How to plan to deal with a rebellious child?
February 9, 2018 11:07 PM   Subscribe

My sibling was pretty rebellious when I was growing up, not coming home some nights, doing drugs, and being in fairly bad relationships. This caused a lot of argument and discord in our family that still plagues us to this day. Now that my partner and I are thinking about having kids, I'm starting to worry about how I would handle a kid like that. Hivemind parents, how did you prepare for situations like this? More inside.

So I was the bookish, quiet, calm child, and my sibling was the opposite. They got in with a bad crowd and would do drugs, drive around late at night, sometimes not come home, and so on. My parents did not handle my sibling well, in retrospect. My mother was barely hanging on, and my father was convinced that they would end up in the street, or dead, or perhaps both; ironically, he was also sort of enabling the bad behavior. At around the same time, one of my mom's friends' daughter died from an overdose when she was about the same age as my sibling, so that set my parents on edge even further.

I can't really blame them for the effect all of this had on our family dynamic. Perhaps we weren't the happiest family before, but there was a lot of yelling and arguing for years. Even now our family dynamic is really screwed up. (By the way, my sibling ended up relatively okay, if a bit damaged.)

So with all of this baggage, I'm beginning to worry about when my partner and I have kids. I can't really imagine how I would handle this sort of thing; I'd probably go off the rails or something. I know I don't want to do what my parents did, of course, but it's kind of hard to see other options. I've started to talk to my therapist about my concerns, but I thought I'd post here and see what other people think.

Questions: when you were thinking about having kids - or even while raising those kids - how did you prepare for something like this? Did you read books, talk to people, or what? Are there steps to take or things to do early in a child's life to curb rebellion at that level? I don't even know what questions to ask, but because I'm a person who likes to prepare well in advance, it's been weighing on my mind more and more.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
So really, the best thing you can do is love your kids unconditionally, teach them boundaries and consistency when they are growing and hope for the best.

I know this is a short answer, but parents you can trust, a childhood where rules are enforced and an understanding of right and wrong go a looong way to preventing this kind of behaviour in the first place. Not guarenteed, but super helpful.

Honestly, when it comes to teenagers and their behavior there are so many hypothetical and different factors to weigh . But you really can't go wrong with starting by trying to understand where someone is coming from, providing healthy alternatives and a safe place to come home too.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:41 PM on February 9, 2018 [16 favorites]

I have teenagers. Sometimes they do things you don't think are wise, because they need to become separate from you. Some teenagers (like you describe yourself) never do this in a way that really diverges from the parent's values or sense of safety, but others really judge risk-taking differently in adolescence for biological as well as psychological reasons. So all that is to say if you happen to have a kid who is more in the latter camp, you will be better off if you don't take it personally and certainly don't see it as a power struggle. I'm not saying your parents made it a power struggle, but a lot of the time that is what makes these situations fraught beyond the actual safety issues. I think if you raise your kid from a very very young age with a lot of conversation and explain from a really early age why you make certain rules (rather than just imposing rules) your kid is more likely to listen when you explain why something concerns you as being unsafe. It doesn't mean they'll do exactly what you say but it's less likely they'll do it just to piss you off. In my family I don't have very many rules, but the ones I have all fall into the category of just the few values I care about: as a negative rule: don't do something that is likely to hurt yourself or other people, and as a positive rule: fulfill your responsibilities to yourself, to the household (by pulling your weight) and to other people you've promised something to. Yes, they resist this set of rules when it's inconvenient or when they just don't feel like doing the responsibility I think they should do. But I feel we're in constant conversation, even if it's sometimes contentious conversation, and that makes me really trust my kids.
posted by velveeta underground at 1:20 AM on February 10, 2018 [10 favorites]

I would be described by my sibling the way you describe yours. It's really hard to tell people that sometimes family dynamics produce great kids on the one hand, and troublesome kids - like me, and like your sibling - on the other.

I chose not to have kids because I had no good model for dealing with a kid such as myself. I also chose to examine my childhood environment and to work for a time with runaways/thrownaways. What I learned is: available parents are the most loved/best parents. Reserve sighs and regrets for when your child isn't there to hear them. Be your child's champion! Decide on boundaries, and talk with your child, as she grows, about them.

My beloved stepfather has an ethos: Unconditional positive regard. He didn't mean turning a blind eye. I so wish he'd come into my life earlier.
posted by goofyfoot at 1:41 AM on February 10, 2018 [17 favorites]

My kids are not teens yet, but because my first child died and also because I am a worrier, I can tell you how I deal with the worry.

I love my kids. I try to treasure the days in small ways in case the next day brings the apocalypse . I have rituals they think are a bit silly like we have two family mottos I spout off at regular intervals like invitations to Zeus: “No man left behind” and “Never give up, never surrender.” I actually do just slightly believe that these mottos may save their lives, that if they are snatched by the Stranger Danger they will hold on and know that I will never ever stop looking for them. I tell them I love them no matter what. I insist that the bond between parent and child is stronger than gravity, unbroken by death.

