Should You Worry about Your Rebellious, Nonconforming Teenager?

Should You Worry about Your Rebellious, Nonconforming Teenager?

The stereotype of the troubled teenager is the adolescent who is rebellious and is fighting against the conventions and standards of their parents and the rest of society. When many adults think about teenagers and picture the “typical” teen, the image that may pop into their mind is that of the long-haired, drug-using hippy, the gang member who uses drugs and engages in gratuitous violence, or the tattooed adolescent who has nose rings and seems bent on upsetting all adults.

But are these teens the norm or are they atypical teenagers who give the rest of the adolescent population a bad reputation?

The fact is that only a minority of adolescents rebel against their parents or society at large. Most teens enjoy a relatively smooth teenage period, and while they might not always see eye-to-eye with their parents or teachers, they are not intent on making life miserable for all adults.

But even with those teens who might be legitimately labeled as rebels, what passes for rebellious and oppositional behavior may really be about learning to be their own person. So much of what goes on in the life of a middle teenager – those kids between 14 and 16 – may be more about learning to be their own person than purposely trying to go against social conventions.

Kids who take risks, by getting tattoos their parents don’t like, having jewelry in various parts of their anatomy, or taking on the behaviors and attitudes of groups far different from those of their family, may be attempting to assert some of their own ideas while trying to figure out in what direction they are headed.

I have talked to many parents of teens who were admittedly embarrassed by their teen’s choices. Those choices might be in different areas – hair style, clothing, body ornaments, friends, use of illegal substances, and even illegal behaviors. But these parents thought there was something deviant about their out-of-step teens. So often these parents are quick to reassure others that “That’s not the way I brought her up.”

Which, of course, is undoubtedly true. Many parents of adolescents would like to make sure their child never deviates from the conventional behavior and attitudes that are the norm in their family. Some even try to rule with an iron fist and force their teens to comply with parental demands and expectations. While it might easier – and less embarrassing – to make sure your teen never strays from the conventional norms of the family, this would not necessarily result in healthier young adults.

In fact, the opposite might be true.

Most teenagers, it is safe to say, certainly want fewer restrictions, more independence, and the freedom to choose to take some risks. A good many teens see the conventions of their family and their family’s friends as boring and unimaginative. If parents can handle the mild rebelliousness that some teens need to exhibit without clamping down too hard on their need to be different, things can be relatively easy for both parents and teens.

But, if adolescents are handled with too many restrictions and the reins held too tightly, this may encourage greater rebellion. Instead of having a certain amount of freedom to figure out who they are, they may expend a great amount of youthful time and energy going against the authority represented by their parents.

The bottom line, then, is that teenagers who display a little rebellion and sometimes take some risks by choosing their own ways of doing things, in the long run may become individuals with a better idea of who they are. Having had the opportunity of trying on different behaviors, they are not forced into any one way of being – which might happen if they are in an on-going struggle with adult society.

But this requires you to tolerate the teenager who wants to do his own thing and wishes not to be stuck in “old-fashioned” ways of living his or her life. Teens who have been allowed the freedom to rebel and seek their own path to independence often settle into an adult persona that is – as we usually find out when our teens graduate into adulthood – uncomfortably like our own.

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Teens often Assert their Independence by Refusing to take Prescribed Medication

Teens often Assert their Independence by Refusing to take Prescribed Medication

A friend’s 18-year-old son recently decided he didn’t want to take his ADHD medication anymore.

“I don’t think I need it anymore, because I’m doing so well,” he told his parents.

Three weeks later, his parents found out he was in danger of failing a class he needed to get into the college he selected.

“Don’t worry,” he assured his parents. “The college doesn’t care about your grades during your last semester in high school.”

But, of course, his parents were worried.

“He’s going off to college in September and how is going to be able to do well if he is not able to concentrate and do his work,” his father asked. “It is really evident that he needs his medication, even if he doesn’t see the necessity of it any longer.”

Over the years, I worked with many adolescents and their families. Some of the teens took medication for the symptoms of ADHD; others were prescribed medications for other medical conditions, such as diabetes or seizure disorders. But there was a pattern that I began to recognize.

As teenagers reached their middle and late adolescent years, there was an increasing need to be self-sufficient, independent, and autonomous. They wanted to be grown up and to be their own person. For many of them this meant that they no longer wanted to be dependent on a drug or a medication. They needed to prove to themselves and others that they were an adult and that they were capable of handling their problems and symptoms without the aid of a medication. For some, it was like taking a medication meant weaknesses or a crippling dependency. It frequently reminded me of the toddler who proclaims “Me do it!” whenever an adult tries to assist them.

One adolescent I saw for counseling during his junior and senior years in high school, credited his success in high school to the medication he took to deal with his short attention span. In his second semester in college, he came back to see me during a spring break.

“I did really well my first semester in college,” he said. “But things really went downhill this term.”

