not explanations.” Seventeen-year-old Barbara echoes this sentiment: “Every day I ask myself why I am not the person I would like to be. My relationship with myself is an unhappy one.”

A teenager’s needs are urgent and pressing, but they are often difficult to articulate. Just like hunger and pain, it’s easier to experience than to put into words. As parents, we can help by tolerating their restlessness, respecting their loneliness, and accepting their discontent. We shouldn’t pry or demand explanations.

Imagine a teenager who is feeling restless and unhappy in their current situation, whether it’s school, home life, or social relationships. If the parent dismisses or invalidates these feelings, the teenager may become more isolated and withdrawn. Instead, the parent could try to listen to the teenager’s concerns, empathise with their experience, and help them explore healthy ways to cope and make changes if necessary.

Parent: “I notice that you seem really frustrated lately. Do you want to talk about what’s been bothering you?”

Teenager: “I just feel like nothing is going right for me. School is boring, my friends are annoying, and I don’t know what I want to do with my life.”

Parent: “I can understand why you feel that way. It’s okay to be uncertain or unhappy sometimes. Have you thought about what might make you feel more fulfilled or engaged?”

Teenager: “I don’t know, maybe I need to find some new hobbies or interests.”

Parent: “That sounds like a great idea. Let’s brainstorm some things you might enjoy doing, and see if we can find some ways to make that happen.”

  • Don’t try to be too understanding.

As parents, it’s essential to understand that teenagers don’t always want us to solve their problems or provide them with instant understanding. When parents try to relate to them by saying things like, “I know exactly how you feel,” they may feel insulted and misunderstood. Teenagers want to be seen as complex, mysterious and enigmatic, even when behaviour may seem transparent. Understanding when a teenager needs support and when they need space is a delicate balance, and no matter how wise we are, we cannot be right for them all the time. Therefore, it’s important to be patient, accepting and empathetic towards them, and respect their need for independence and privacy.

Consider a parent who is overly empathetic or accommodating towards their teenager’s behaviour, even when it is harmful or inappropriate. This kind of permissive parenting can lead to confusion and frustration for the teenager, who may feel like there are no clear boundaries or expectations. Instead, the parent could try to communicate firm and consistent limits, while also being open to the teenager’s perspective and needs.

Parent: “I understand that you want to go out with your friends tonight, but I’m not comfortable with you staying out past midnight.”

Teenager: “Why not? All my friends are staying out late, and it’s not like I’m doing anything dangerous.”

Parent: “I hear what you’re saying, but as your parent, it’s my responsibility to make sure you are safe and healthy. Midnight is a reasonable and fair limit, and I expect you to respect that.”

  • Difference between acceptance and approval

To differentiate between acceptance and approval, we must recognize the distinction between tolerance and sanction. While we may tolerate behaviours that we do not necessarily approve of, we do not necessarily sanction them, meaning that we neither encourage nor welcome them. For example, a father may be irritated by his son’s long hair but demonstrate respect for his son’s autonomy by allowing him to continue with his “unpleasant” but harmless revolt. By tolerating the behaviour, the father avoids destroying its value as a symbol of rebellion and, consequently, avoids the possibility of more obnoxious and extreme behaviour from his son.

Imagine a teenager who is exploring their identity and making choices that are different from what their parents may have expected or desired. If the parent responds with disapproval or criticism, the teenager may feel rejected or misunderstood. Instead, the parent could try to separate their personal preferences or values from their unconditional love and acceptance of the teenager as a whole person.

Teenager: “Mom, I have something to tell you. I think I might be gay.”

Parent: “Oh. Well, that’s not really what I had in mind for you, but I still love and support you no matter what.”

Teenager: “Really? I was so scared to tell you because I thought you would be mad or disappointed.”

Parent: “No, honey. I may not fully understand or agree with everything you do, but I will always accept and respect you as my child.”

  • Don’t emulate his language and conduct: Look like a parent, act like a parent, talk like a parent

In the same vein, parents should avoid imitating their teenagers’ language and conduct in an attempt to be “cool” or relatable. This kind of mimicry can be confusing and embarrassing for the teenager, who may feel like the parent is trying too hard or not taking their role seriously. Teenagers adopt a style of life that is different from that of adults, and by imitating their style, parents only force them into further opposition. Parents should act like parents, talk like parents, and look like parents, rather than trying to compete with their teenagers. Rather model healthy and appropriate communication and behaviour, while also being willing to learn from the teenager’s perspective and experiences.

“Says Belinda, age sixteen: My mother tries hard to be a teenager. She dresses in mini-skirts, wears beads and talks hip. When my friends come visit, she asks them to “ooze her some skin” (handshake) and tell her some “groovy” news. It makes me sick to see her act so foolish. My friends pretend that she is one of us, but they laugh at her behind her back, and they make fun of her.”