At 12 and 7 I talk to them about choices, about family, about self-respect and respect for others. I have been ruthless about friends of my older son who were mean to him, using I statements like “I know you and K are friends but anyone who calls you names is not someone I would choose as my friend.” I have told my oldest about the alcoholism in our family and let him know some of its ugliness. I don’t drink much and I don’t do drugs. I try to give them other things to do, ways to connect...ways to experience thrills and joy.

I try to be a calmer parent than my parents, who kicked my sister out of the house for defying them with her drug pack. of cigarettes. And her Loud. Party. I try to involve my kids in solving small problems together so that as the problems get bigger they might come to me or share what’s going on. I don’t make war on them for table manners or huge feelings. They can’t scream at me. But they can scream beside me, if things are that bad.

I fear for my kids: cancer, traffic, drunk driving, spinal cord accidents, Alzheimer’s, mental illness, heartbreak, lonelinesss, climate change, neo-Nazis, the bluffs across the street, poverty, abuse, the entire ABC Afterschool Special cannon of tragedy, drugs, alcohol poisoning. As a small sample.

Having kids is a crazy thing. It is hope. It is never a guarantee.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:59 AM on February 10, 2018 [15 favorites]

Hope and love and courage and stop thinking about things you cannot predict or in some cases prevent. If you want to have a child, start from the beginning with a baby, do not be imagining hypothetical things that can go wrong further down the line. Do not be watching the child for signs of bad behavior like your brother, that will certainly bring it out. Genetics is very complicated and there is no reason to think you or anyone can predict what someone will be like as an adolescent.

I too still fear for my kids and grandkids like Warrior Queen, but as she said, there is no guarantee and you just do the best you can. And keep hoping and enjoying the many good things about having a child.
posted by mermayd at 5:23 AM on February 10, 2018

how did you prepare for something like this?

Not to be glib, but you prepare by fully accepting and knowing that despite doing your best, your children will ultimately be exactly who they are, and it's very rarely about you.

When your teenage daughter locks herself in her room for hours, screams that she hates you, suddenly stops hanging out with her old friends, drops karate lessons, reeks of weed or liquor, or any number of generally normal teenage things, you will pull yourself together by reminding yourself that although this is rough stuff that's all workable, it's nothing personal and it's not because you did anything wrong. Teens gonna teen, that's all.

One of the biggest parenting fails of teens that I see as a high school teacher and parent of three young adults are those moms and dads who take typical adolescent behavior and make it about themselves.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 5:28 AM on February 10, 2018 [30 favorites]

I was one of those bad kids and my parents tried to handle it like yours did. One memorable evening they even called the cops on me to scare me straight. I ended up leaving home and moving in with a friend and her mom. That friend’s mom talked with me instead of yelling, gave me freedom to make mistakes, offered to come get me if I ever felt unsafe, and just overwhelmingly treated me with love and respect. I was still a bad kid there, but at least I was able to tell an adult where I was going instead of lying about it. I turned out just fine.

Now that I have kids and my oldest is at the peak of rebellious preschool years, I just try to practice empathy and not take it personally. I keep telling myself that a strong, opionated personality will serve them well as adults.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 5:40 AM on February 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

