Connecting with Your “Rebellious” Teenagers
By Carol Goh | Published on 12 May 2021
Are you facing difficulty in reaching out to your teenage child? Based on my over 15 years of experiences with counselling hundreds of teenagers, I have written this article hoping to help parents to regain control of their teenage child by first shaping your understanding about teenagers from a cognitive, psychological, and emotional perspective. With this understanding, I hope this will help you, as parents, to administer the appropriate communication style that will break the ice and build the bond between you and your teenage child.
The 'problems' with teenagers today
If we were to listen to a typical conversation among parents with teenage child, it is no surprise to hear them complaining that teens today are prone to ‘talk back’, show attitude, rebellious, not respond to parents, and so on.
Parents who hold such perceptions about their teenage child will often end up feeling irritated and unwittingly lash out verbally at them. Such strong verbal lashings will only cause the teenagers to either withdraw or fight back. Over time, this develops into a vicious cycle with no solution in sight and can only worsen the parent-child relationship.
The following are what most parents and their teenage child used to describe each other during therapy sessions:
“He is always so rude and doesn’t do what I tell him to.”
“She has never bothered to help with the housework.”
“He should be thankful that I provide for him financially.”
“My parents are always ‘naggy’ and unreasonable.”
“My parents never bother to understand me and always pick fights unnecessarily.”
“My parents always like to pick on me and start a fight.”
Sounds familiar? In the language of both parties, you probably notice the use of words like ‘never,’ ‘always,’ and ‘should’. In the eyes of either parents or children, the behaviour of the other has become a negative trait that defines the person. This defined negative trait about one another interferes any logic and fact, causing them to believe they are not being appreciated despite in reality, there are many outstanding traits the parents or children may possess.
Having counselled hundreds of teens, I’ve heard so many heartfelt yet unfortunate stories. Contrary to common belief, most teens are not rebellious in nature. They do not purposely rebel and do in fact long for a close relationship with their parents. Yes, most teens I have counselled all said the same thing: they long for a close relationship with their parents. As parents, you might wonder if there is a possibility to mend the rift between you and your child. The good news is that there is, if you will read on.
"Most teens are not rebellious in nature. In fact, they long for a close relationship with their parents."
Let me introduce the TEEN model which I have developed through my years of interactions with teenagers to help you, as parents, to develop a harmonious relationship with your teenage child:
T - Think differently about teens
E - Empathise with your teens
E - Empower your teens
N - Negotiate new boundaries with your teens
T - Think differently about teens
a. Cognitive development
At this age, teens experience a growth spurt in many aspects, particularly their cognitive ability. They are better able to process complex theories and think in abstract terms.
They no longer accept things as they are and will not be content with just being told what to do. They will want to know the reason behind the instructions and entertain further alternatives to each piece of instruction.
This also brings them to question their identity and ask: “Who Am I?” Along the same lines they will also ask their parents, “Who are you?”
That does not mean they see themselves as complete strangers to their parents, but that they begin to see their parent as another human being with their own characteristics.
Their key questions are thus: “What are you made up of?” “What’s your personality and what defines you?” With that, they see both your goodness and your flaws. They grow in their powers of discernment.
b. Emotional development
We may see our teenage children as ‘emo’, but they are actually processing their own emotions. They become sensitive to their own reactions to the environment. Their range of emotions has expanded.
What previously was merely ’anger’ has now been expanded to include: hatred, outrage, bitterness, resentment, irritation, annoyance, aggression.
Parents have shared with me during therapy sessions that their child used to be so chatty, but once they hit secondary school, they zip their mouths shut, leaving parents baffled as to what has happened to their child.
c. Psychological development
They are individuating to find their own identity and that is a healthy development of teen autonomy, not to be confused with blatant rebellion. In order to individuate, they will need time to form friendships with their friends and experience the world outside.
Parents whom I have talked to express that it feels as if their teens treat their house as a hotel. To this I will assure parents that this is just a passing phase. On the contrary, if your child does not go out at all, you will have more cause to worry!
"If your teenager child stays at home all the time, it’s time to worry."
d. Social development
Having spent more time with friends sharing and exchanging ideas, they begin to see different dynamics in their friends’ families and realise that their own family might not be the norm.
I have counselled several teenagers who have been physically abused since young, and they grew up thinking that all kids go through the same treatment. It is only when they see their friends’ relationships with their parents that they realise that abuse is not the norm after all.
Social interaction fosters a sense of belonging that prepares teens to enter adult life. They have to get ready to step into the world to launch their career and be independent to survive when away from home.
Teenagers face expectations from many parties: parents, friends, teachers, and self. This is also the time their self-esteem is developed. Many teens suffered from low self-esteem at this life stage, even though some may do very well academically.
e. Moral and spiritual development
Teenagers are constantly faced with decisions on the moral and spiritual front. At the same time, they often face peer pressure on such issues which may leave them feeling torn as to what to follow.
Families with religions may find their children questioning the doctrines of their family’s faith. You may assume that they are rejecting your religion and opposing your practices. But this is a part of their cognitive development.
