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What Causes a Child to Rebel and What to do When it Happens

Rebellion can happen at any age

“Every child will rebel at one point or another. The extent to which they rebel is determined by the parent’s reaction to it.” Bill McKee. This is from an article that was written in the ’70s about how to not push away your child when they struggle with rebelling against their parents. Even though this article is unfortunately nowhere to be found on the internet (I read a printout of it), I found it surprisingly helpful, even though it was written years ago. The quote from this article made me realize that it’s okay for your kids to rebel. It’s actually a good thing. Let me explain.

hands in a fist

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Parents often struggle to know what to do when their child rebels. It can be frustrating when you’re questioned repeatedly when you simply want the best for your child and for them to trust you indefinitely. After all, you’ve gotten them this far in life; why can’t they trust you with the rest of it. But parents also desire for their kids to become independent, free thinkers and not just follow the crowd because something is popular or cool.

And this is where I’ll say something you might not want to hear. Your child is their own person, and allowing them to be that means they will have to question you at some point or another. Read more about backtalk here.

That’s rebellion in a nutshell — a child becoming their own person and questioning their parents. Every child is different with wills of their own. As it’s good and normal for kids to rebel, parents must know what to do to not push their kids even further away. Because here’s the hope – it’s possible for your child to express themselves, and have their own ideas and opinions while also being respectful to their parents. It’s up to you to set the boundaries but also cover it all in so much GRACE.

stick figure of peer pressure

What causes a child to rebel?

As a Christian, my foundational belief as to why a child rebels might look different than yours if you don’t follow the same faith. At its core, rebellion is a symptom of a much deeper position — our sinful nature. Because we are human, we are expected to come out of the womb crying, desiring for our needs to be met. We’re selfish. And our entire lives will be lived fighting, either consciously or subconsciously, for ourselves. It’s the lifelong battle between flesh and spirit. And as I could get all theological on you, let’s just keep things simple and examine things a bit closer to the surface.

There are many factors at play when it comes to why a child rebels. Perhaps it’s their stronger-willed personality (which I might add is how God created them). Perhaps it’s their awareness that not everything will go their way, and they have difficulty accepting that. Or perhaps it’s their desire to figure things out for themselves instead of being told what they should do or believe.

These rebellious moments can happen at any age, and it’s a simple reflection of the human heart. You have it. I have it. We are all rebellious because our will, will always look out for number 1 — ourselves. Even adults rebel. If you look at the world right now, you will soon realize that adults express themselves in all kinds of ways.

When rebellion becomes a problem

Rebellion is usually spurred on when someone feels their freedoms have been taken from them. But, again, if you look at what’s happening in the world, you can quickly see what happens when people feel as though their rights are being taken away.

And within the home, it’s the same. When your child feels stifled in any way, even if it’s for their own good, their initial response will most likely be frustration. But what happens when that frustration turns to anger and their little outbursts become big outbursts, and before you know it, you’re dealing with an irate and challenging child.

Some parents face horrifying situations of their children telling them they hate them, running away, or worse. My heart goes out to those of you who have done everything in your power to keep your child from rebelling but have come up empty-handed. And that’s where the hardest reality comes to play — your child is still their own person and might choose the harder road in life. And that’s where we ultimately have to trust God with our kids and get on our knees daily for them.

Is it the parent’s fault when a child rebels?

Even though there are many reasons why a child rebels, it can definitely be exasperated by the parent’s reaction to it. Remember the quote at the beginning of this article?

“Every child will rebel at some point in their life. The extent to which they rebel is determined by the parent’s reaction to it.”

Parents might be able to determine the underlying cause of their child’s rebellion by doing some investigating. Ask yourself these questions and take note of your child’s behavior and your reaction to it over the next few days.

mom and daughter laughing together

Questions to ask yourself in regards to your child rebelling

  • What are some causes for my child’s behavioral problems? Was it spurred on by jealousy of a sibling? Was it caused by a new relationship with a friend?
  • Is there anything I can change in my parenting that will help my child feel more appreciated, loved, and admired? Can I spend less time on my phone? Can I spend more one-on-one time with them? Can I show them more physical affection like a hug or putting my hand on their shoulder?
  • Have I taught them proper ways to deal with their anger?
  • Do they have an outlet or a safe space to share their feelings?
  • Do they feel safe sharing their feelings, good and bad, with me? Or do they feel misunderstood and judged when they open up?
  • Am I allowing them to share their hearts without trying to fix everything — listening to understand instead of listening to respond?

Find more tips here – 5 Questions to Ask Your Child Daily to Help Them Feel Supported

stick figure family

7 Tips for How to Keep Your Rebellious Child Close

Here’s the thing. Our child could be miles away from us emotionally, but there is still hope to bring them close — and it starts with you.

It’s crucial to remember that you’re the parent. That doesn’t only mean you’re the one in charge of your child, but it also means you’re the one who needs to set the tone. You’re the adult who needs not to wait for your child’s behavior to change, but rather to know how to meet them even where they’re at. Because at the end of the day, they may not change, and you need to be okay with that. Your relationship with your child is unlike a marriage in that you can’t just divorce them, and that relationship is over. No. It’s blood.

