Contemplations on Control: Rebellious Teens

Whenever we think about the challenges of parents, there is probably nothing more colorful than the problem of a rebellious teenager. Trying to control an out-of-control adolescent can drive a parent crazy!

I want to do a series of blog posts that address the issue of control through the spiritual discipline of contemplation. Contemplation is the act of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time. It is a deeper reflection on the motives and desires of our heart…and out teenagers.

Control, by nature, forces us to react to external behaviors. In the case of a “rebellious teen,” we are faced with unpleasant back take, arguments, manipulations, curses, eye rolls, blank stares, aggression, lying, stealing, and other acts that defy our rules and our morals. 

As we contemplate this, ask yourself the following questions: 

“What am I trying to control?” 

“Am I trying to control out-of-control behavior?”

“Do I want to win? At whatever the cost?” 

“Is it possible to have two winners and no losers?”

“Is it really my mission to dominate the will of another person?” 

“What is the long-term goal of parenting: relationship or being right?”

“What is better: A change of heart or a change of behavior?”

The idea of attempting to control someone who is out-of-control sounds like a war in the making. How can the two things approach one another? Control that is viewed as a way ends us with no winners. Parenting is not a competition. You do not have to always be right or win every battle. In fact, why is parenting even seen as a battle? There must be something deeper than this relational reality.

If you make two lists with all the things that a parent can realistically control on one side and all the things that parents cannot control in their teenager’s life, you begin to see the discrepancy in the lists. Parents who focus on the child’s side of the list will be more frustrated than those who stick to their own side. 

Control can be a negotiation. There are things on the parent’s side of the list that the teenager wants and there are things on the side of the teen’s list that the parent wants. There is room for negotiation and working together toward a common goal. 

A common area of power on the parent’s side of the list is transportation. The teen needs to get places and the parent has control of the car. An easy trade-off can be negotiated. Chores completed can result in transportation to a friends house, for example. There doesn’t need to be loud, angry words shared back and forth. Just a simple, direct offer to trade chores for transportation. Don’t react to “moodiness”, eye rolling, or slamming doors. I know it’s hard. Focus on the bigger lessons here. 

What parent really want is to see their teen make “good choices.” Choices imply a sense of power that allows the child to try and choose between good and bad and learn from that experience. This is how the neural software gets its updates: experiences, good ones and bad ones. Suffering natural consequences can be painful to watch, for the parent, but it allows teens to mature and grow up. 

What teenagers want is power over their lives. In reflection, it would seem the parent and the child are working toward the same goal. The parent wants their teen to have the power to make good choices. The failure in this contemplation is that teens view it differently. They want the power to do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want, without consequences. This is their immature view of adulthood. As adults, we know this is just fantasy. The negative consequences of these kinds of choices taught us that power is really about managing ourselves well. Negative consequences will teach our teens too if we let it. 

Control is about communication. Parents believe that they are clear and perhaps they are but continuing to clearly state expectations and needs may have to be repeated. There are split moments of gentle normalcy where parent and teens can really communicate. Use those moments to understand the child’s needs and struggles. Don’t use it to lecture or give advice. Listen and learn to give you more control. Control is knowing how to meet the needs of the child in a way they can cooperate with you. 

Powerless people feel like they have no power, so they engage in power struggles to get more power. Power-full people know they are powerful and learn to manage themselves. Powerless people must be empowered to know they are power-full too. 

Power is believed to be unequal. Some people have more than others. In most situations, this is true but in terms of power being about managing ourselves, and not managing others, it is fairly distributed to everyone. Teenagers see parents as having all the power. Therefore they believe they must take it from parents by rejecting them, defying them, and manipulating them. The result in continuous power struggles. What a hard view of the world to have! 

Focus on problems when in the heat of the power struggle. Parents who focus on the person exaggerate the struggle. Ask the child what is the problem and how do they want to solve it. Control is coaching a child to a logical conclusion even if it means trying answers to the problem, the parent already knows won’t work. Let them try. Let go of the tug-of-war rope and join the child on their side of the circumstance and ask coaching questions to help the teen see the choices, that give true power, to help them learn how to make good ones. 

In the end, control is an illusion. We have no control over anyone else. It is a common reaction to feelings of fear and anxiety. The higher our anxiety, the more we attempt to control. The more we feel out-of-control, the more we work to find some area that we can create control. It is the source of our obsessions and compulsions. It creates power struggles in relationships. It concentrates on being right over relationships. It disconnects instead of connects families. Take notice of the areas in life that feel controllable and those that feel out-of-control. Examine the feelings that come with each. Choose to respond and not react to those feelings. Don’t allow the negative lies that feeling out-of-control tries to tell you: You are a bad parent, You are a failure, You are not loved or respected, You are not safe, You can’t trust anyone but yourself, You are destined to feel horrible and lonely. Find alternative truths to declare over yourself to counter these false beliefs. They may not feel true but feelings are not the truth. Control is managing your beliefs which will, in turn, manage your feelings.