E - Empathise with your teens
This step will help you improve your relationships with your teenage child by stepping into your teenage child's shoes and make efforts to see the world from their perspective: the specific challenges and hope of your teenage child.
Transiting from primary to secondary school may seem no big deal to you as parents. However, for the teens, this transition can be very tough. Here are some of the common challenges faced by teens when they transit from primary to secondary school:
a. Academic challenges
Academically, they take 8-10 subjects in secondary school compared to only 4 in primary school. The content for each subject is also much more in quantity, depth and complexity. It exposed them to different subjects ranging from the humanities to the sciences. Many teens are being ‘pressured’ to choose subjects based on what parents want, not what they are good at. This is a common breaking point for teens in this season.
As parents, it is wise to be realistic about your child’s area of strength; whether your child is gifted more in arts or science. Help your child to choose the subjects based on their strengths.
b. Peer pressure
Peers become very important at this stage as they need the friendship to give them a sense of belonging which is crucial to the formation of healthy self-esteem. I have counselled many teenagers who admitted friendship issues, particularly betrayal, often troubled them.
Even though they might spend a lot of time outside with friends, do not think that they no longer find family important. This is a natural outgrowth in their growing up phase wherein they need to spend more time outside to make friends.
Self-esteem in teens is not just built on good academic results, friendship contribute a large portion.
"Self-esteem in teens is not just built on good academic results, friendship contribute a large portion."
c. Family issues
Family plays a pivotal role in their lives, even though the teens may spend more time outside of the family. It is natural when the family is going through difficult times and facing issues such as single parenting, divorce, and fighting parents; the teens are also bearing these burdens on their shoulders.
As your teenage child transit from primary to secondary school education, the number of challenges they face have more than doubled. To cope with these new challenges, your child needs your love and care, not more scolding and lashings.
"Your child needs your love and care, not more scolding and lashings."
How to empathise your teens?
The key to show love and care is to empathise with your teenage child. The key to empathising with them starts with listening without judgement.
In order to listen with no preconceived judgment pronounced upon them, you need to believe that your teens have a story to tell you. They actually do. They have beliefs, analyses, and experiences outside of what you know.
See your child as mini adults who may want to exert authority in their views without feeling belittled by adults.
Below are some notes written by teens on what they hope from their parents:
- “Talk to us often.”
- “Understand us.”
- “Trust us more.”
- “Don’t nag, don’t rake up history.”
- “Don’t berate us when we share.”
- “Talk things out so that we can both agree.”
- “Don’t adopt a superior attitude when talking to us/ don’t talk down at us.”
- “Don’t order us around. Don’t pass judgement on us too quickly without finding out more, you have preconceived ideas and merely project them onto us. Get to know the real us.”
- “I know that I’m their child, but I don’t want them to treat me like I’m a young kid. Look at me with confidence and trust and believe that I am able to achieve.”
Do you know what is the most important question on your teenagers’ mind when they are interacting with you? It’s “Do you love and accept me?” However, don’t expect your teens to ask this question directly. Teenagers often asks through their behaviour rather than through their words.
The most important question on your teenagers’ mind is “Do you love and accept me?” Teenagers often asks through their behaviour rather than through their words.
"The most important question on your teenagers’ mind is “Do you love and accept me?”"
E - Empower your teens
As teens, even though they have built up friendships with their friends, they still need you, parents, to be their strong support. In particular, in their relationship with you, 2 basic things mean a lot to them: LOVE and ACCEPTANCE.
If you have been constantly quarrelling with your child. Ask yourself: “Wait a minute. What are we fighting about? Why are we fighting? What does it mean to be part of this family?”
Teenagers need to hear that they are being loved and accepted unconditionally, to be who they are and be valued, appreciated, and adored. All these will fill up their love tank. Experts say that we need 5 positives to counteract 1 negative. Parents are the ones who have to know how to fill your teens’ love tank with lots of positives.
"Behind every young child who believes in himself is a parent who believed first."
Matthew L. Jacobson
a. Affirming your child
Another good habit to cultivate is to affirm our teenage child constantly. Many parents have asked if that would end up “over boosting” their child’s confidence resulting in arrogance. This is unlikely to happen if we offer the affirmations in a timely and relevant manner.
If parents do not speak good about their child, your child may end up seeking affirmation from undesirable sources outside of home. It is not uncommon that your child may turn to social media and connect with strangers who somehow seem to understand and can affirm them better than their parents. In more extreme cases, some teenagers may be drawn into joining gangs to receive affirmations and recognitions.
If you have more than one teenage child, do be aware that each child is unique and has different needs. Adjust your affirmations appropriately according to your respective children.
I have three beautiful daughters and their age gap is quite large. People who know about the big age gap between my second and third child often ask me if my youngest daughter is an accident, to which I would reply, “It’s a miracle, a gift from God, a treasure.”
Our replies can make a difference for our teens to know how we see them. If we carelessly use the word ‘accident’ on our children, the message to them is that they are unwanted, a burden, and not welcomed into the world.