1. Recognize what they are up against

“The fact that teenage suicides are increasing at an alarming rate each year gives morbid testimony to the increase in pressure. Emotional maturity is a strange and inconsistent thing; some bright students are upset by the slightest disappointment or rejection, and a 6′ 10″ basketball player may have deep feelings of insecurity.” – Bill McKee.

With tween and teen suicides on the rise, it’s time we wake up to the realities of what our kids face in this day and age. I’m once again quoting this incredible article I read, and even though it was written in the ’70s, it still rings true today. Even though kids rebelling is nothing new under the sun, the extremes are becoming more extreme. Bullying, peer pressure, drugs, violence, alcohol, etc. – all the same issues, just now on steroids thanks to social media and the internet.

So what does this have to do with rebellion? Well, the pull for our child’s heart and mind from the world is even stronger. Your child WILL be influenced by something, whether that’s you or the next Joe Schmo. Recognizing your influence is the first step. Deciphering what your influence will be is the next. Are you going to be a parent whose child feels free to be imperfect and fail or a parent who’s unapproachable because your expectation of perfection is unattainable? You choose.

Understand what they’re up against, and also what you’re up against. Be the space where they can be imperfect. Have grace for them because what they face is far beyond what you and I ever did.

father teaching son to ride bike

2. Be an approachable parent and reward their honesty

Like I said earlier, do you want your kids to feel safe to share the hard things with you? Then your reaction to those things must be calm and loving. Don’t shame them. Identify with them. Share about how when you were young, you struggled with something similar.

Have empathy for them, but also help them get out of the pit. Relate. Treat them as though they aren’t beneath you. Sure, you’re still their authority, but a loving authority is not a dictator, he’s a servant leader whose hand is firm, but his heart is soft.

We also have built a relationship with our son that if he tells us something that’s hard to say or something he did that he’s not proud of, we reward it. Then, of course, if he hurt someone else in the meantime, we have him take responsibility, but for the most part, we talk to him about it, make sure he understands that it was wrong, and we move on. One time, we even bought him a new toy when he told us about an “inappropriate” conversation with a friend. Inappropriate to a 10yo is actually very endearing.

That being said, every child is different. Just try and find opportunities to reward their honesty!

3. Show that you’re trustworthy and also that you trust THEM

“Trust is taught; doubt comes naturally.” At some point, your child will begin to question you’re trustworthy. When I was feeding my son solid food for the first time, I would always make sure the food wasn’t too hot before offering it up. And every time, my little guy would open up his mouth like a baby bird and trust me wholeheartedly. Then once. ONCE. I forgot to check. It burned his mouth, and it’s been a struggle to get him to eat everything I make him ever since. I truly believe this is a big reason why he doesn’t like to try new foods.

It only takes ONE moment that can derail your trustworthiness as a parent. But it’s never too late to earn that trust back. It’s never too late to show your kids they can depend on you. But it’s also okay for them to see you aren’t perfect, and you WILL let them down. This process will help pave the way for their relationship with God. God is always trustworthy. And that’s something we’ve encouraged my son with. While we will never be perfect, God and His goodness are.

So just as you desire for them to trust you, the tables will turn, and you will need to show them that you trust them. Give them freedoms where appropriate. But, again, rebellion is often strongest when they feel as though their freedoms have been taken from them. If you push back, they will push back harder. So let’s go a little and see what happens.

father and son talking

4. Think the best of them

Have you ever been on the receiving end of someone thinking the worst of you? It’s awful and causes you to not want to be around that person. It’s the same with your kids. If you’re continually pointing out what they’re doing wrong while ignoring their successes, it will cause them to feel defeated and unworthy. At some point, they will begin to think, “Why even bother?”

Be careful how you treat them. More often than not, speak about the good they are doing.

5. Write down boundaries together

Coming up with boundaries together is a great way to build trust with your teenager. They will feel like they have more freedom, and with freedom comes a sense of responsibility. Here are some other ideas for building trust with your teen.

  • Be firm and follow through on your word. If they break the rules, then they need to know that you are true to your word, even if it means there are consequences.
  • Stop controlling them. When you feel resistance from your child, back off a little and recognize that God is in control, not you. Again, freedom is the best gift you can give your child.
  • Let them make their own decisions, even if you know it’s the wrong one.
  • Tell them you trust them. Give them second chances—again and again.
  • Give them all the grace that your heart has to offer. They are figuring life out. Let them go, pray for them, and let God go the distance. In all reality, they are not yours to control
teenager friends

6. Make sure they have positive influences

If it’s important for you that you’re not around toxic people, then the same should be said for your kids. Their sphere of influence is important. But sometimes, your kids will want to be friends with a bad influence. What then? Check out this article for some helpful tips.

7. Monitor their devices

If you’ve ever read my blog before, you should know that I’m ALL about parental control on a child’s device. Why? Because if you knew the depths to which the worldwide interweb and social media lurk, then you would agree. Check out this article of a review I did for the most incredible parental control app there is out there called BARK, and why it’s a GOOD THING to protect your kids online.

Long story short, you can set it to only alert you to something that’s concerning on their device, making their privacy (for older teens) ALSO of importance to you. Because I guarantee you, it’s also of importance to your teen.