Rebel with a Cause

The intoxicating nature of freedom—and the fear of losing it—can lead even good kids to choices that look like recklessness and rebellion, but directly addressing their craving for independence will help them build responsibility.

Do you know that our teens are addicted?  They really are.  The facts is, even if our kids have never touched an addictive substance, they're still hooked on something with a high far greater than anything a basement lab can conjure up.

This intoxicating agent is called freedom.  And as it turns out, a lot of behavior that confuses and alarms parents can be tied directly to a child's desperate quest for the rush of freedom—and to his fear of losing it.

Before we understood this, we were puzzled by exchanges like the following, in which a sixteen-year-old boy passionately complained about how he was being disciplined.

Him:  "I hate when my parents take away my stuff, especially my cell phone or my computer.  It's so unfair!"

Us:  "Do you think you didn't deserve that punishment?"

Him:  "I don't know.  Maybe.  But they just can't do that.  That's my cell phone, man!  That's my computer!  They can't just take it away!"

After hearing this a few dozen times, we realized these comments signaled something beyond a teenager's obliviousness to the fact that Mom and Dad paid for the cell phone.

Freedom Is Like Cocaine

Enter Dr. Julie Carbery, adolescent and child psychotherapist, who has seen and heard it all in her twelve years of practice.  We turned to her for help in identifying patterns in the teenage passions we were hearing.  When we asked what was going on with this outraged sixteen-year-old and his fellow sufferers, she didn't hesitate.

"What's going on is freedom.  Freedom is cocaine to a teenager.  It's intoxicating.  It's addictive.  And it if often their biggest motivator.  They will do anything to get it, and they are terrified of losing it.  This cell phone kid is really saying, ‘Don't you take away my cocaine!  Don't you take away my freedom!"

Eyes:  open!
Once our eyes were opened, we watched in amazement at how often that addictive quest for freedom explained the motives and behaviors of the kids we talked to.  "Addictive" may sound like an exaggeration, but look at how one representative high-school sophomore explained the feeling of freedom:  "Once you have it, you can't get enough.  Once you taste it, you want more and more."  He concluded, "I can't imagine being super-controlled anymore."

Almost all the kids we talked with described a desperate pursuit of the ability to control their own possessions, choose their own friends, stay up late, sleep over at any friend's house whenever they want, eat or drink what they want, drive where they want at the speed they want, and generally make their own choices apart from even the most well-intentioned parents.

This craving was demonstrated in our national survey, in which nearly three out of four kids said they were strongly motivated to pursue freedom, and only a tiny fraction didn't really care about having freedom at all. 

Is freedom something that motivates you and that you eagerly want?  (For example, the ability to have your own cell phone, drive yourself places to do what you want to do, and so on.)  Choose one answer.

72%   Yes, I feel like I have to have that freedom; I'm strongly motivated to pursue it.

27%   Yes, the idea of having that freedom is good, but I'm not strongly motivated to go after it.

1%    No, I don't really care about having freedom.

In other words, freedom is not just a big deal to kids; it's what gets them up and going in the morning.  (Or noon.)