To many, Holden Caulfield, the 16-year-old protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, is the epitome of teenage anger and rebellion.
After he's kicked out of school for poor grades, Holden begins a three-day exploration of the ups and downs of life in New York City. Holden's often-moody demeanor and reckless series of choices frequently strikes a chord with teenagers who read the novel. They understand Holden's confusion about growing older. They understand his choices to drink and pretend to act as an adult. They understand that he doesn't want to face his parents, and the resulting punishment he'll receive for his expulsion from school.
For many teenagers, Holden's rebellious acts make perfect sense as a way to express freedom and pull away from the values society attempts to instill in them. To gain freedom in life, some teens rebel against the authority figures in their lives. For some teens, this could include experimentation with drugs or alcohol, while others rebel by skipping class, or listening to music their parents don't approve of.
In a way, it is a very normative behavior that most teens go through. Yet while many teens make it through the tough parts of adolescence, teen rebellion has serious consequences for some.
Reasons for Teen Rebellion
According to “Theories of Adolescent Risk-taking Behaviors” from The Handbook of Adolescent Health Risk Behavior, risky, rebellious behaviors often earn teens acceptance and respect from their peers. For more information see adolescence developmental psychology.
Authors Vivian Igra and Charles E. Irwin describe that risk-taking behaviors usually display a “developmental trajectory,” increasing as a teenager grows older. For example, rates of sexuality, reckless vehicle use, and substance use increase with age.
According to the book, parents should view acts of rebellion as part of the transition to adulthood, and that actions that might seem rebellious or dangerous at age 12, such as sexual activity, might be normal parts of behavior at age 20.
Results from the CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey:
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is a nationwide survey administered to all high school students to gauge risky behaviors of today’s teens:
- 69.5% of students rode bikes, 84.7% didn't wear helmets.
- 9.7% of students didn't wear seat belts in cars.
- 46.7% of students reported trying cigarettes.
- 72.5% of students had at least one drink in their lives, 41% of students had a drink in the past 30 days.
- 24.2% of those students reported drinking five or more drinks in a row.
- 36.8% of students reported using marijuana once.
- 20.8% of students reported marijuana use in the past 30 days.
- 46% of students reported having sexual intercourse
source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2009 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey
When analyzing teenage rebellion, there are a number of factors that dictate how and when a teenager rebels. For example, the social status of an adolescent, and his or her self-esteem, has significant impact on how he or she views rebellious behavior.
Psychological Reasons for Teen Rebellion
In the case of some teenagers, rebellious behaviors stem from the desire to conform to peer groups. And for teenagers with low self-esteem, this urge is often intense.
Consider an average 13-year-old boy who has recently moved to a new neighborhood. The boy was recently uprooted from the home he had grown up in, and has found it difficult to meet new friends. But a group of boys in the neighborhood have recently expressed interest in playing sports with him, and he is eager to fit into this group.
One night, the group of boys come over to his house, convincing him to come out and play basketball at a court down the street. But instead, they decide to vandalize another house in the neighborhood with toilet paper. The boy knows it's wrong to vandalize the house, but his desire to fit into the group persuades him to participate in this rebellious act.
According to “The Longitudinal Study of Self-esteem: Implications for Adolescent Development,” published in The Journal of Youth and Adolescence, teenagers with low self-esteem have more of a tolerance for deviant behavior associated with teen rebellion.
The study, conducted by Marc A. Zimmerman and others, examined 1,160 adolescents and asked questions such as, “Is it okay to go to a movie instead of studying for a test?” and, “Is it okay to skip school?”
The study found that students with lower self-esteem than others were more likely to say yes to these questions, and that alcohol use also increased among these students. Zimmerman's study suggests substance use is directly linked to self-esteem for both boys and girls, but in different ways.
Adolescent boys are more likely to use alcohol to help cope with declining self-esteem, while girls are more likely to use it to maintain high self-esteem they gain from their social groups. For example, girls who gain high self-esteem during adolescence typically do so by engaging in social networks. If drinking plays a large part among these networks, girls are likely to keep drinking.
The study hypothesizes that students who don’t drink and have high self-esteem develop skills to cope with the pressures of adolescence, and that many of these skills are gained through strong family support.
Impact of Family on Troubled Teens
The dichotomous nature of adolescence causes teenagers to desire freedom from their parents, while also craving their acceptance and support. While the influence of parents as role models wanes during the teenage years, strong family support is still a deeply important part of teenage development.
In, “Parents, Siblings, and Peers: Close Social Relationships and Adolescent Deviance,” published in The Journal of Early Adolescence, researchers examined the influence of family and sibling relationships on behavior usually associated with rebellious behaviors, such as substance use, ignoring authority figures, sexual activity, and cheating on tests.