Teenager: “Mom, can you give me a ride to the mall later?”

Parent: “Sure thing, my dude! I’ll be your chauffeur for the afternoon.”

Teenager: rolls eyes “Please don’t talk like that, Mom. It’s kind of embarrassing.”

Parent: “What do you mean? I’m just trying to be relatable and hip, like you.”

Teenager: “I appreciate that, but it’s okay to just be yourself. You don’t have to try so hard to fit in.”

Parent: “I see what you’re saying. I guess I just want to make sure we have a good relationship and can talk openly and honestly with each other.”

Teenager: “I get that, and I appreciate it. But you don’t have to try to be my friend or anything. You’re my parent, and that’s cool enough.”

  • Don’t collect thorns. Don’t step on corns.

Parents should also refrain from teasing their teenagers, even in jest. Teenagers are often overly sensitive about their imperfections, and insults or “teasing” from parents can cut deeper and last longer than those from others.  Teens wish to create distance between themselves and their childhood, thus reminiscing, telling cute stories and showing off baby photos have a negative impact on the parent-teen relationship. Instead, parents should adjust their praise, criticism, reward, and discipline to that of a young adult, not a young child.  In essence, the “thorns” represent the negative comments or actions that parents make towards their children, often unintentionally, that cause pain or hurt. The “corns” represent the areas where the child is sensitive or vulnerable, and parents should be careful not to step on them or exacerbate them further. By being mindful of both thorns and corns, parents can build stronger and more positive relationships with their teenage children.

Example 1: Your teenage daughter is sensitive about her appearance and is trying to lose weight. One day, you make a comment about how she should “lay off the sweets.” She becomes upset and starts to withdraw from you.

Example 2: Your teenage son has always struggled with math, and you’re worried that he won’t do well on an upcoming exam. You constantly remind him to study and ask him how he’s doing, which only makes him feel more anxious and stressed.

  • Don’t invite dependence

Be present and available, but resist the desire to intervene too often as difficulties and challenges unfold.   Inviting dependence is doing for the child what he can do for himself assuming responsibilities that belong to the child.  It is depriving him of the opportunity Quote: “Inviting dependence is preventing the child from experiencing the consequences of his own behaviour and depriving him of the opportunity to learn to cope with life.

Rather foster independence in your teen, as dependency can invite hostility and resentment in adolescence.  In discussions, one can discuss options, pros and cons, but allow them to make their own choices and use their own powers whenever possible, allowing them to assert themselves as individuals and practice necessary skills for life.  

Example 1: Your teenage son forgets his homework at school and asks you to bring it to him. You drop everything and rush to school to bring it to him, even though he’s perfectly capable of taking responsibility for his own actions.

Example 2: Your teenage daughter is having trouble with a difficult assignment and asks for your help. Instead of offering guidance and support, you take over and do the assignment for her.

Example 3: Your teenage son is always forgetting his chores and you constantly remind him to do them. Instead of holding him accountable and letting him face the consequences of his actions, you continue to nag him until he completes them.

In essence, inviting dependence means that parents are not allowing their teenage children to take responsibility for their own actions and learn from their mistakes. By constantly rescuing their children or taking over tasks that the child is capable of handling, parents are preventing their children from developing independence and coping skills. This can ultimately lead to a lack of self-confidence and a sense of entitlement in the child. Instead, parents should encourage their teenage children to take responsibility for their own actions and allow them to learn from their mistakes.

  • Don’t violate his privacy

Respecting your teenager’s privacy is crucial for maintaining a positive relationship. As Dr. Ginott writes, “The adolescent feels a great need for privacy. Invading his privacy is an invasion of his ego. It violates his sense of self and identity.”

Imagine a teenager who is going through a difficult time and has retreated to his room to be alone. If the parent barges in unannounced and starts going through the teenager’s things or demanding to know what’s going on, the teenager is likely to feel violated and angry. Instead, the parent could knock on the door and ask if it’s okay to come in, then give the teenager space to open up if and when he feels ready.

  • Avoid cliches and preaching.

Teenagers are highly attuned to insincerity and will quickly tune out if they feel like they are being talked down to. Dr. Ginott advises parents to avoid cliches and focus on authentic communication. “The adolescent can spot a false note a mile away. If we sound preachy, patronizing, or insincere, he will not listen to us.”

Consider a parent who lectures their teenager about the dangers of drugs and alcohol without ever really listening to their concerns or understanding their perspective. This kind of one-sided communication is unlikely to be effective, and the teenager may tune out or become defensive. Instead, the parent could try to have an open and honest conversation that allows for mutual understanding and respect.