Jane (not her real name) was conceived by her parents when they were in their late teens and were not married then. They had to get married when Jane’s grandmother found out she was pregnant with Jane. When Jane was in her teens, she recalled her mom told her she was an ‘accident’ and advised her not to make the same mistake in getting pregnant before marriage. Jane’s confidence and self-esteem was shaken ever since then, as she felt she was unwanted and not supposed to be here on earth.
This case above shows the weighty importance of our words, as our children may perceive our messages differently from what we intended. However careful we may be, we may unconsciously and unintentionally convey unintended message to them, and our children may interpret our messages negatively. When such situations happened, be quick to clarify any miscommunications and be the first to apologise if we are the guilty party.
Our children’s self-esteem is affected by our words and actions. Hence, be intentional to communicate positive affirmations to let your child know they are being loved and accepted unconditionally. Don’t assume that they know. Even if they do, it is always nice to keep hearing positive affirmations again and again.
Know the love language of your child and dish them out generously to flood their love tank so that they can face life’s challenges, knowing that they have us as their solid rock behind them. Crack their love codes to know what will touch them. It’s worth your effort!
"Know the love language of your child and dish them out generously to flood their love tank."
b. Embracing our child’s mistakes
Does your teenage child seem to be lazy with doing homework? Many children appear unmotivated when in fact they are avoiding homework to protect their egos. How’s that? Because these children associate academic failure with being ‘stupid’ leading to their not being accepted and feeling unworthy; and unable to succeed in their future career.
Their logic is: if they try and fail, it reflects their intelligence and they will not gain acceptance. If they don’t try and fail, it is not a reflection of their intelligence; it is due to lack of motivation or responsibility. These labels they can live with; but not the label “stupid” which they fear will lead to rejection and abandonment that they can’t live with.
Therefore, be prepared to embrace mistakes made by our children and not see it as a life and death issue. See mistakes made by our children as lessons to be learnt, which will eventually lead them to gain mastery over. Giving our children the freedom to fail will set them on a higher level to take risks, which will aid them in unleashing their creativity to succeed.
"See mistakes made by our children as lessons to be learnt, which will eventually lead them to gain mastery over."
N - Negotiate new boundaries with your teens
Teenagers can and want to negotiate. Now is the time to abandon your expectation of complete obedience from your children and be prepared to enter into a problem-solving process, to find middle ground and establish a win-win solution with them. However, make clear to your children that with freedom comes responsibility. We have to prepare our children to bear responsibility for making wrong decisions.
I remembered during one session, a teen was so angry with his parent’s insistence that he bravely blasted his parents: “That’s why I don’t like to talk to you adults who think that you know it all.” Forcing your teens to obey will lead to grid-lock, resulting in more anger and bitterness mount in your teens. In more serious cases, your teens may react in the form of explicit or implicit withdrawal. In this case, will you still consider the child rebelling for no reason?
Parents need to realise that your children are no longer small kids without their own thoughts and views. Parents must accept that their children have grown up and can think on their own. However, they still need us parents to be their constant support and mentor as they are learning to become an adult. In essence, they need guidance and not just blind obedience. They need our wisdom to enlighten and to help them in their journey into adult life.
"Parents must accept that their children have grown up and can think on their own."
The issues with parents
Do you have unresolved hurts?
At times, it may not be the child who is rebellious. The one with need help could be the parents. If you find yourself not being able to control your emotions and are easily triggered by the actions of your teens, that could mean that you may have unresolved issues or hurts. Such unresolved hurts could include:
- Being constantly criticised by your parents as a child
- Feeling abandoned/rejected since young
- Made to feel like a failure because of your poor results in the past
- Having suffered from unfairness and/or injustice in the past
- Feeling unworthy because of failed relationships
If you have unresolved issues, I strongly encourage you to seek help promptly and do not let your teens carry your emotional baggage. It is common that we as parents could have been hurt by our own childhood experiences.
I have counselled many adults who have recounted stories of their childhood and growing-up years wherein they were hurt by their parents and friends. Such hurts remain as scars, and if these scars are not dealt with adequately, they will be triggered and manifested in our reactions to our children.
Do not let the vicious cycle continue, for you and your child deserve a healthy relationship in order to pursue great things unhindered by your past hurts.
I like to ask parents to picture themselves in their retiring age when their children are grown up and married with children. Do you want your children to still miss you and want to visit you even after they are married? Do you want them to bring their children to visit you and call you grandpa and grandma? Start building relationships with your children now. If you are feeling you are having past issues that need to resolve, seek therapy. It is never too late to mend relationships if you will take the first step.
As someone once observed, “There are only two lasting bequests we can give our children—one is roots, the other wings.”
The best period to sink deep “roots” in our children is during their childhood when they are still depending on us to teach and model for them. Once they hit their teens, we can develop their wings by empowering them with the freedom to rise above the negative scripting that had been passed down to us.
With the right attitude, any parents can help their teens to fly higher and further.
1. Forgiving Our Parents Forgiving Ourselves by David Stoop
2. How to Really Love Your Child by Ross Campbell
3. How to Talk so Kids Will Listen by Adele Faber
4. Non-Violent Communication by Dr Marshall Rosenberg
5. Parenting From the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel
6. Why Do They Act That Way by David Walsh
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