The study, conducted by researchers Monika Ardett and Laurie Day, looked at 121 families and found that teenagers with strong parental support were less likely to engage in rebellious behavior, even if their friends are considered rebellious. Each family was questioned about relationships between parents and children, including factors like problem solving within the family and discipline consistency.
The study found that teenagers without adult supervision engaged in more risky behaviors, while the teenagers who received consistent, but fair, discipline engaged in less risky behaviors. The study suggests that parents who are authoritative (demanding, and also responsive with punishments), are much more effective than parents who are authoritarian (demanding, but unresponsive with punishments).
A teenager who is used to absolute independence from parents would most likely not listen to those parents if they decided to threaten him or her with consequences for poor choices.
For example, a teenage boy sneaks out of his house to go to a friend's party. The teen's parents are inconsistent about rules and punishments, so the teen does not fear repercussions for his actions.
If his parents caught and tried to punish him, he would most likely ignore any threats of future consequences because he does not respect his parents. To him, the consequences would seem out of place, and random coming from his easygoing parents, and he wouldn't take future threats of consequences seriously.
But if a teen knew that his or her parents would apply a consequence for sneaking out to drink with friends, the teen is much more likely to not engage in that behavior in the first place. But even when a teenager receives support from parents and family members, there are underlying reasons the teen might make poor choices.
Biological Reasons for Rebellion
Looking at the actions of some teenagers, many parents think, “How could my teenager make such a dumb choice? Wasn't he thinking? Didn’t I provide a better role model?”
The good news is that it might not have been poor parenting that drove the child to make a rebellious decision, but rather normal differences in brain development between adults and adolescents.
The study “Risk-taking in Adolescence: New Perspectives from Brain and Behavioral Science,” published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, states that risk-taking and rebellious behaviors are linked to the development of logical-reasoning abilities in teenagers.
Conducted by researcher Laurence Steinberg, the study states that the logical-reasoning abilities of teenagers tend to develop fully by age 15, but the psychosocial controls – emotion regulation, impulse control, resistance to peer influence, and delay of gratification – don't fully develop until age 25. This suggests that teenagers are almost hardwired to make more risky decisions and participate in behaviors their parents deem unacceptable.
The area of the brain that regulates reward information and emotions becomes more sensitive during puberty, causing teens to spend less time analyzing the risks of a situation.
So when a teenager runs a red light to make it to a friend's house a little early, it's probably because the lateral pre-frontal cortex, the brain area responsible for planning and analyzing risks, hasn’t become fully developed. But the good news is as a teenager ages, he or she is more likely to examine the consequences of their actions before making a choice, leading to more successful choices in the long run.
Helping Rebellious Teenagers
Teenagers who engage in risky behaviors to rebel might face repercussions from the law or problems with health later in life. To ensure a teen develops in healthy ways, professionals like counselors and psychologists provide guidance during adolescence.
For more information on helping rebellious teenagers through the turmoil of adolescence, request information from schools offering degree programs in Mental Health Counseling or psychology.
Managing Teen Rebellion
Some parents make the mistake of essentially “giving in” to a teenager's rebellious behavior. They feel their “out-of-control teen” is helpless and that by ignoring the issue, it will disappear.
These parents might essentially be counting down the hours until their child turns 18, just so they can get him or her out of the house. But by seeking psychological assistance, parents ensure that they have the right tools to interact with their difficult teenager.
In “Breaking Away: Adolescent Behavior in Context,” published in Canadian Family Physician, the reasons for adolescent problem behaviors are analyzed, and author David M. Magder provides tips for psychologists and parents to manage these behaviors.
Magder first suggests that psychologists and parents talk directly with teenagers. Teenagers aren't used to being addressed as adults, showing uneasiness at first. But by speaking directly to teens, discussing their hobbies and interests, and developing adult relationships, teens feel the respect they desire.
The paper also notes that while teens outwardly push for freedom, they still require – and even desire – limits on their freedom. But Magder says parents set limits by acknowledging how teens think, while still making the distinction between dangerous choices and good ones.
For example, Magder says he might acknowledge to a teen that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, but also point out that all drugs are dangerous, and that just because one is not as dangerous as the other doesn't mean it's still a smart decision to make.
One of the main reasons teenagers justify poor decisions is by observing the world around them. Magder recalls a 14-year-old girl he spoke with who had been arrested three times for shoplifting. In the girl's mind, stealing occurred constantly in adult life, but in the forms of tax evasion and other financial areas. According to the girl, shoplifting wasn’t any different.
Magder says by pointing out that tax evasion is also illegal, and people go to jail for it, he makes the distinction between normal behavior and social deviance. Then, by declaring that the girl has a choice to participate in this deviance, he gives her the freedom to decide for herself while also providing guidance.
Often, with a strong family support network, teenagers grow out of their rebellious behavior as they develop identities. By working with the teen through this period, and above all, not giving up, parents and educators will ensure the healthy development of their adolescents.