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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Have an Alienated Teen? Most Make an Adjustment as they Mature

Have an Alienated Teen? Most Make an Adjustment as they Mature

At 15, Thomas wears dark clothing, listens to gangsta hip hop and heavy metal music with violent themes, and has several strange tattoos on his neck and arms.

Lisa, who is 14, wears very masculine clothing, has several rings on her face, chest, and stomach, and she views herself as an outcast at school. She says she hates the other girls at her suburban school because “they are all stuck up.”

Sixteen-year-old Mario disliked school from the time he was in elementary school. He hated school work, was aggressive toward other children, and by middle school knew he would drop out as soon as he could. He hangs around with older teens who have dropped out of school and with whom he feels he has something in common.

All three of these adolescents are alienated from school, the community, and even their families. Their parents and their siblings don’t understand them and wonder why they are so estranged from mainstream values and middle class society. However, there are many – perhaps millions – of young people in this country who similarly feel like they are different and that they don’t fit in with conventional society.

In any high school, you’ll find groups of kids who go by various changing designations. They may call themselves or be called by others such names as goths, skaters, metals, punks, emos, gamers, geeks, hip hops, or gangsters. Of course, every adolescent is trying to fit in with some group – whether it’s with other athletes, debaters, musicians, cheer leaders, or high achievers. Often such groups provide “homes” for teens who don’t fit in elsewhere. And these groups of kids can be temporary or transitional, or they can be a group or a gang which will serve a purpose for several years. Whether these various groups co-exist or have rivalries and hostilities, they serve as a stew of different identities to help often vulnerable young people find an identity and their own place in the teenage world.

Unless you work in a high school or spend a great deal of time with adolescents, you may be unaware of these various subgroups. And until you have a son or daughter who finds a strange group of alienated and disaffected young people to call their friends, it‘s easy to avoid or ignore the all-to-common groups of estranged young people we have in our society. It’s when your teen shows up with rings in their face or bizarre tattoos or ritual scarification on their body, that you might become concerned. It’s then when you might start asking some serious questions about what’s going on:

“Why is my kid so alienated?” “Why does my daughter act like an outcast?” “Why does my son dress like that? It’s embarrassing!”

Why do teens feel alienated from mainstream society? And what does it mean? Is he likely to act in an aggressive way? Or is she psychologically disturbed?

These are legitimate questions. And they are questions that not only get asked by parents but also by sociologists and criminal justice experts?

Ask almost any member of a subgroup why they dress differently, listen to different music, or behave differently, and the answers will be fairly predictable: “I want to be an individual,” they might say. Or, “I don’t fit in with the popular kids.” Or, “I don’t want to be boring like everyone else.” For many kids who join a small and unpopular subgroup, they believe they don’t fit in with most other kids and they see themselves as different.

For some of these adolescents, alienation from the broader society began early in school. For some, it happened as early as the first grade. For these young people, school lacked relevance for them. They often didn’t see school as having a pay-off for them. Or they never hit it off with other children. They, thus, turn to other kids who feel the same way.

As we know from follow-up analysis of teens who were involved in school shootings, nearly all school shooters felt alienated and had been exposed to acute or chronic rejection from their peers. Recent research confirms that when alienated youth experience peer ridicule, teasing, and rejection, they are more likely to aggress against those who have made life miserable for them.

However, most alienated youth find a more positive and more conventional social group as they leave high school and enter the adult world. If your child is estranged from mainstream society during the turbulent adolescent years, it doesn’t mean they will feel (and behave) like an outcast forever. The majority develop a better sense of who they are and how they fit in with a positive group of friends as they mature.

As a parent, you can aid their transition to a more conventional life style by avoiding confrontations and lectures, offering acceptance (despite your fears and concerns), and by celebrating their uniqueness. It’s not easy, of course, but railing at them for being so unconventional and different is more likely to lead to more serious alienation and a rejection of you and your values.

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.

What Can You Do When Your Teenager Runs Away from Home?

What Can You Do When Your Teenager Runs Away from Home?

 

Mary Lynn, age 14, ran away from home because she said she didn’t like living with her parents. However, for several weeks prior to running away, her mother and father were aware of changes in her personality. She was more withdrawn, was skipping classes at school, lied frequently, and was angry much of the time. It wasn’t until she ran away that her parents discovered she had a boyfriend and she was involved in drug use.