Don’t trot out tired old phrases like “when I was your age” or “because I said so.” Your teenager will see right through that nonsense, and you’ll just come across as out of touch. Instead, try to have an actual conversation with your kid. Ask them questions about their interests, their friends, their hopes and dreams. And when they inevitably say something that makes you want to launch into a lecture, take a deep breath and resist the urge. Your kid will thank you for it (maybe not out loud, but  they will).

  • Don’t talk in chapters.

Teenagers have short attention spans, and they are more likely to engage with parents who communicate in a clear and concise manner. As Dr. Ginott writes, “The adolescent is not interested in lectures, sermons, or long-winded speeches. He has no time for extended discussions or lengthy explanations.”

Imagine a parent who wants to have a conversation with their teenager about sex, but ends up giving a long and rambling lecture that covers everything from anatomy to birth control to moral values. This kind of overwhelming communication is unlikely to be helpful or effective, and the teenager may feel like the parent is talking at them rather than with them. Instead, the parent could try to focus on a specific aspect of the conversation, such as how to stay safe and healthy in relationships, and be open to the teenager’s questions and concerns.

  • Don’t label him in his presence

Labels can be damaging and hurtful, especially if they are applied in front of others. Dr. Ginott advises parents to avoid labeling their teenagers and instead focus on describing their behaviour. “Labeling a person is an aggressive act. It depersonalizes him and makes him feel like an object. It puts him on the defensive and turns him off.”

Consider a parent who is frustrated with their teenager’s messy room and calls them a “slob” in front of other family members. This kind of label can be hurtful and demeaning, and may make the teenager feel defensive or ashamed. Instead, the parent could describe the behaviour they want to see, such as asking the teenager to pick up their clothes and put them in the laundry basket.

  • Don’t use reverse psychology

Trying to manipulate your teenager by using reverse psychology can backfire and damage your relationship. As Dr. Ginott writes, “Reverse psychology is not an effective technique with adolescents. It is based on deception and trickery. It undermines the trust that is essential for healthy communication.”

Imagine a parent who tells their teenager that they don’t care if they fail a test, hoping that this will motivate the teenager to study harder. This kind of manipulation is unlikely to be effective and may damage the parent-child relationship. Instead, the parent could try to have a supportive and encouraging conversation about the importance of education and help the teenager develop good study habits.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many parents fall into this trap. For example, telling your teenager that they can’t go to a party because it’s “too dangerous” may seem like a good way to make them want to rebel and go anyway. But in reality, it’s just a recipe for disaster. Your teenager will feel like you don’t trust them, and they may even start to resent you for it. Instead, try to be honest and upfront about your concerns, and work together to find a solution that everyone can live with.

  • Don’t send contradictory messages

Mixed messages can be confusing and frustrating for teenagers. Dr. Ginott advises parents to be clear and consistent in their communication. “Contradictory messages create confusion and uncertainty. They leave the adolescent feeling frustrated and anxious.”

Consider a parent who tells their teenager that they trust them to make responsible decisions, but then constantly hovers and tries to control their every move. This kind of mixed message can be confusing and frustrating for the teenager, who may feel like the parent doesn’t really trust them after all. Instead, the parent could try to communicate clearly and consistently about their expectations and boundaries, while also giving the teenager the freedom and autonomy to make their own choices. Parents who send contradictory messages deprive their children of the security of clear communication and the assurance of consistency.

In essence, sending contradictory messages means that parents are not being consistent in their communication and actions towards their teenagers. This can lead to confusion and insecurity in the child, as they are unsure of what to expect from their parents.

  • Don’t futurise

 (Being “worried sick” about your child’s future. Futurising is having an unrealistically negative view of what the future holds for your child, and a tendency to expect the very worst outcome.)

Futurising is assuming that the future will be bleak and that disaster is inevitable. It is a negative attitude that contributes to discouragement and resignation. Worrying excessively about your teenager’s future can create unnecessary stress and anxiety for both you and your child, and robs the adolescent of the joy and excitement of the present moment. It’s natural to want the best for your teen, but constantly fretting about what might happen to them down the road is a surefire way to drive yourself (and your teenager)  batty. It can lead to a sense of disconnection and unhappiness in the present moment. Instead, the parent could try to focus on supporting their teenager in the present, while also encouraging them to pursue their interests and passions in a way that feels authentic and fulfilling. They’ll make their own mistakes and figure things out in their own time. Your job as a parent it to love and support them through it all, no matter what. Parents should strive to be clear and consistent in their communication and actions towards their teenager, while also maintaining a positive outlook for their future.

Dr. Haim Ginott’s book, “Between Parent and Teenager,” may be a classic, but parenting a teenager can feel like navigating a minefield. It’s easy to make missteps and set off explosions that leave everyone feeling frazzled and frustrated. Ginott has some sage advice that can help you avoid stepping on any metaphorical landmines, and make for smoother sailing at home.

Reference: Between Parent and Teenager – Dr Haim G. Ginott