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.)

"Freeedooommm!"
At the end of the last day of school last year, I (Lisa) watched in amusement as the doors to the high school flew open and the kids erupted with their arms raised, yelling the Braveheart battle cry.  "Freeedooommm!"

It appears that war-painted William Wallace's epic passion for freedom lives on in our very own rosy-cheeked offspring.  As our teens experience their first exhilarating rush of freedom, they realize it feels insanely good.  Once they taste it, they want more.  And more.

"It gives me such a sense of power."
People who use drugs or alcohol are seeking a temporary, exhilarating high—often described as the feeling of being able to do things they normally couldn't.  Our kids are getting the same rush, but in a good way.  They're experiencing the thrill of freedom, of being liberated to do things on their own, often for the first time!

Keep in mind that for their whole lives our children have been dependent on us in countless ways.  If your daughter wanted to go to the movies, she had no way to get there without you.  If your son desperately wanted to play on the soccer team, he had to rely on you for the necessary money and transportation.  Even if your daughter simply wanted to talk with a friend about homework, she first had to be sure you didn't need the house phone at that moment.  And if you suddenly did need to make a call, she has to wrap up her conversation. 

You can see why finally being able to do things on their own is such a thrill for our kids.  Look how passionately several teenagers described their relief at no longer being dependent:

  • It took me three years to save up for my car, and now that I have it, I feel so released.  Whenever it's stressful around the house, I just take off and drive, top down, wind blowing, music blaring and everything's better.  I feel sorry for my friends that don't have wheels.  I'll do anything to make sure I've got my own car handy."
  • It gives me such a sense of power to be able to schedule my own time and do what I want" (emphasis ours).
  • There was such tension building up inside me before I got my license, like I was ready to explode from having to depend on someone else to get me places.  I'm much more relaxed now.

"I felt like a real person."
Freedom not only gives your child the powerful relief of no longer being dependent, it also gives him the thrill of being an independent agent out there in the world as his own person, without having life filtered through you as the middleman.  Consider this revealing comment:  "When I finally got my own cell phone, everything changed.  I felt like a person, suddenly connected directly to my friends and the world through phone calls and text messages.  I can't imagine living without that."

Once a kid enjoys the entrancing feeling of being a "real person," you can see how scary it would be to think of losing that feeling.

"I should be able to make my own decisions."
Kids who begin to feel they don't need a physical middleman anymore (a.k.a. Mom or Dad) quickly begin to resist and resent being controlled by that middleman as well.  Look at the telling way one teen describes this frustration:

It makes me mad when my parents try to control who I talk to at night on the cell phone.  I mean, if I'm keeping my grades up, why should they care if I stay up late talking and lose a little sleep?  I have to keep up with my friends, or I go nuts.  The decision should be up to me.

The Five Facts of Freedom

When we see our teens pushing the independence envelope, taking foolish risks, evading straight answers, or breaking rules, we often chalk it up to peer pressure, media influence, and even rebellion—and we come down hard.  Sometimes, obviously, there is a rebellious heart that needs to be dealt with, and lowering the boom may be necessary.  But if we can spot the much more common signs of a spirit that is simply straining for a healthy freedom (albeit imperfectly), we can guide our child's quest in ways that are healthy instead of counterproductive—helping them learn responsibility instead of triggering their sense of desperation.

We found five often-overlooked truths about this freedom-seeking aspect of a child's inner life.

Fact #1:  Freedom wields a greater influence than parents or peers. 
Over the years, many studies (and parents!) have asked whether parents or peers exert a bigger influence on kids' behavior.  Our research convinced us that this question misses the main point.  When freedom is added to the mix, it seems to far outstrip the influence of any person.  Look at the astounding survey results.

When you do something that your parents would disapprove of, what is the best description for the reason that you do it?  Choose one answer.

6%      I'm just doing what my friends want me to do.
89%   I'm just pursuing my freedom and my ability to do what I want to do.
4%    I'm just being rebellious against my parents.

*Note:  Because of rounding, numbers don't quite total 100%.

Nine out of ten kids said that when they do something questionable, it's not primarily because of peer pressure or because they are rebelling against parents; it's because they are pursuing their freedom and their ability to do what they want to do.  And although parents with strong faith beliefs might wish otherwise, this dynamic wasn't markedly different among kids who described themselves as Christians attending church every week.

It's all about doing what they want.
We heard from the kids that although both peer pressure and parental expectation have influence, neither is usually the motivator that freedom is.  Peer or parental pressure is imposed from the outside, while the desire for freedom comes from the inside.  When the two are in conflict, the internal "want" often wins. 

For example, on girl described a typical peer-pressure situation:  a school dance, where she didn't want to "dirty dance" with a guy, but her close friend did.  The first girl repeatedly told her friend it wasn't cool and asked her not to dance that way—but it didn't matter.  The friend did as she wanted—and accepted that the first girl would be upset with her for a while.  At that moment, the opinion of her peer was a lesser factor than doing what she wanted to do; in other words, a lesser factor than freedom.

They also realize they can.
Allied to the powerful pressure of wanting to do something is the potent realization that they can.  We talked to do many "good" kids who confessed to doing at least some things that their parents wouldn't approve of.  They described the intoxicating realization that, physically, they could do what they want to do—because no one could really stop them.

On our survey, nearly seven out of ten kids admitted they would find a way to do something they wanted to do, even if their parents might disapprove.

Think of something that you really want to do that your parents might disapprove of.  Which statement most closely describes you?  Choose one answer. 

22%   If I want to do something, I will usually find a way to do it, no matter what my parents think or say.

47%   If I want to do something, I will usually find a way to do it … although I'd hope my parents wouldn't think I was being too bad.

31%   Even if I really want to do something and even if my parents would never know, I generally don't do it if they would disapprove.

Here's what one representative teenage guy told us:  "I'll stop at nothing to get my way.  I might make a slight modification based on my parents' wishes, but yeah, I'll do what I want."

This is the stark truth:  Short of locking our teenagers in their rooms day and night, there is almost no way to physically prevent them from doing what they want to do.  And they know it. 

Now, most of the kids in our survey consoled themselves with the hope (perhaps wishful thinking!) that their parents wouldn't think they were being too bad.  In other words, although most kids still care what their parents think, less than a third will let it stop them from doing something they want to do.

We should, however, mention one heartening exception.  In most cases, the focus groups and survey found very few differences between kids who had a strong faith influence and those who didn't.  But this is one of the few cases in which a difference did jump out at us:  kids in private Protestant Christian schools were almost the reverse of those in any other kind of school (public, Roman Catholic, and other private academies).  Among the small number of kids attending private, Protestant Christian schools (6 percent of our sample), nearly two-thirds would stop themselves from doing something they wanted to do if they felt their parents would disapprove.

Fact #2:  Under the influence of freedom, kids may do stupid things.
Like addicts under the influence of a real drug, kids high on the thrill of freedom may be not be thinking clearly.  To complicate matters, it's not just the high of freedom at work. 

It turns out—and we say this as respectfully as possible—our teens are not only addicted; they are also brain deficient.  Science demonstrates that the frontal lobe of the brain—the area that allows judgment of consequences and control of impulses—doesn't fully develop until after the teen years.  So in the absence of a fully functioning frontal lobe, teenage brains rely more on the centers that control emotion—which in effect means they give in much more easily to impulses.

Teenagers also subconsciously believe they are invincible, that nothing bad will happen if they drive too fast in the rain, become sexually involved, or get drunk and go swimming in the lake with their friends.

So kids who are operating under the influence of freedom, feel they are invincible, and suffer from incomplete brain wiring will sometimes disregard rules and consequences to do really stupid things. 

We asked every focus group this question:  "What if a hidden camera followed you and your friends for one week?"  Without exception, every teenager gasped or groaned.  When we pressed for details, almost every child provided examples of using bad language, lying, smoking, cheating, experimenting with sex, breaking curfew, or driving recklessly.

Trying not to gasp ourselves, we asked the kids, "Why do you do these things?"

The typical answer (again):  "Because we want to, and we can."  (And, brain scientists would add, because their brains are not yet wired to easily stop themselves!)

Now, before we move on, remember that we are not excusing poor choices.  But this does help us understand why those poor choices sometimes get made.

Read more next week in Part 2 ...

*This article first published September 28, 2007.


Excerpted from For Parents Only © 2007 by Veritas Enterprises, Inc.  Used by permission of WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.  Excerpt may not be reproduced without prior written consent.

Shaunti Feldhahn is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, public speaker, and a best-selling author whose books include For Women Only.  After working on Wall Street and Capitol Hill, this mother of two not applies her analytical skills to illuminating surprising truths about relationships.

Lisa A. Rice is the associate editor of Christian Living magazine, the mother/foster mom of three teenage girls and one teenage boy, and an experienced screenwriter and producer.  She's also the coauthor, with Shaunti, of For Young Women Only and a movie reviewer for Crosswalk.com.