Boyd, age 16, left home after an argument with his stepfather. The argument became physical and his stepfather punched him in the face. Boyd stormed out of the house saying he was never coming back. Before this argument there were several altercations between Boyd and his stepfather, with several resulting in his stepfather hitting Boyd with his fists or a belt. Boyd had been determined to stick it out at home because he loved his mother, but he just couldn’t take the abuse by his stepfather.

Lejeanne, age 15, ran away after she was slapped by her mother during an argument about her school grades. Lejeanne said she wasn’t going to live in a house where she was abused and she preferred to live with people who loved her and respected her. Leajeanne and her mother didn’t have many arguments, but their arguments when they occurred were often intense that often left both of their crying.

It is not uncommon for adolescents to run away from home. Often, they return home within a day or so, and the problems leading to the truancy get worked out. However, in general, teens run away from home because of communication problems between themselves and their parents.

But sometimes, as in the case of Mary Lynn, there can be other factors that lead adolescents to want to leave home. Many teens are abused by a parent. This is especially true for girls who experience physical or sexual abuse. For some, like Mary Lynn, they have difficulty making the transition to adolescence and may get involved with older boys, seek out peer relationships with negative peers, or may begin using drugs or alcohol. These same adolescents may find the rules at home too restrictive and prefer to live elsewhere so they have more freedom and independence.

Sometimes, because both the teen and his parents need a cooling off period, allowing them to spend a few days with a friend or a relative can lead to a successful reunion when they return home. This was true for Lejeanne, who accused her mother of abusing her. While their argument clearly got out of hand, there was no pattern of abuse in the relationship. When Lejeanne had a few days to calm down at her grandmother’s house, she realized this and returned home. At home both Lejeanne and her mother apologized to each other and talked about ways to keep their disagreements and arguments under better control.

But suppose your adolescent doesn’t want to return home?

This is exactly what happened with Mary Lynn.

Her mother recognized that they needed to rebuild their relationship with each other and talk about what she was experiencing and why she ran away. However, before she returned home, she began hanging with her previous friends who were older, more involved in drugs, and uninterested in school. While Mary Lynn’s mother thought they were making progress in their phone conversations, Mary Lynn told her mother she wasn’t coming back home. She said she would run away again if forced to live at home or with a relative.

When a teen is below the age of 16, they really don’t have much choice but to return home and try to work out the problems. A teen can be reported to the police as a runaway and a complaint can be filed with the juvenile court. Obviously, teens are minors and incapable of making decisions about their life. But the purpose of a police report and a juvenile court complaint is not to punish a teen or get them in trouble, but to force them to return home and for the family to get help.

A runaway adolescent should be regarded as a symptom of a family problem and the help should involve the parents and teen seeing a therapist. If you file a complaint in the juvenile court and the case is accepted, the adolescent is likely to be placed on probation with specific restrictions. Since parents can’t stop a determined teen from running away, some back-up help is needed. That’s where a juvenile court can be helpful.

Knowing your Child’s Friend’s Parents can Pay Dividends

Knowing your Child’s Friend’s Parents can Pay Dividends

When Marianne’s mother announced at dinner that she was going to the PTA meeting that night, Marianne found a time to talk with her as soon as dinner was over.

“I know you’re going to be talking to Amy’s mother at PTA tonight,” Marianne said, “so I thought I better tell you that me and Amy got in trouble at school today. And we have to serve a detention after school tomorrow.”

“Weren’t you going to tell me about it?” her mother asked.

“Yes, I probably would have sooner or later,” Marianne said. “But when I thought about you talking to Amy’s mom at PTA tonight, I thought I better tell you before she – or someone else – told you.”

Then there was Bobby. Bobby’s parents were very involved in hockey, baseball, and the school orchestra. Bobby was acutely aware that at every game and every orchestra rehearsal his mom and dad socialized with the parents of his friends.

If Bobby failed to tell his parents about a poor grade on a test, a reprimand from a teacher, or a conflict with a coach, they always heard about it from someone else.

“I might as well tell you everything first,” Bobby said to his father one day. “I know you’ll find out everything I did from someone’s mom or dad.”

When you are raising a child, no matter how good your child is or how close the relationship you and your child share, there are likely to be things that you are not told by your child. This will be particularly true when your child is an adolescent.

But that’s normal. Teenagers are breaking away from their parents and becoming more independent. They frequently withhold information or avoid answering your questions. Often, they feel that your questions about their life are meant more as interrogation than as friendly conversation.

