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The Transitional Parent - Cultivating Creative Rebellion

We all know they're going to go through it sometime in their lives but when a divorce pushes them to the edge, can we as parents hold on - and let go?

"It's a paroxysm of an oxymoron," claims Michele McGrier, a 39 year old newly divorced photographer with three teen age sons. Then in an admission of defeat: "I know better than to try to completely control them but if they're out of my control then they're out of their own control! Who has the last word?"

Better yet is who has the first word. As divorce rates continue to skyrocket at an astonishing rate of 62% a year, families are far from intact. In fact, statistics alone indicate that more than half of marriages end as a result of children from a previous relationship. "Nobody wants to see these relationship end, but if they're so tenuous in the first place, there has to be a defining moment where one partner will throw in the towel. It's just a question of time at that point," says Arthur G. Ramos, M.S., MFT, a marriage and family therapist in Paso Robles, California, and an expert in behavioral therapy.

But has rebellion become a misunderstood marker of creative growth? And have many a psychological mind pathologized a rebellious child? According to research conducted by Amy Bobrow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Child Study Center at New York University School of Medicine in Manhattan, it is a myth that teens are huge risk takers. While many parents are afraid of the obvious menaces: drugs, unprotected sex, wild parties, Bobrow's research indicates:

  • Over half of teenagers will experiment with alcohol -- which means nearly half will not.
  • Roughly 40% of teenagers will try drugs at least once, which means 60% will not.
  • Even fewer teens regularly use illegal substances -- less than 25% of those who try them -- which means the majority do not.

Further, according to Bobrow, parents who are concerned that their children will continue to utilize these drugs should not be concerned: further research concludes that they will not.

Moreover, there's evidence of a decline in teenage sexual experimentation, according to research by David Elkind, PhD, the author of All Grown Up and No Place to Go, and professor of child development at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. The United Kingdom now leads the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the industrialized world, with the United States pregnancy rate diminishing. Whether or not it's the threat of AIDS or an emphasis on sex education doesn't really matter. Additionally, laws in many states require parental consent for an abortion, which may be a contribution to a lower teen pregnancy rate.

The Generation Ungapped

Body piercing, tattoos, and music are today's markers of adolescence. In earlier generations, teens weren't expected to be sexually active -- or experiment with alcohol or drugs -- until they turned 17 or 18, when they were better able to resist peer pressure, according to Elkind. Now they're getting pressure at 13 and 14, when they're too young to resist. It's not that child development has changed, it's that the demands are coming at earlier ages. However, more interesting research suggests that 20% of adolescents suffer behavioral difficulties sufficient to impair their overall psychosocial functioning, and some of these youths eventually become labeled by society as rebellious. As a result, parents often become very distressed and seek counseling from their primary care physicians when their adolescents are persistently hostile, argumentative, offensive, aggressive, or hateful toward authority figures and siblings. One study reported that nearly one third to one half of all adolescent clinic referrals are for evaluation of adolescents with a variety of socially disruptive and inhospitable behaviors.

Healthy vs Unhealthy Rebellion?

There is such a thing as healthy rebellion as opposed to unhealthy rebellion. Some examples of issues leading to unhealthy rebellion include:

  • parental discord
  • parental discipline methods, such a abuse
  • alcoholic parent, abusive situations, financial pressures
  • peer influence
  • fear of failure
  • low self esteem

Characteristics of healthy rebellion
  • Healthy rebellion helps teens grow as responsible human beings, leading to increased independence, responsibility and autonomy.
  • Healthy rebellion involves open communication between the parents and the teen. The parent is really willing to listen, taking an active interest in the adolescent and trying to understand their world. They ask lots of questions, and provide reasonable guidelines and restrictions where necessary. Both sides have freedom to share their feelings.
  • Healthy rebellion is gradual, occasional and varied in expression. Rebellion is not a standard for the teen, and they are not consistently disregarding clear family standards. There is an ever-increasing dynamic of growing maturity.
  • Healthy rebellion is creative in that it engages a more positive and mature side to the teen. They learn to stand up for their convictions in constructive ways.
  • Healthy rebellion forces a parent to let go and develop themselves. It can be difficult for us as parents to accept that our children are growing up, but it is critical that we adjust our own expectations and demands and allow maturity to occur. Failure to allow emotional growth can actually cause them to conduct themselves in more destructive manners.
  • Healthy rebellion gives teens confidence and assurance with adults. It teaches them how to relate to adults as peers, and not just as subordinates.

Characteristics of unhealthy rebellion
  • Unhealthy rebellion takes place in the context of closed communication channels. There is a lack of constructive discussion, and the relationship becomes increasingly strained over time.
  • Unhealthy rebellion features sudden, extreme expressions of independence. Defiant outbursts are common, and explosive, destructive anger surfaces.
  • Unhealthy rebellion leads to a lack of mutual trust. The teen may be flagrantly dishonest and deceptive as to avoid any conflict with the parent.
  • Unhealthy rebellion results in increasing resentment of restrictions, explanations and discipline. Instead of discovering the necessity of the family standards that have been set up, the youth becomes more persistent in pushing against the limits.
  • Unhealthy rebellion is characterized by anger and resentment, which continue to build up between the teen and the parents, and the rebellion snowballs.
  • Unhealthy rebellion presents itself in a negative manner toward all authority figures, which can lead to increasing hostility and personality problems. The adolescent shuns themselves guidelines from any adult in their life.
  • Unhealthy rebellion may be rooted in adults who won't let go and insist on high levels of control. These parents fail to understand that their goal, ultimately, is to release the child to live independently as an adult.
  • Unhealthy rebellion is damaging to all parties involved. Rather than leading to positive growth, it actually delays maturity.

Some Healthy Rebellion Tips?
  • Spend time together, say the experts. "It's truly important to nip the offense behaviors in the nacent stages," explains Mr. Ramos.
  • Offer to drive. You'll learn a lot about your teenager and her friends if you drive the kids home from a concert or a dance.
  • Watch TV or a movie together. A lot of parents don't feel comfortable bringing up some issues, according to Bodrow. A television or a movie can provide great jumping-off material -- a good opening for parents to open up a subject they need to discuss.
  • Get them in involved in sports. Statistics indicate that 80% of kids involved in sports are less likely to be involved in smoking, drinking, and general self-annihilation.
  • "Make sure it's about communication -- and not just at times of disapproval and discipline," says Mr. Ramos. "Make sure you communicate with your child when you're proud of them. Catch them enflagrante of doing something good, like the dishes. Otherwise, it becomes 'why are you always nagging me, always hassling me.'"


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