The Myth of Teenage Rebellion

Katy BurkeUncategorized

On the last day before summer break a PLC teen wrote: "I can write whatever I want here because its too late in the year for them to kick me out." And then continues with non-curse words: Heck, Golly, Darn, Gee, Fudge, Dang.

Share this Post

One hundred years ago, teenagers didn’t exist. There wasn’t a dearth of thirteen- to nineteen-year-olds of course, but, generally, they were called “children” or “adults.” Today, “adolescence” is its own animal. It’s treated as a state of being, rather than a transition. There are all kinds of expectations about what happens in adolescenceteen angst, rebellion, questionable choices, self-discovery, experimentation, existential blues, etc. Some of this I find troubling. I worry that the way we treat and respond to teenagers is in part guided by a misunderstanding of what happens during this time of their lives. On the one hand, we understand adolescence to be a frustrating, awkward period to be suffered through. On the other, I believe in reaction to the first, we unwittingly send the message that adolescence is a time to sow wild oats, to play with childlike abandon, not on the playground, but out in the field of adulthood. It’s less about becoming adults and more about free access to their world. But adulthood isn’t free. All of that freedom costs something: greater responsibility. For kids who view adult life as play, unintended practical and emotional consequences usually follow. So, what if we discarded the expectation of teenage rebellion and imported the expectation of maturation? What if we started treating teens who push boundaries as children who yearn for adulthood? And what if that were a good thing? Something we helped them to do.

I’ve worked with teenagers for over 15 years, but I just recently became the mother of a teen myself. My eldest daughter turned thirteen this past spring, and right on cue, she is asking to see her friends more and her family less. She is already talking about learning to drive, getting a job and moving out! Part of me is internally crying “Leave? Don’t you love me?!” But what I say to her is “Great.” “Good for you.” “Watch my driving. What am I supposed to do at this intersection? Would you like to take over the directions? Lead the way.” When she was a toddler, I held her when she cried for me and let her down when she wanted to walk. It’s not all that different now. Sometimes, I’m still “Mommy”—someone to calm her fears, and sometimes, frankly, I’m just in the way. She’s fearless then. I’m sure it will get much more difficult before it gets easier, but I’m trying to approach this transition period as the time to support her independence, to be the person she consults when growing up is disorienting, not the hoop she has to jump through to do so. As a parent, I’m new at adolescence, but I do know for certain that if you hold a toddler who wants to get down, she becomes a buttered noodle in your arms, slipping out of your grasp. Before you know it, you’re running down the cereal aisle with a vengeance while she’s headed for the dairy department trying to get away from you. Without minimizing the real challenges some teens and parents have, I wonder if teen rebellion is often “buttered noodle” syndrome.

I don’t mean to put the fault with parents. We’ve all heard of helicopter parents who exasperate their teenage children, but, generally speaking, I’ve found parents of teens to be some of the most intentional, self-reflective people I’ve met—and it’s no wonder. Something about parenthood brings out the introspection in us.  I think the issue of teen angst and rebellion is more systemic. Rooted at the bottom is the societal belief that adolescence is a fixed, messy time in one’s life meant to simply pass through (or for parents to survive). The arms of this belief, its societal structural supports, won’t let squirming kids down. I saw this all the time when I taught in a public high school: kids sitting in desks most hours of the day, being taught information that they aren’t intrinsically motivated to learn, kids physically present but mentally absent, kids just getting by.  The onus falls on teachers to be more engaging, more entertaining, but it’s all distraction unless the soon-to-be adults in the room choose it for themselves. It’s almost as if they arrive to class like a plateful of buttered noodles. You barely get a hold of one’s direct attention before another slips through your fingers. Teachers, I know you know what I mean! When kids come of age, they want to feel alive, like they’re living a life worth living. Sadly, a great many teens feel that school, which makes up a good chunk of their lives, is more of a downer than an upper. When they rebel in response, we normalize it as the function of adolescence, which in turn helps to encourage more unhealthy behaviors in teens and young adults. Angst, indifference, cynicism, anxiety, rebellion, self-destructive behaviors, even depression are all par for the course. Parents are given to being grateful for less egregious rebellions for they’re told it’s bound to happen in one way or another. It strikes me as strange and quite sad that it’s considered normal for an entire cohort of individuals to be discontent as a function of their age. Yet, so many teenagers are, which I suppose does, in fact, make it the norm. But it doesn’t make it right.

