Dealing with Adolescent Rebellion: Tolerance or ‘Tough Love’?

Where do you draw the line with a wayward, disobedient, rebellious child?  How do you respond when (s)he persistently defies the rules and expectations you’ve established?  To what extent is the rest of the family put on the “altar of sacrifice” while your out-of-control child calls the shots?

That these are tough questions is an understatement, as many parents well know.  Some of the most difficult parenting dilemmas stem from what I call “high maintenance” children, those who seem bent on charting their own course in life, regardless of what their parents may do or say.

To their credit, most parents try to work with their child: they set limits, correct and redirect, and do their best to use consequences to modify his/her behavior.  But what happens when a child refuses to accept correction or blithely ignores the consequences applied by his/her parents?

Not surprisingly, this problem is all too familiar to family counselors.  A mother of five recently confided her struggles with her son to me, saying she and her husband have done their best to raise their son, and have even consulted a number of parenting books, all to no avail.

“We vacillate between overlooking his rebelliousness and taking a firm stand.  We’re just not sure which is better.”  She noted that, a 16-year old, her son comes and goes as he pleases – they won’t see him for days on end, and then he’ll show up “long enough to earn money (from chores) and then he’s off again.”  Any effort to set limits only incites more rebellion.

Mental health professionals tend to take one of two stances with such family problems.  One approach is to suggest that parents put up with the child’s rebelliousness, the theory being that the challenges notwithstanding, the longer parents can have a positive influence upon a child, the better chance (s)he’ll have in life.  This was the mother’s leaning: “I figure the more I can influence him, the better off he’ll be.”

The other approach, widely known as “tough love”, involves taking a firm stand that allows the child to experience the consequences of his/her actions (it should be noted that, when used appropriately, tough love does not seek to sever a child from his/her family, does not involve abuse or neglect, and doesn’t mean parents are “giving up” on a child).  The tough love approach has gained a significant following and is a well-organized approach, with books written and support groups found in local communities across the country.

In my opinion, there is no single answer to deal with wayward youth.  Parents must carefully consider the circumstances of their child and family, then seek prudent counsel from friends, family, and perhaps professionals, as well as Providential guidance from above.  To say the least, it tends to be a gut-wrenching experience.

In my experience, active resolutions are preferable to passive ones.  All things being equal, I see “tough love” as a compassionate alternative for all involved when two conditions are met: 1) the child shows no interest in compromising, negotiating, or modifying his/her behavior and 2) other family members are repeatedly made to suffer as a direct result of his/her actions.

For instance, an adolescent who “rules the roost” by repeatedly demeaning his siblings or parents may need to be helped in finding another place to live.  Likewise, a child who refuses to cease dishonest or destructive acts in the home might learn to appreciate the things she takes for granted if made to live under different circumstances.

While some may find such “tough love” harsh and impossible to administer, I admit there is an alternative: more of the same.  And for some parents, living with the current agony – as bad as it may seem – may truly be tolerable to the anxiety and guilt they might face if they put their foot down.

Still, the question that lingers is: What’s in a wayward child’s (and don’t forget the other family members’) best interest?  While love is not indifference, neither is it indulgence.  Sometimes excommunication is the only hope for eventual renewal and reconciliation.  Sometimes love can hurt quite a bit.  It sure did for me when I watched my parents apply principles of “tough love” with my older sister a number of years ago.

In terms of the sources of such a child’s problems, there are too many to list, but I shall briefly mention two:  temperament and attitude.  Certain “difficult adolescents” were often described as “difficult youngsters” and, like certain brands of cars, are more likely to be “in the shop” more often than their siblings.  Moreover, the prevailing attitude among rebellious teens tends to be immature and selfish.  Far too many kids (and unfortunately, they grow into like-minded adults) confuse rights and privileges, considering most things in life “my right to have” or “my right to do”.

One right I do believe parents have is the right to expect their children to adhere to a minimum standard of behavior that incorporates principles of respect, obedience, and personal responsibility.  Likewise, children have a right to expect that their parents will live by and enforce such principles.

Families are not democracies where everyone has an equal voice; instead, families are more like a kingdom, staffed by a (hopefully) loving but firm King and/or Queen.  This, of course, does not place children in the category of serfs; rather, they are “blue collar” princes and princesses . . . whom we love, tickle, and chasten.

 

Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of
Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah