Two teens spray-painted graffiti in big red letters on the back of a local apartment building. They were caught quite literally “red-handed” by police — the paint was still covering their hands when they were nabbed.
A mom, out shopping with her teenage daughter at Walmart, was surprised to hear herself being paged and asked to come to the store office. Filled with anxiety that something had happened to her daughter, she rushed to the office. There she found a sheepish but belligerent girl sitting in front of the desk with cosmetics and some costume jewelry piled in front of her. The security officer explained that she had been caught on camera stuffing the items in her purse.
When her parents left for a long-awaited week away, another teen invited a few friends over to have a few beers and watch The Bachelorette. One friend texted another who texted another who texted another. You can guess what happened. When the police arrived there were over a hundred kids in the house and yard having a party. The teen who started it all was both scared and relieved when the police arrived.
When asked by bewildered and angry parents why they would do such things, they gave the usual set of replies and excuses, ranging from denial to blame-shifting to protests that their parents were overreacting. “Everyone else does.” “It would be fine if you hadn’t found out.” “I don’t know how that happened.” “It’s no biggie.” “No one told me I couldn’t.”
Needless to say, police and parents were unimpressed. Why would smart kids do such stupid things? Why would essentially good kids go so far over the limits that they found themselves mixed up with the law?
Understanding Teen Rebellious Behavior
New technologies are helping us understand that the brains of kids under about 21 are still developing. Sadly for the adults who are trying to keep them safe, it’s the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that involves judgment, impulse control, planning, and predicting consequences that lags behind the rest. Teens can’t reliably anticipate when a decision might be a bad one. Things can seem like a perfectly good idea at the time, especially if the other kids are doing it – until they’re confronted with the reality of negative consequences.
Excitement-seeking, rebelliousness against authority and increased risk-taking are the usual manifestations of the changing adolescent brain. Teens are hardwired (or haywired) to look for intense experiences. Scary movies, roller coasters, passionate love, petty crime, and high drama are made for them. Add the hormonal surges of adolescence and you have kids who are hungry for big feelings. And fear (whether from being on the top of a roller coaster or about being caught doing something they know they shouldn’t do) produces some of the biggest feelings of all. Remember fight or flight? The whole body gets ready for something really big to happen. It’s a high!
That high may be fed by the group. They egg each other on. They cheer for those brave enough to push the limits of the social rules. Once they get caught up in crowd-think, it’s as if they no longer have minds of their own. If everyone else is doing it, it must be okay. Even if it isn’t okay, it’s more okay than standing out by standing up for what’s right. There’s social pressure to be cool, to do what the other kids are doing, to not be a wuss.