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.
Substance use and abuse only compound all the problems. Dependency on alcohol or drugs can develop very quickly because teens don’t have the judgment to keep the level of use under control. They aren’t necessarily able to sort out that the risks of using far outweigh what they see as benefits. What starts as drinking or drugging to fit in or to dull angst or heighten feelings can develop into dependency within weeks or months. Research has shown that teen drinking and drugging can cause severe changes to the prefrontal cortex — damage that may not be reversible and that may lead to lifelong problems with goal-setting and decisionmaking that affects all areas of life.
What Parents Can Do
- Recognize that at least some of the lame-brained actions of our teens are the result of a lame brain. Explain the facts of brain development to the kids. Be clear that an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex doesn’t give kids an excuse to break rules. Instead, talk about ways they can slow down decisionmaking so a better decision gets made.
- Encourage the development of positive friendships through participation in positive group activities. Kids take their social cues from the kids they hang out with. No, you can’t choose your kids’ friends. But kids who are involved in healthy, positive activities usually find other kids who are on the positive side.
- Find healthy ways for kids to get the high of risk-taking. Participation in sports, theater or music, frequenting amusement parks, going on adventures, battling for a cause, and traveling to new places can provide the same adrenaline rush as less socially acceptable activity.
- Give kids rules to push against that won’t end in tragedy. Make a big fuss about lower-level things and you may prevent the need for higher-level rebellion. Choose things where you can engage in a struggle but ultimately let the kids “win” that won’t hurt them in the long run. Forbid certain hairstyles, hair color, or fashion, for example, and the kids may rebel by getting a purple Mohawk instead of doing more dangerous things.
- Keep things in perspective. Hair grows back. A damaged brain doesn’t.
- Don’t be afraid to be a parent. Sometimes teens are actually looking for us to say “no.” Oh, they’ll complain, yell, and whine about it. But sometimes they are secretly relieved. (See When Teens Make Bad Romantic Choices)
- Provide solid sex education by the time kids are 12. Sexual risk-taking is yet another area where adolescents can get into trouble. Have friendly talks about love, intimacy, sex, and responsibility to self and others. Set a tone where your kids can talk to you about their confusions and fears about relationships and sexuality.
- Be clear about substance use and abuse. Heavy drug and alcohol use during the teen years may cause permanent changes in the brain that will have terrible consequences on the person’s ability to succeed in school, in relationships, and in occupations later on. Address it early. The health of a kid’s brain is worth fighting about.
- Above all, be a good role model for adult behavior. Kids spot hypocrisy quickly. “Do as I say, not as I do” simply won’t work. They need to see us making good decisions, respecting the law, being responsible in our relationships with a partner, and drinking (if we do) responsibly. They need to see us engaged in activities that give us the natural highs that come with exploring new things, pushing our own limits, and accomplishing goals.