When we see our teenager pushing the independence envelope, taking foolish risks, evading straight answers, or breaking rules, we often chalk it up to peer pressure, media influence, and even rebellion—and we come down hard. Sometimes, obviously, there is a rebellious heart that needs to be dealt with, and lowering the boom may be necessary. But if we can spot the much more common signs of a spirit that is simply straining for a healthy freedom (albeit imperfectly), we can guide our child’s quest in ways that are healthy instead of counterproductive-helping them learn responsibility instead of triggering their sense of desperation.
We found five often-overlooked truths about this freedom-seeking aspect of a child’s inner life.
Fact #1: Freedom wields a greater influence than parents or peers.
Over the years, many studies (and parents!) have asked whether parents or peers exert a bigger influence of kids’ behavior. Our research convinced us that this question misses the main point. When freedom is added to the mix, it seems to far outstrip the influence of any person. Look at the astounding survey results.
Question: When you do something that your parents would disapprove of, what is the best description for the reason that you do it? Choose one answer.
6% answered with “I’m just doing what my friends want me to do.”
89% answered with “I’m just pursuing my freedom and my ability to do what I want to do.”
4% answered with “I’m just being rebellious against my parents.”
*Note Because of rounding, numbers don’t quite total 100%.
Nine out of ten kids said that when they do something in question they are rebelling against parents; it’s because they are pursuing their freedom and their ability to do what they want to do.
It’s all about doing what they want.
We heard from the kids that although both peer pressure and parental expectation have an influence, neither is usually the motivator that freedom is. Peer or parental pressure is imposed from the outside, while the desire for freedom comes from the inside. When the two are in conflict, the internal “want” often wins.
On our survey, nearly seven out of ten kids admitted they would find a way to do something they wanted to do, even if their parents might disapprove.
Question: Think of something that you really want to do that your parents might disapprove of. Which statement most closely describes you? Choose one answer.
22% answered with “If I want to do something, I will usually find a way to do it, no matter what my parents think or say.”
47% answered with “If I want to do something, I will usually find a way to do it… although I’d hope my parents wouldn’t think I was being too bad.”
31% answered with “Even if I really want to do something and even if my parents would never know, I generally don’t do it if they would disapprove.”
Fact #2: Under the influence of freedom, kids may do stupid things.
Like addicts under the influence of a real drug, kids high on the thrill of freedom may not be thinking clearly. To complicate matters, it’s not just the high of freedom at work. It turns out-and we say this as respectfully as possible-our teens are not only addicted; they are also brain deficient. Science demonstrates that the frontal lobe of the brain-the area that allows judgment of consequences and control of impulses-doesn’t fully develop until after teen years. So in the absence of a fully functioning frontal lobe, teenage brains rely more on the centers that control emotion-which in effect means they give in much more easily to impulses.
Teenagers also subconsciously believe they are invincible, that nothing bad will happen if they drive too fast in the rain, become sexually involved, or get drunk and go swimming in the lake with their friends.
Fact #3: Kids deeply fear losing their freedom.
Once we understand just how much teenagers revel in their first tastes of real freedom, it shouldn’t be surprising that, like other addicts, they’re also dealing with deep fear that we will forever take that freedom away. An enraged teenager’s out-of-proportion response to your words or actions may be a sign that you’ve set off her ultrasensitive “loss of freedom” radar.
So what most pushes a kid’s fear buttons?
- The sense that freedom has been snatched arbitrarily. Most kids say that they felt their freedom was often taken away for no good reason or with no consistent pattern, and they were thus overly sensitive to the mention of possible restrictions.
- Seeing their social life sabotaged. Kids are terrified that parental restrictions will make them outcast–
a fate worse than death for a fifteen-year-old. One kid declared, “When they ground you for so long, it’s social suicide, and of course you sneak out. You’ve got to cover your rear and protect your life.”
- Not understanding the rules.“When kids say, ‘The punishment was so unfair,’ it actually means, ‘I wish I understood the reasons for those rules.’ If they don’t understand the reasons, what their highly emotional and irrational brains hear is, ‘I’m going to control you for no reason.’”
Fact #4: Teens will do anything to get freedom and avoid losing it–
including deceiving themselves and you.
Driven by the all-consuming quest for freedom and the intense fear that we’ll revoke it, even teenagers who are generally good and trustworthy sometimes resort to bad behavior. They may downplay problems, fool themselves into thinking that they weren’t doing anything wrong, hide things, and even lie to us-
all in an effort to secure and protect their independence.
The hiding game.
Of course, sometimes the deception is intentional. In order to protect their freedoms, 83 percent of the kids we surveyed admitted hiding things from their parents.
Question: Do you ever hide negative information from your parents because you are worried about how they will react? Choose one answer.
31% answered with “Yes, I often don’t tell them those things because of that.”
52% answered with “Yes, I sometimes don’t tell them those things because of that.”
17% answered with “I rarely or never hide those things from them.”
We found very little difference between kids who attended church weekly and those who had no particular religious beliefs. But there is again, a distinct difference among the small subset of kids attending private Protestant Christian schools. It turns out that “only” half those kids said they would hide things. Ah, well.
Obviously, one type of hiding is simply failing to mention an infraction, so the parent never hears about it. But this comment from a teen girl reflects the more “active” examples we heard from many of her peers: “If my mom won’t let me wear a spaghetti-strap shirt, I’ll just put it on under a loose, dumpy shirt and wave goodbye to my mom. Then, as soon as I get to school, the big shirt comes off.”
The most insidious tactic, of course, is outright deception. And when we asked the teens why they lie, they basically all said the same thing as this boy: “Because parents will freak out about the truth.”
Fact #5: Ironically, too much freedom can be scary and our kids want to involve us in their quest.
After this fairly brutal reality check, the good news is that even freedom-intoxicated teens realize that unlimited freedom isn’t a good idea.
One girl eloquently captured the perspective so many teens shared with us-and which we’ll cover in more depth later: “My parents are really strict, and I wish they’d lighten up a bit. But if they didn’t give me any rules, I’d know they didn’t love me. We expect some boundaries.”
We were so thankful to hear that kids didn’t always want to hide things or lie to their parents. In fact, they’d much prefer to talk to their parents about the choices and the challenges they face, if they could do so “safely.”
Used with permission from For Parents Only by Shaunti Feldhahn. Shaunti Feldhahn is a bestselling author, popular public speaker, and groundbreaking researcher. This wife and mother now applies her analytical skills to illuminating those important, surprising truths that people really need to understand about each other.