Some teens start out defying early, some develop their insolence later, and others never seem to need to rebel. Teens often desire a sense of autonomy and control. If it is not given to them, then they may seek to usurp it by defiance. Many teens see their parents’ rules as robbing them of autonomy and power, and strive to defy those rules in order to regain that sense of self-authority.

Most parents want what is best for their teens. While that may be obvious, how to follow through on that ideal is not. In life, it is usually unclear what the ‘right’ choices are for providing the best for one’s kids. Parents don’t have the luxury of knowing the outcome of their choices regarding parenting. So they do the best they can. And teenagers are right there to question their parents on every decision.

Another reason a teenager tests limits is because she wants the security and freedom that comes with the knowledge that the limits are still there. The security comes from knowing that no matter what she wants or tries to do, her parents will stop her from hurting herself or her future. The freedom comes from the knowledge that she does not have to ‘police’ herself. Her parents are still on watch. So the teen has the freedom to act impulsively without stopping to consider ramifications or priorities, because she knows that her parents will be mindful of safety, the importance of academics, the need to fulfill responsibilities, or other uncool priorities.

Going against her parents’ examples is a natural part of growing up for a teenager as she enters the developmental stage defined by identity development.[i] She has lived most of her life doing things because she was told what to do. Now, she needs to find out who she is. She desires a sense of doing “her own thing.” She must leave behind doing things the way that she has always done them. This often involves directly rejecting and closing out her parents. If an activity is something her parents do, than if she does it too, it gives her the sense that she is still being child-like, a part of her parents, i.e. being ‘Joanne’s daughter’ instead of BEING ‘Samantha, the young independent woman.’ She desires the sense of being her own person. She is drawn to actions that her parents dislike or directly forbid. The more an action implies being like her parent, the more it repels her, for she equates that with not being her own separate person. The first step in identity development for many teens is directly away from their parents. Meaning every time their parents say left, the teens go right. Ironically, this means that their behavior still correlates with and is dependent on their parents’ directives, only in an opposite or negative direction.

Over time, the teen will likely become more secure in her identity and no longer need to do whatever is directly opposed to her parents. Slowly, her choices become less defined by “is this something my parents dislike?” and more defined by “do I like this (whether or not my parents do)?” Often this can mean returning to a lot of things that were abandoned or rejected during the identity formation process. Many things that are familiar can be attractive once the need to feel separate is satisfied. And now they can be owned as a personal choice and not feel as if they are a compromise or compliance.


[i] According basic developmental theory, developmental stages are marked by coping with universal psychosocial crises that expand on previous development, as well as outside influences (such as parents) and physical development. According to Erik Erikson, adolescence is marked by a crisis of identity vs. role confusion. A Teen typically struggles with social interactions and grapples with moral issues as she tries to figure out who she is and where she is going. A teen will explore new roles and identify with new ideas in an effort to discover who she is as an individual, separate from her family of origin and as a member of a wider society. She will experiment with different identities and sub-cultures. She will be drawn toward absolute ideals, which are conflict-free, and have difficulty tolerating the ambiguity and paradoxes of reality. Unfortunately for her parents, in this process she is likely to go into a period of withdrawing from past commitments, associations, and responsibilities. Erikson referred to this withdrawing as a “psychological moratorium.” In this period, peer relationships tend to dominate.

If this process is unsuccessful, the teen is at risk for perpetual role confusion, premature and unexplored identities, temporary over-identification with popular heroes or ideologies, and socially deviant identities. Eventually, if a teen can navigate this process, she can develop a firm and committed sense of fidelity despite “the inevitable contradictions of value systems” Erikson, Erik H. (1963). Childhood and society (2nd Ed.). New York: Norton.


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