When we talked about why this might have happened, he admitted he wasn’t taking his medication. “I thought I could do it on my own,” he said. “But I’ve been taking Ritalin for years and I’m tired of it. I just want to be normal.”

He did, however, agree to start taking his medication again, and as I anticipated, his grades went up.

Taking drugs, for many teens, becomes one more battleground in the adolescent power struggle and the need to assert greater personal autonomy. In other words, rebelling against the taking of medication – even when it is important for maintaining good health – is a way teenagers can feel more in control of their own lives.

For example, Diana resents every pill she puts in her mouth to manage her seizure disorder.

“I don’t want someone else telling me what I need to do,” Diana has said, “especially a grown-up.”

At 16, Diana was still living at home and going to high school. She had frequently had seizures in school, which resulted in her being taken by ambulance to an ER. She knew the medication prevented seizures, but still she resented taking the medication. As a compromise with her parents, she said that she would not stop taking her medication until she was 17.

“Then, I’ll stop taking it for a while and see if I can get along without it,” Diana said. “But if the seizures return, then I’ll go back on the medication.”

It is probably very clear to you that your adolescent might not be able to function adequately when not taking their medication. However, it is likely that your child has other issues – such as the need for independence, autonomy, and personal power – that may overshadow their judgment and commonsense.

Although your teenager may resent you telling them they need to continue taking their medication, a doctor, who is not their parent, is more likely to be listened to as an authority. If the doctor’s authority doesn’t work, you may have to stand by while your teen tests out their ability to function without their medication. Although this might be difficult for you, you may be able to be supportive and help them make a healthy decision once they have figured out that they can’t control a medical condition without medication. If you have been engaging in a conflict with your teen over the use of their medication, they just might hide their condition from you so that they don’t have to admit they were wrong or made a poor choice.

Dealing with a Challenging Teen is a Daunting Task

Dealing with a Challenging Teen is a Daunting Task

Thirteen-year-old Brock is a difficult youngster. He doesn’t come home from school on time, he talks back to his teachers, and he refuses to obey many requests or orders from his mother and stepfather. He’s also been in trouble for stealing. He’s generally angry at his teachers and his parents, and he says he wishes they would “just stop yelling at me.”

When his parents try to restrict him, Brock tells them it’s unfair. He says that being grounded or restricted to the house doesn’t do any good.  “It just makes me hyper and I get into more trouble,” Brock contends.

His parents have tried other punishments to attempt to get him to conform to the rules and to their expectations. They’ve taken away his bike, the use of a phone, his privilege of watching TV, and his iPod. Brock says he has to be good “for a little while” and then he gets back whatever was taken away. He adds, “My stepfather softens up after a while no matter how long he says he’s going to keep my stuff. My mom just can’t handle it when I give her a hard time, so my stepdad lets me off the punishment so my mom isn’t upset.”

Brock has learned to work the system in his home without really changing any of his behavior. All he has to do is yell at his mother, destroy something in the home, or just make life miserable for his parents, and they tell him to leave because “they can’t stand me anymore.”

When children who have been stubborn, oppositional, or defiant for several years get to be in their early teenage years, and their parents lack the training or skills to deal with them, they may be similar to Brock. Given Brock’s problems at home and at school, and given his consistent anger, along with his ability “to work the system,” it is very likely that he will continue to get into trouble and he could well end up in the juvenile justice system.

For some parents, having a teen like Brock end up in the justice system may be a welcome relief. They may feel like they’ve exhausted their ability to handle their adolescent. However, the reality is that a juvenile court or a family court can only offer some support and structure, and a court is unlikely to be able to undo everything that has led a young person like Brock to be what he is at this stage in his life.

There are, of course, other alternatives. Seeking professional help and having the teen attend a therapy group may be useful. Even more useful, though, might be family therapy. Family therapy can be particularly important in opening up lines of communication, changing reinforcement patterns in the family, and decreasing negative and critical interactions.

When an older child or adolescent, like Brock, is presenting serious and persistent oppositional and acting-out problems, parents must examine their own role in the development of the problem. It is often necessary for parents to accept that they will have to make some changes.

If a child, like Brock, has reached the adolescent years and is as out of control as Brock is, then it very likely means that there have been too many ongoing conflicts and battles within the family, and too little parental understanding of children and how they express negativism and independence. Of course, it almost never is exclusively the fault of a parent that a boy like Brock develops. However, it might well be the case that parents have likely mishandled at least some aspects of discipline.

But what can you do at this point?

A good place to start is to understand that there is no magical solution to getting a teen under control. It usually requires patience, perseverance, strength, and determination to bring about changes. In addition, there will have to be work to set clear limits and rules. Rules and expectations will have to be communicated clearly. Parents will have to learn to be consistent and firm in enforcing rules. And they will have to offer close monitoring and supervision.

But with all of that, outside help is usually required because the task of bringing about changes in a stubborn and defiant teen is daunting.