Feature Archive

Teenagers: Why Do They Rebel?

Pressures Come Earlier, When Kids Can't Say No

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

Driving fast, breaking curfew, arguing, shoplifting. Teenagers can push your patience, but unfortunately, some kids go as far as blatantly flouting rules or breaking the law, often with tragic results. What's with this rebellious streak? How can parents funnel it into less risky business?

All teens go through similar phases -- the need for independence, a separate identity, testing authority. It's part of growing up; it's also linked to developmental changes in the brain that will eventually help them become analytical adults.

But today's teens get an extra whammy -- social pressures come earlier than in previous generations.

To understand this complex picture, WebMD turned to two of the nation's experts.

David Elkind, PhD, is the author of All Grown Up and No Place to Go, and is a professor of child development at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. Amy Bobrow, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and professor in the Child Study Center at New York University School of Medicine in Manhattan.

Brain: Under Construction

During the teenage years, the area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex is developing. This is the part of your brain that is behind your forehead. It's your thinking cap and judgment center, Elkind explains, which means kids can now develop their own ideals and ideas.

Whereas younger children don't see the flaws in their parents, adolescents suddenly see the world more realistically. "They construct an ideal of what parents should be, based on their friends' parents, on media parents. When they compare their own parents to the ideal, they find them wanting. Their parents don't know how dress, walk, talk; they're embarrassing," he tells WebMD.

All the arguments -- they're also the result of the prefrontal cortex at work, Elkind says. As a child evolves into a teenager, the brain becomes able to synthesize information into ideas. Teens want to exercise their new skill -- and they tend to practice on their parents. "It may seem that they argue for the sake of arguing. But really, they're practicing their new abilities."

Going Social

Whereas wild clothes and make-up used to be a rite of passage into adolescence, that's not true today, says Elkind. The preadolescent 11- and 12-year-olds -- the Britney Spears generation -- are pushing that fashion envelope.

Body piercing, tattoos, and music are today's "markers" of adolescence. "No self-respecting 15-year-old is going to listen to Britney Spears," he says.

Another dynamic: first love, first sex, first drugs, first drinking. In earlier generations, kids weren't expected to be sexually active -- or experiment with alcohol or drugs -- until they turned 17 or 18, when they were better able to resist peer pressure, says Elkind. "Now they're getting pressure at 13 and 14, when they're too young to resist. It's not that child development has changed, it's that the demands are coming at earlier ages."

The Truth About Statistics

Yet it is a myth that all teenagers are big risk-takers, says Bobrow at New York University.

  • Over half of teenagers will experiment with alcohol, which means nearly half will not.
  • Roughly 40% of teenagers will try drugs at least once, which means 60% will not.
  • Even fewer teens regularly use illegal substances -- less than 25% of those who try them -- which means the majority do not.

"Parents are concerned that kids who try drugs use them on a regular basis, but that isn't always the case," she tells WebMD.

Indeed, there's evidence of a decline in teenage sexual experimentation, says Elkind. The pregnancy rate has gone down. "I'm not sure if it's threat of AIDS or sex education. At any rate, those signs are good," he says. "Also, laws in many states require parental consent laws for an abortion. That may have contributed."

Also, teen crime statistics have stabilized, although they have taken a different twist. "We're finding that girls are involved in the same crimes as boys are, like armed robbery," says Elkind. "Girls are involved in carjacking, car stealing, which used to be exclusively boy crimes."

Unfortunately, Elkind adds, the rates of sexually transmitted disease have not declined among teenagers.

Of course, the fact that all teenagers aren't as wild as some people imagine doesn't necessarily help create peace in your home. Even the most balanced teenagers are arguing and challenging their parents, sometimes on a daily basis.

So what can you, the parent, do to keep your relationship strong during these turbulent years?

Spend time together, say the experts.

  • Offer to drive. You'll learn a lot about your teenager and her friends if you drive the kids home from a concert or a dance.
  • Watch TV or a video together. "I think a lot of parents don't feel comfortable bringing up some issues," says Bodrow. "TV or a movie can provide great jumping-off material -- a good opening for parents to open up a subject they need to discuss."

"The bottom line is communication -- and not just at times of disapproval, discipline," says Bodrow. "Make sure you communicate with your child when you're proud, when he did a good job. It's important to balance that out. Otherwise, it becomes 'why are you always nagging me, always on my back.'"

Published Aug. 11, 2003.


SOURCES: David Elkind, PhD, author of The Hurried Child and All Grown Up and No Place to Go; former chairman of child development, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston. Amy Bobrow, PhD, clinical psychologist, Child Study Center, New York University School of Medicine, Manhattan.

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