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 ten 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 irresponsibly. 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.