Listen: Collett Smart chats to Emma Mullings about handling a rebellious teen.
Parenting is challenging role at the best of times—but if you have a rebellious, wayward teenager, you’ve got an especially tough gig.
Late nights make you worried and exhausted, fights and hurtful words can leave you angry or heartbroken, and self- blame may set in as you try to work out ‘what went wrong’.
Family psychologist Collett Smart offered some keys for parents to handle a rebellious teenager, but first, she said, it’s important to determine whether your teen is actually rebelling, or simply going through a normal growing up process.
Rebellion vs Normal Teen Behaviour: Know the Difference
If your teenager’s pulling away from you, disconnecting, spending most of their time away from the home, and ignoring some of their childhood boundaries, that’s quite normal behaviour, says Collett.
“They’re trying to become their own person,” she explained. “It’s actually called developmental individuation. That’s the fancy term. They want to grow independent. They don’t always want to do everything their parents do. They will say no to certain things, or sometimes flat-out refuse and push a little bit.
“It’s not so positive when it’s happening in your kitchen or living room, but it’s normal for your teen to fight, and for you to lose some battles. It’s important to realise that your teen’s in the process of moving away from you.”
Rebellion, on the other hand, is a destructive process.
“You actually can watch your child destroying part of their lives and refusing to abide by any rules,” she said. “There’s often chaos in the relationships around the child. It’s when your teen really just flat-out refuses to follow any kind of advice or anything their parents try and reach out to them with.”
For parents in this situation, the following practical keys will help you navigate this season.
1 – Know That You Can’t Control Your Teen’s Choices
Like it or not, teenagers are autonomous humans who can make their own choices. It’s not your job as a parent, or even your right, to control them. It’s an important and liberating point to remember when you’re faced with a rebellious teenager.
This also means you needn’t blame yourself, or other parents, when teens go off the rails.
“We must be careful not to label ourselves as bad parents, or think, ‘look at those parents, they have a rebellious teen, they must have done something wrong’,” she said. “It’s very easy for us to become judgey.”
At the same time, though, remember that many rebellious teens have reasons for their decisions. Often they feel hurt in some way.
Knowing this will help you to have some understanding and compassion in approaching them.
2 – Don’t Give Up on Your Teenager
For a frustrated parent, giving up and walking away from your child emotionally can be the easiest solution—but it’s not helpful.
“Having a rebellious child is very tiring and stressful and you can feel very angry and frustrated, but if I can just implore parents, no matter how exhausted or disappointed you are, just be the best parent you still can be to your rebellious teen,” Collett says.
By continuing to ‘be there’ for them, this will send a message that they are loved, which is the message they need the most.
3 – Look For Opportunities to Encourage and Praise
Just as parents with toddlers take every chance to praise their child for succeeding at a task, the same principle is helpful with teenagers, says Collett.
“Tell them that you love them. Find something they’re doing well.”
“Catch your teen doing something right,” she said. “Sometimes it’s very difficult when your teen is rebellious and angry. But still tell them that you love them. Find something they’re doing well. Even if it’s as basic as them happening to unpack the dishwasher that week. You might think, ‘Well they should be, that’s their chore’. But thank them.”
“And praise your teen sometimes just for effort, not for accomplishment or being the best, but just for actually having a go at something.
“Pick times when you can just love on them.”
4 – Pick Your Battles; Let Go of Some Rules
As kids grow older and push the boundaries, it’s important to relinquish a few, says Collett.
“Around age 15 or 16 you need to back off from your teen,” she said. “Lessen some of the rules. Still have a few boundaries but really pick your battles. For example for a messy room, just shut the door for a while. Some things are not game-changers and not moral issues. Let some things go.”
5 – Don’t Get Drawn Into Yelling Matches
If you let your emotions get out of control and yell at your teenager, you’re not actually making any progress. In fact you’re shooting yourself in the foot, says Collett.
“Young people already know when they’re doing things badly or are upsetting their parents, and their motivation is sapped when they know they’re failing,” she said. “It just becomes a downwards spiral. So they have lower expectations of themselves and they just start to help less, and do less and become more stressed, and the survival instinct kicks in. So yelling doesn’t help. At that point they’re actually not even hearing you.”
Instead, wait for a moment when you can talk with your teen calmly instead, says Collett.
6 – Find Neutral Territory Where You Can Talk
If an emotional explosion with your teenager is inevitable, though, taking the discussion outside the home can help.
“Find neutral territory if you can, to talk about things,” Collett suggests. “Like a coffee shop or somewhere where you’re not at home.”
7 – Leave Little Wordless Gifts
While you may not feel like giving anything to a teenager who is breaking all the rules and taking you for granted, there is still a place for small gifts that say ‘I still love you’.
“Even if they’re out at a party and you know that they’re getting drunk, leave their favourite biscuits or chips on their bed,” Collett says. “Just little things where you can actively consciously send little messages saying, ‘I love you, I’m still here, and I still want to chat with you’.”
8 – Keep Attending Their Events
Although a rebellious teenager won’t communicate well, stay in touch with what’s happening in their school or sporting team, and continue to go along to their special events. Even if they’re likely to ignore you, it’ll send the message that you’re still around and haven’t given up on them.
“Offer to pick them up, even if they are likely to flatly say ‘no way’,” Collett suggests. “Keep offering, keep extending that olive branch, so they know that you’re still there.”
When your teen won’t talk to you, being present in the background is an alternative way to send a message of love.
9 – Respect Their Boundaries
To a moody teenager, there’s few things worse than their parent treating them like a little kid. By paying attention to their boundaries, you will communicate to your teen that you respect them and understand they are becoming an adult.
“If they say ‘I don’t want to talk’, respect that, but still keep saying ‘I’m genuinely interested in you and when you want to, I’m still here,” Collett suggests. “Even if they never actually take you up on it, they will still know that you’re still there.”
10 Look After Yourself
If you’re the frazzled parent of a rebellious teen, don’t forget to take time out for yourself. “Invest in self-care,” advises Collett.
“It’s important to have your own network, other people you can talk to, and if there’s a point where it really escalates, get help for yourself and your family. We’re quick to go to the doctor when our children’s legs are broken but we somehow don’t go for help when our family needs emotional support.”
By looking after yourself and filling your own emotional tank, you’ll be better equipped to navigate your child’s difficult teenage years much more effectively.