Back when teenagers “didn’t exist,” they spent a lot more of their time in the adult world than they do now.1 Often they were working to help support their families. It is a rather new concept to hold teens together with their direct peers, in mass, most of the dayand there is sacrifice that goes with it. Outside of mixed age groups, teenagers lack the benefits of being responsible for younger children and being held accountable to adults who are relying on them with real responsibilities, those with natural consequences, for good or for bad. I’m not suggesting we go back a hundred years. There were certainly sacrifices then too. But I do believe most teenagers are hungry for this kind of authentic living. They notoriously ask, “Why do we have to learn this?” “How will I use this in real life?” When children start asking these questions, it’s a good indicator that they want to start participating in the real world, aka “where the adults are.”  They are done with pretend play; they want to feel the ground beneath their feet. And I see no reason for delaying this process. Would we divert a baby from learning to walk? Teenagers are built for this. Their brains are wired to take more risks. What greater risk is there than to step up into the adult world? —and what greater reward? Even something as simple as helping an uncle work on his car comes with risk. It’s outside the comfort zone; something could go wrong. But it’s an opportunity to learn a skill, to feel capable, empowered, grown. That’s. What. They. Want. 

As adults, we need to support lives for teenagers that consist primarily of opportunities to prepare for and participate in adult living. Lives in which they have regular healthy interactions with adults, lives in which they are trusted with more and more responsibility, and in which they are encouraged to take chances and make choices for themselves. In practice, this could look like taking on an apprenticeship, writing to a field expert, volunteering to serve, surveying strangers, shadowing someone on the job, working with an adult tutor, tutoring someone, working with an adult mentor, learning something on one’s own, meeting a physical challenge, organizing a trip, attending a town meeting, teaching a class, getting a job, starting a business, caring for an animal, caring for younger children, cooking for a large party, public speaking on behalf of other teens, fixing something that’s broken, making something from scratch, discovering a talent, or whatever action would make a particular teenager feel capable and alive. Everything on this list is very possible. These are all things that kids at Princeton Learning Cooperative have acually done. Teens consistently leading lives like this have purpose and healthy outlets for their passion for living. Self-destructive, rebellious behavior has less cause and is disincentivized because they have more good at stake to lose. That’s not to say that adolescence can or should be smooth sailing. There is bound to be turbulence with any natural process of change. However, there are natural temperature swings when summer turns to fall, and there are unseasonal conditions brought on by human mismanagement. Because I have seen what adolescence can look like when young people are properly supported, I can’t accept most modern teenage struggles as inherent to the process of growing up. In fact, many of those struggles thwart the process. Teen angst and rebellion may be the rule now, but it wasn’t always, and moving forward, it doesn’t have to be.

Adolescence is a transition between two points; it doesn’t exist without childhood and adulthood. It’s not simply a waiting room, but the very process by which adults are made. It is the launchpad to adulthood, which means, of course, that adolescence should somewhat resemble actual adulthood. Often, the path becomes the destination. Rocky afoot, rocky aflight.  If a teen faithfully trudges through life day after day doing work that doesn’t excite her, it’s no surprise when she becomes a dutiful yet disillusioned adult. If a teen satiates his desire to live in a bigger way by simply playing more dangerous games, it’s no wonder when he struggles to hold a job and care for a family later on. But the teen who treats adolescence as a time to find meaning and purpose, a time to be enjoyed and not wasted, a time…for blooming, charts the course for becoming a self-actualized, mature, fulfilled, and active member of society.

1Hine, Thomas. (2000). The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager,
Harper Perennial, p. 140.