It may that your child or teen has little to hide, yet as a parent, you may feel left out. Indeed, there may be essential things you should know that they somehow don’t get around to telling you. Consequently, to play your role as monitor and guidance counselor, you may need more information than what she’s voluntarily sharing with you.

You will increase your chances of getting vital information by maintaining relationships with other parents and even with their teachers. When your child knows you will be talking to other parents, as well as to her teacher or her principal, she may decide to tell you things first. Just like Bobby and Marianne did.

As a parent, it is reassuring to know that you’re going to learn things from someone. By having more information, no matter who that information comes from, you are in a better position to act in your child’s best interest.

It can also be reassuring to know that you can talk to other parents at school events or that you can call your child’s friend’s parents at any time to check things out.

Although your child may never admit it, it has to be reassuring for him to know he cannot get away with very much. It takes pressure off your child when they know they can’t hide their actions while hoping no one tells on them. It has to be comforting as well for a teenager to realize they can rely on you to do your part by acting on information that is readily available to help keep them in line.

When teenagers know you’re going to find out about their behavior, they are less likely to make poor decisions and betray important family values. Furthermore, it takes the guesswork out of situations for them. They don’t have to try to predict whether you’ll learn something disappointing or worrisome. They know you’ll always find out.

Finally, knowing nothing can be hidden means that they can avoid peer pressure by telling others that they can’t do something because their parents will find out. It’s a handy excuse when they want to bow out of questionable behaviors or actions.

My Advice: Don’t Ever Offer Advice to Your Teenager!

My Advice: Don’t Ever Offer Advice to Your Teenager!

If there is a good rule of thumb in parenting teenagers, it is this: Resist giving advice – even if your teen asks for your advice.

If you are the typical parent of an adolescent, I’m sure you have thought more than once about why your son or daughter never listens to you and never seems to want – or use – your great advice and well-considered suggestions.

Also, again if you are a typical parent, you probably have found it difficult on various occasions to stop yourself from giving advice when it seemed to be called for.

For example, Heidi heard her daughter Samantha talking to a friend about posting something negative on Facebook about somebody they both knew. Later, Heidi said to Samantha, “If I were you, I wouldn’t do that. You don’t know what could happen as a result of saying something about people on a social media site. It could all go horribly wrong.”

To which Samantha replied:  “Get over it, Mom, it’s just Facebook.”

And when Paul tried to give his son Eric suggestions about his basketball playing, Eric’s responses were nearly always the same: “Whatever.” And Paul never saw any indication that Eric heeded his advice.

But to not give your teen any advice, doesn’t that contradict conventional parenting wisdom? Aren’t good parents supposed to support their adolescents and communicate with them?

Well, yes, that much is true and is certainly well-founded conventional wisdom. But the next question is more important: How often do teenagers want your advice? And, as a follow up question, how often do they actually ask for your advice?

Assuming again that you are that typical parent of a teen, you might not be able to recall very many times your teen actually solicited your advice or suggestions – on any subject.  Instead, your perception is probably just the opposite. That is, while you have lots of good advice that you’re ready and willing to share with your teenager, most of the time she isn’t willing to listen to it.

Of course, there is a developmentally appropriate reason for this. Since they are becoming more independent and autonomous, they would like to feel more grownup. If they asked for your advice or took your opinion into account in making decisions, it might make them feel like a younger child – and not like the adult they aspire to be.

However, I do know that adolescents — on occasion — seek advice from their parents. There are some good reasons for this, too. One reason is that no matter how often they act like they don’t care what you think or how much stored up wisdom you have, the fact is they still do look up to you. But because of them desperately needing to break away from you and be their own person, they can’t really acknowledge this.

On the other hand, there are those times when they have a momentary loss of belief or faith in their own capabilities. They, then, may be looking to borrow your belief in them until they can restore it in themselves. However, the catch-22 here is that they can only regain faith in their own abilities by working out their own problems.

Which often means that while you should probably not waste your time giving unsolicited advice, you should also not take a teen’s request for advice too literally.

I have another rule of thumb that applies to such situations: Don’t ever give advice to your adolescent until the third time they ask for it.

If you start with “What do you think you ought to do?” or “What do you want to do?” and they give adequate responses to these questions, but they still want to know what you would recommend, you can assume they are serious and truly do want to know what you would advise.

If you follow my two rules of thumb you might find out what a parent I know discovered.  After following my rules for dealing with teenager’s requests for advice, she commented: “The less advice I offer, the more my son talks to me.”