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Tracy Frank, Published September 30 2013

Rebel vs. Rogue: Freedom, challenges can help parents curb risky teen behaviors

Fargo -- Whether it’s sporting bright green hair or a new way of dressing, teen rebellion can be harmless.

But it can also be dangerous when teens embrace risky behaviors like drinking, drugs or running away from home.

Regardless, it can be a confusing and challenging time for both teens and their parents.

Some resistance to parents is an expected part of growing up as teens try to figure out who they are and find their sense of self and independence, said Joni Medenwald, family-based clinical supervisor for The Village Family Service Center in Moorhead.

She advises parents of teens to pick their battles, as long as safety isn’t a concern.

Drawing attention to the way a teen is dressing and telling him or her you disapprove may increase defiance, Medenwald said.

“Caregivers should attempt to figure out what their teen is trying to communicate with their behavior when they have a concern,” she said.

They might need more independence or they might be asking parents to trust their ability to make decisions, she said.

“Sometimes just talking with them about what’s happening and why you are concerned or upset with their behavior opens the door to understand where they are at and what they want or need,” Medenwald said.

“If they understand why you are telling them to be home at a certain time or refusing to allow them to attend a party, they are more likely to accept and follow the limit you set,” she added. “If they just think you are trying to be mean or ‘ruin their fun’ they will push you harder.”

The notion of teenage rebellion is not actually about rebelling at all, said Beth Blodgett Salafia, an assistant professor of human development and family science at North Dakota State University. It’s about seeking autonomy and independence.

“During adolescence, individuals are looking to be treated more like adults, and often parents or other adults may interpret this as a rebellion,” she said. “In fact, adolescents are mostly trying to distinguish themselves from other family members.”

And this happens during a period of development when some of the most rapid biological, cognitive, and emotional changes are taking place, she said.

“Which makes sense why others view this as a troubled time,” she said. “It’s not troubled per se, but it is challenging to balance new responsibilities, new appearances, and new roles all at the same time.”

When talking to teens about their behavior, try to get to the point and reframe from long lectures, Medenwald said. As children get older, start giving them more choices and opportunities to succeed and earn more freedom and trust, she said.

Parents need to help prepare their teens to leave home and make really big choices by allowing them to make good choices for themselves while still at home, she said.

“For example, give your teen a curfew of midnight but let them know the curfew can be extended if they can show you they can be responsible by getting home at midnight for six nights,” she said. “Tell them that if they are late for curfew, that shows you they aren’t ready for more responsibility and possibly need an earlier curfew, but the choice is theirs.”

When a teen’s behavior could harm them or someone else, parents need to respond quickly and firmly, Mednewald said.

Set limits and tell them why their behavior is unacceptable. If they continue to engage in dangerous or illegal behavior, parents may need to seek help from other family members, counselors, or even police if the behavior is a safety risk, she said.

Almost all kids who engage in destructive behavior have moments when they realize they are getting in the way of their own interests, said Carl Pickhardt a psychologist, author and blogger, whose recent book, “Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence,” helps parents understand the adolescent years.

Parents need to keep talking to them without criticism or judgment and giving them healthy, constructive choices, he said. Kids learn about responsibility by learning there are consequences to the choices they make, he said.

“Usually parents don’t have to come down heavy handed,” he said. “They come in and support and they come in to help the kid understand how the connection (between their choice and the resulting consequence) worked and what the kid might want to do differently so the same course of events doesn’t recur. You’re always allowing the consequences. You’re helping the consequences inform the decision-making.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526