Teens and Defiance

As with all the other phases of childhood, some defiance is a normal part of teen behavior. A child displays most normal defiance during the toddler and teen years. What causes this? Why do teenagers sometimes seem so blockheaded?

Inside the Teen Mind

Have you ever seen the bumper sticker that says, “Attention teenagers! Quick — leave home while you still know everything!” or heard people complaining about the thick-headedness of teens? There's a good reason for this: physical maturity is complete before mental maturity. If you're frustrated with your teen, it may help to know that even though you have this apparently full-grown person in your home — someone who's capable of driving a car, pushing a lawn mower, holding down a job, being sexually active — the kid's brain is not done developing. Teens are capable of rational thought, but they can't always map out consequences of their behaviors. That leads them to act impulsively and do things that seem, well, stupid.


Incidentally, maturing physically before maturing cognitively has helped the human race reproduce. Teens are capable of having sex before they are capable of thinking through the consequences of sex. If it were the other way around — if you could understand sexuality and its consequences before you were sexually mature — there would be fewer teen pregnancies, and probably fewer humans.

You'll probably be less frustrated with your teen if you remember that she is not yet cognitively mature, and that you need to help her become so. Before she does something “stupid” (that is, something that seems stupid to an adult who has a better ability to grasp probable outcomes), stop her and prompt her to start thinking about consequences. You can ask, “What do you think about driving without a seatbelt? What do you think might happen?” or “Okay, I hear you say you don't want to go to college. Can you add up how much money you would make working at the surf shop or phone store or McDonald's per month, and how much your expenses would be if you lived on your own?” Involve your teen in cognitive processes instead of jumping straight to the conclusion and insulting the teen with, “That's stupid! Why aren't you thinking?”

As you've read, quite a bit of defiance is normal in teens. That's because teens are carving out their identity and defining themselves both as individuals and as members of their peer group, whether that peer group is the punk rock girls at school, the Sims players online, or vegetarians in general. It makes teens feel very good to stand up and say, “Hello, world! This is who I am!” even if they don't really know who they are yet. Expect your teen to “try on” several different identities before she finds the right fit. Carving out an identity as an individual also means gaining independence, so you'll have battles over things like curfew, screen time, freedom, and such issues as whether music with suicidal overtones is against the rules.

Rites of Passage

Teens need some recognition for their coming of age. The introduction of this book explained that the absence of a larger “tribal” family unit might make it more difficult for parents to cope with defiance. It can also do away with the rites of passage humanity has often celebrated throughout history, and which help people feel comfortable about having new roles in different phases of life. These days you aren't going to send your son out into the forest for a week or announce the onset of your daughter's menstruation with a big party (she's probably grateful to be spared this).

While some religions and cultures still do celebrate bar/bat mitzvahs, first communions, and quinceañeras, mainstream Western culture has lost many of its rite of passage rituals, so you'll need to recognize your child's step-by-step maturity with increased privileges, responsibilities, and lots of love and affirmation. You might find your teen will be proud and more pleasant to live with if you recognize her not just for her accomplishments, but for her coming of age in various steps: starting high school, learning to drive, getting a driver's license, making a varsity team, being in a college-prep course, graduating from high school, and so on.

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