Many struggling teens rebel against structure. They thrive on challenging rules set by parents, schools, police, employers, and others in positions of authority. Teenagers who abuse drugs, ignore curfews, act belligerently toward important people in their lives, and otherwise defy authority seem to be screaming with every breath that they want to be on their own and left alone to do as they please. Yet, ironically, most of these teenagers crave structure and predictability in their lives, although they may not know or admit it.
Some struggling teens challenge authority because of their deep-seated hurt and resentment toward others who, they believe, have hurt them. In fact, some of these teens have been deeply harmed and victimized by important adults in their lives (perhaps a noncustodial parent; an adult who sexually abused them; a birth parent who freed them for adoption; or a parent whose own health, mental health, substance abuse, or legal issues have preoccupied them).
Other teens act out because they have had too few limits set for them. Still other teenagers with stable families and conscientious parents act out because their inborn biochemistry and brain circuitry made them vulnerable to mood, anxiety, impulse-control problems, and information-processing disorders that cause misbehavior.
Whatever the circumstances that precede teenagers’ struggles, both research evidence and professional wisdom show that consistent structure is essential. It is important, however, to distinguish between constructive structure and rigid rules. Parents who impose structure by “laying down the law” may, paradoxically, be counterproductive and stimulate rebellious behavior. Although some teenagers may respond to an iron-fist approach, many will not. Teenagers generally respond more cooperatively to consistent rules and limits presented in a gentle, fair, respectful way and, when appropriate, negotiated through communication and reasonable compromise. This is a tenuous tightrope for parents to walk – being firm, clear, and consistent with nonnegotiable rules while being responsive to the teenager’s (sometimes provocative) voice. The balance required on this tightrope varies from child to child.
The most effective interventions for struggling teens have one thing in common: structure. Effective schools and programs establish firm and fair ground rules regarding teenagers’ conduct and impose reasonable sanctions when teens violate those rules. Teens in these settings understand what constitutes appropriate behavior, language, and decorum. They know they are not allowed to fight, swear, insult others, use drugs, or engage in sexual activity or harassment. They understand the concept of gradual and intermediate sanctions, where modest misbehavior is met with modest sanctions (for example, missing out on an appealing social activity, losing cell phone privileges, or having to spend time in study hall) and serious misbehavior is met with serious sanctions (for example, suspension or expulsion).
These same principles apply to parenting. Struggling teens do not do well with laissez-faire parenting. They need, and often respond to, close and respectful monitoring and supervision. Punitive, controlling, shaming consequences may squelch misbehavior in the short run but ultimately may fundamentally damage the parent-child relationship and stimulate rage-filled outbursts.