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The Science Behind Teenage Rebellion: Why Do Teenagers Rebel and What Can Parents Do About It?

teenage rebellion psychology

It’s no secret that parents have a lot to worry about. Starting in infancy, we worry about our children’s safety and development. As parents, we do our best to protect them from sickness, injury, fear, and trauma. We even help them set boundaries and ensure they spend time with good, supportive people. Over the years, however, our ability to protect gets more difficult. Adolescence brings on a whole new set of challenges, as teenagers start to develop their independence and increasingly rebel against their parents’ wishes. During the teen years, many parents find themselves worrying about things like drug abuse, drunk driving, unsafe sex, fighting—and are left scrolling the web for answers on “how to deal with a rebellious teenager.”

You are not alone. Rebellion during adolescence is extremely common and, in fact, normal. And while that doesn’t make it any easier, it can be reassuring for parents to know that it is usually a phase that will resolve in time. There are also steps parents can take to better understand—and therefore connect—with their teenagers. That’s what this guide is all about. Below, we explore why teenagers rebel, how to deal with rebellious teens effectively, and what to do when things get out of hand.

Why Do Teenagers Rebel?

Teenagers are in a critical period of development. Throughout the adolescent years, the brain is undergoing many changes—including the development of the prefrontal cortex. At the same time, their bodies are flooding with new hormones, they are navigating the qualms of high school, and they are trying to develop a sense of identity outside of their family structures. This is a lot for teens to handle.

As a result, many teenagers will go through a period of rebellion. They will exhibit mood swings, heightened emotional responses, an increase in aggression or arguing, and an “I don’t care” attitude that so many parents find frustrating.  At the same time, they will also engage in more risk-taking and go to greater lengths to fit in with their peers.

Let’s consider the science behind this rebellious nature. As noted previously, the teenage brain is still in progress. The prefrontal cortex—which is the brain’s “thinking and judgement center”—is the last part to fully mature, and eventually helps teenagers to become more rational, analytical adults. Until their mid-20s, however, there can be a lot of ups and downs throughout the development process.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for rational decision-making, weighing consequences, understanding outcomes, controlling impulses, and regulating emotions. Because it is not fully mature in adolescence, teenagers are more likely to act without thinking, make rash decisions without considering consequences, and do or say things impulsively, based on emotion alone. Teenagers are not wired to think critically yet, and are not yet ready to self-regulate, which is why rebellious behavior is so common.

While the prefrontal cortex is still developing, the brain’s “reward center” is ready to go during adolescence. This part of the brain—responsible for pleasure responses—is developed and playing a major part in teen’s desire to act out. Teenagers are eager to do things that fuel pleasure and ignite a dopamine response in the brain—which often involves taking risks and chasing thrills, without regard for the consequences at hand. Once again, this ties back to their “rebellious” tendencies.

What is Normal Rebellion, and What Should Parents Be Concerned About?

Teenagers are doing their best to become independent beings, separate from their parents. As such, they will express themselves in a way that sets them apart. This expression typically shows itself as non-conformity (e.g. opposing beliefs or appearances) and/or non-compliance (i.e. breaking rules). 

In addition, teenagers will normally prioritize socializing—on social media or IRL—over other obligations. They will do what they can to fit in with friend groups, and often give into peer pressure as a result. 

All of these factors can contribute to rebellious behaviors like:

  • Neglecting school assignments  
  • Experimenting with alcohol and smoking pot
  • Breaking rules and sometimes laws (often as a thrill)
  • Taking physical risks, like extreme sports
  • Testing the limits with their fashion sense, including dyed hair and piercings
  • Defensive or argumentative behaviors 

While rebellion sounds negative, it is a normal and important part of development. Teenagers are undergoing a lot of neurological, chemical changes that ultimately will lead them to be productive, confident, analytical adults. However, it’s important for parents to know that while rebellious behavior is normal, it is not always okay. Some rebellious behaviors can be dangerous and get out of hand. There are some of the normal rebellious behaviors above, and some more troubling ones that warrant a conversation with your teen. Here are some examples of rebellious behaviors that need attention:

  • Drug and alcohol abuse, especially frequent use
  • Risky and unprotected sex
  • Violent behaviors like fighting and bullying
  • Expressing suicidal ideation or self-harm
  • Illegal behaviors like shoplifting and vandalism
  • Skipping school

If your teenager is engaging in any of these risks, or showing signs of concerning behaviors, they could be in danger. These actions fall outside the norm of a rebellious teenager, so try not to overlook something like drug use as “just a phase” or mentions of suicide as “attention-seeking.” These behaviors could mean your son or daughter is at risk and in need of professional help.

How to Deal with a Rebellious Teenager

Although you may feel completely disconnected from your teenager, know that you can still have an influence on their lives. In fact, parent involvement is one of the best, protective factors against substance abuse issues in youth, and is also vital to keeping teenagers on the right path. 

So, what’s one of the first things you can do? Get involved in your teenager’s life. If you do not have a good relationship with your teenager at this time, do your best to establish one. A good relationship is one that is open, honest, loving, understanding, and trusting. It is non-judgmental and supportive. This means that your teenager can come to you with their problems, and you will be there for them during that time of need, without judgment or harsh punishment. 

As Calvalyn Day, a family coach and licensed school counselor, explained to Parents.com, teenage rebellion often stems from a problem they are experiencing. For example, conflicts with friends, changes in the family, issues with school. Parents need to address their teen’s emotional needs and facilitate solutions with an empathetic, supportive approach. Day suggests avoiding a punitive approach, and instead looking for the source of the rebellion.

“Make sure there isn’t a fracture in your relationship. My favorite quote is that rules without relationship will always equal rebellion, so don’t be so quick to focus on punishing away the behavior, when it really can be a symptom of disconnect in the relationship.”

Other experts agree that emotional and active involvement in your teen’s life can have a significant impact on their behaviors and well-being. While it may seem counterintuitive, focusing on building a transparent and trusting relationship is what parents should prioritize—rather than trying to control their teens. Teens crave independence, and giving that to them will give you the opportunity to connect with them on a whole new level (while also helping prepare them for college and adulthood).

Of course, it’s still important that you keep your teenager safe. Dangerous behaviors warrant intervention, as they can spiral out of control and lead to devastating consequences. If your teenager is abusing drugs or alcohol, getting in trouble with the law, participating in risky sexual behaviors, or displaying suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to intervene and seek professional help.

If your teen is displaying typical teen behaviors, but you still worry about what lies ahead, you can also do your part by offering guidance and helping educate them on topics like substance use. As a parent, you can still express your concerns and get your point across – however, you will find this more effective if you have a good relationship with your teen. You may also negotiate with your teen to help facilitate their decision-making skills, and collaborate with them on things like boundaries (think, setting a curfew) and consequences. Ultimately, the more you invite your teen to open up and the more you respect their independence, the more you will be able to get through to them long-term.

Remember, rebellion in adolescence is expected and normal, but taking risks can be dangerous. If your teenager is showing any signs of substance abuse, mental health problems, behavioral issues, or other dangerous actions, do not hesitate to seek professional support and advice. Turnbridge is just a call away and available to help set up an evaluation or intervention plan. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more.