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Parenting Teenagers

Is My Teen’s Behavior Normal?

By Mark Gregston

Contributing Writer


The culture has changed, but teenagers haven’t.  They are still focused on trying to fit in with their peers and to make sense out of life.  But parents can get confused by their changes in attitude and the independence they seek, assuming their teenager is becoming rebellious.

It’s normal for teenagers to fail to do their chores without 10 reminders, to put off their homework, to be emotional, to lose important things, to like music that is too loud, and to sometimes counter or question authority.  That’s all pretty typical, though it can be aggravating to parents.

To compare, let’s look at what’s abnormal . . . sudden profound changes in personality, angry outbursts of profanity, extreme disrespect for people and things, addictions, sudden failing grades, not sleeping or sleeping too much, extreme weight loss, eating disorders, self-harm, running away, or self-imposed isolation.

Do you see the difference?  Normal stuff has to do with being distracted, ditsy, trying to fit in, or flapping their wings of independence. It passes in time, as the teen matures. Abnormal behavior and true rebellion is represented by a growing darkness, hatred, and anger in their soul, which tends to only get worse over time.

A young man we worked with described his own experience from normal to abnormal behavior this way. He said, “I felt like the things I was doing were pretty normal—schoolwork was boring. I often fought with my sister and spent most of my time hanging with my friends. But when my relationship with my parents soured, I began to think things were never going to get any better. I became suicidal. I intentionally got bad grades and got in trouble over little things, like going out with friends when I wasn’t supposed to. Then, one day in the middle of a fight, I started cussing out my parents really bad. I had never done that before, and I knew something wasn’t right, and getting worse.”

Rebellion can be a sign that something is seriously wrong in the relationship or that there has been damage to the teen’s feelings of value and self-worth. Another common cause for rebellion is when a teen is trying to exert their independence in a home where independence is not allowed. They feel boxed in, so they tend to explode. The best thing to do when you see rebellion in your teen is to first look at what may be impeding your relationship. Could it be that you are still treating them like a child and need to give them a few more freedoms?  Or, has something happened in your child’s life, even unbeknownst to you, that is affecting them?

A lady called me the other day.  She said, “I’m struggling with my daughter who has suddenly become rebellious.  For instance, she was to meet me after the third quarter of the basketball game, but she didn’t show up until after the fourth quarter and had gone to her locker, which I told her was off limits for the evening.”  The mother was quite dismayed, wondering if she should get her daughter into counseling or send her to a therapeutic program like Heartlight for her “rebellion.”

My response was, “I really don’t think she is being rebellious. Yes, she is forgetful and acting irresponsible. She is impulsive and maybe gets a little distracted, but it doesn’t seem as though it was an intentional plan on her part to make you upset or go against your rules.”  I went on to give her some ideas for helping remind her teen of the rules and established timetables.

Kids forget stuff.  They get distracted.  And by definition, they are still a bit irresponsible. Part of the new “normal” today is the shorter attention spans of young people. Yes, they need to obey the rules and remain inside the boundaries you have set, but I want to encourage you to put their behavior into the context of their lives and not label them as a rebel just because they are acting like a teenager. Parents need to recognize the difference between a distracted or foolish child and one who is making a bold “You can’t tell me what to do!” statement. Though both may seem rebellious, only the latter is trying to be.

Apply Boundaries and Consequences

When I was a teen, consequences for my “rebellion” usually took the form of my dad taking off his belt and whacking me. I’m not suggesting that for your teen (or for any teen). In fact, there is no need to use corporal punishment on a teenager who has the ability to reason and control their own behavior without the sting of physical pain. However, there needs to be some “hurt” when they cross the important lines. For instance, turn off their computer, unplug the television, take away their car keys, or ground them for a week. If you have a good relationship and you’ve clearly identified the boundaries, they’ll be expecting some form of punishment. After all, they made the conscious decision to step over the line. Grounding them for a week can actually be a time where you can build your relationship; you can use the time to do things together. Express value to them and sorrow that they have to suffer the consequences, even as they are in the midst of experiencing it.

I sometimes say it this way, “You’re sixteen. I’d like to treat you that way, but if you insist on being treated like you’re 12, I will! But you won’t like it because you’ll only have the privileges of a 12 year old.”  To that end, perhaps the biggest tool in a parent’s arsenal of consequences today is taking away a cell phone.  (I had a parent say, “My child doesn’t have a cell phone,” to which I replied, “Give them one so you can take it away.”)  That’s an amazing way to change their behavior.

Don’t over-react or get upset.  Kids change because of relationship, not due to your shaming them or your anger.  Anger just shifts the attention away from their behavior, causing them to reflect anger right back at you.  Shaming them just makes them feel like there is no hope of ever pleasing you.  Instead, demonstrate your love by keeping your cool and keeping to the plan for applying appropriate consequences.  And never cave in or lessen the consequences.  That just backfires in the end, causing you to have to apply even more severe consequences later.

The important thing to do is to differentiate between normal and abnormal. If it’s normal stuff, strengthen your boundaries and apply consequences. If your teen’s behavior has become dark, secretive, explosive, or otherwise abnormal, it’s time that you get them in to see a counselor.  Consequences may have no effect on such a teen.  As I’ve pointed out, deep rebellion usually has deep causes, and it can take a lot of digging by a trained counselor to get to the root of it.

Restore Your Teen

I’ve worked with thousands of teenagers who have fallen short in life, but I truly believe I have never met a bad kid.  Most have broken just about every rule in the book.  As a result, many of them think they have messed up so bad that no one—not even their parents or God—loves them any more.  They’ve developed a “what’s the use of trying” attitude, which has gotten them into even more trouble.  That thinking needs to be turned around before they will turn around.  Where could they have gotten such an idea that they are “bad” beyond repair?  Could it be how you or others have responded to them?

Psalm 71:20 says, “Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up.”  

It’s crucial that we never make our kids think they are damaged goods or black sheep.  Rather we must love them unconditionally, even through the disappointments and struggles.  Think of it this way . . . instead of yelling at them for falling in a hole, it’s much more productive to lower a ladder, climb into the hole and show them the steps to get out.


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