My mother, and some of my siblings would describe me as that wild child, and I was kicked out at 16.
Now, I have two girls who are adult and kind of adult, and their attitude can be described in an anecdote the youngest told me: she was asked by her younger class-mates when she turned 18 why she still did what I asked her to do, given that she was now legally adult. Her reply was that she still wanted my respect.
It's not that they are genetically disposed towards nice behavior, specially the youngest has a temper, and she enjoys partying and hates school. But her dad and I decided right when she was born that we would always make sure that she could trust us, and that our home would be the home where she and her friends felt they were treated with respect and dignity at all times. We have since separated, but we remain in accord on this issue and have supported each other in difficult situations.
So IMO it's great that you are already thinking about this now, because I think you sow the seeds of a good relation with your teen when he or she is a baby. One wise person said that if your kid doesn't have their values and habits in place when they are 12, it's too late anyway. Not too late for that person to grow into an amazing person, but too late to change any bad habits in your relationship with them.
Remember: all little children love their parents unconditionally. Many dysfunctional parents, like my own, frame even toddlers' actions and activities as resistance and rebellion. But toddlers want attention and love. They hate being scolded. They may do really dumb things to get your attention, or to test gravity, or to express their emotions, but they are never, ever against their parents, and they are sad when they are perceived that way. For me, back when my kids were small, that knowledge was the key to my care for them. I would explain them what was right and wrong thousands of times. And I would (rarely) scold them, if they harmed others or did things that could get themselves in danger. But basically I reminded myself that they were children and I am the adult. They were learning and I was teaching.
When my eldest was 14, she had a hard time in school and socially, and one day we ended up having a screaming fight. I even shook her. When we had both finished crying, we decided to get help, and went to a child psychiatrist who helped us. We didn't wait a week, but saw the fight as a sign of a deeper problem. As I saw it then, this was a confirmation from me, that she could trust that I was taking her pain seriously and that I was committed to help her. BTW she has forgotten the fight and only remembers the solution.
Teens, just like toddlers want love and attention. Like toddlers, they are testing how things work, and for some this means going out there until you hit the wall. There is only so much you can do as a parent. And you can only do anything if they trust you, with a trust that needs to be built not when they are 12 but when they are 2. You need to be able to talk about sex and drugs and social media — how will you do that if they already learnt you weren't trustworthy in kindergarten?
Finally, as mentioned above, we made sure that not only the girls, but all their friends too felt that our home was welcoming and safe already from pre-school. When the kids are small that is just fun and very cute. But when they grew up to be teens, it meant that we would always know before any other parents if there was anything to worry about, from bullying to alcohol, to bad behaviors at school. The kids knew we would act, wether it was calling their parents or the school or holding a dinner to discuss the issue. We haven't been soft on anything. But they also knew that when we called their parents, we would be their advocates, and mitigate the damage. By doing this, we made sure the girls always felt safe asking for help before anything bad happened to them. Lots of things teens do wrong is because they get caught in a bad spiral of secrecy and lying. I know from experience.
TLDR: love your kids unconditionally, and remember you are the teacher, they are learning.
posted by mumimor at 6:44 AM on February 10, 2018 [14 favorites]

I'm surprised you're not going straight to the source -- ask your sibling! Ask them what they remember about that time, if they remember whether they were trying to get your parents to react a certain way, if there were particularly bad things your parents did or things they could have done. if they're willing to talk it through, it doesn't necessarily mean they'll be right in their answers, but you need to know as much as possible about how parenting is perceived from the difficult child's end, not just from the parental end. even ask them how they'd handle having a kid who was like them, because they may not have good ideas but are unlikely to give you a BS "just put your foot down and enforce the law" kind of answer.

if you don't have the kind of relationship that would make that conversation possible, work on building one. because the worst thing about a rebellious child would be if they reminded you of a sibling you resent or just can't talk to, you want to be able to address a kid as an individual and not a family echo.

be prepared to be told that whatever you remember is completely wrong. and not just because of perspective and selective memory, but because you weren't there for anything that went on between your sibling and your parents when you weren't in the room.

and then just think more about why "curbing rebellion" seems to you like a desirable or acceptable plan. "fuck you, I'm not going to Harvard, I'm going to trade school to be a master plumber one day" is rebellion in some families but also terrific, healthy, and positive behavior. worry about raising a kid with the ability to calm themselves, defer gratification, and consider future consequences. and then they can still rebel and even do some drugs here and there without ever making you think they're going to ruin their life. one kid's rebellion is another kid's exercising independent judgment and recognizing the sovereignty of their own conscience. obedience as a virtue is something you can try to teach, but if you fail it doesn't mean you have a bad kid. plenty of great kids don't ever agree that it is a virtue.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:26 AM on February 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

Just offering one data point, but I was like your sibling. I also got straight As in school so my parents kind of just left me alone. My dad also came and got me the few times I was in a bind in the middle of the night. Although they were otherwise emotionally distant, but they survived and that’s probably why. Maybe focus on the bigger picture and not worry about hypothetical consequences so long as they respect your boundaries.
posted by alusru at 8:47 AM on February 10, 2018

Some thoughts from someone who had a family member similar to your sibling:

Teach kids self-regulation skills, like deep breathing when mad, exercising to discharge energy, playing alone and self-soothing, delaying gratification, talking through conflicts, being personally proud of their achievements rather than needing outside approval. This is a set of skills that starts when the kid is a baby and accumulates into the teen and adult years.

Don't freak out when your kid confesses small transgressions to you... each time you do, you're teaching them they won't be able to trust you with bigger problems later.

From a young age, collaborate with your kids on how to solve problems as a family, and what a fair punishment is if they knowingly break the rules.

Only punish kids if they broke the rules on purpose. Don't punish them for accidents or misunderstandings.

If a kid makes a mistake but then independently follows it up with good judgement (for instance, if your teen gets drunk at a party and misses curfew because they chose not to drive home drunk... or if your 7-year-old throws a baseball in the house and breaks a window, but chooses to confess and apologize without prompting, or your 4-year-old starts to whine and fuss, but then calms themselves down instead of throwing a tantrum)- then perhaps they should actually be rewarded, not punished.

Once a kid has been punished, drop it. Don't guilt them forever about past incidents.

Don't call the cops on your kid (unless they're literally trying to kill or sexually assault someone in the house).

Don't kick your kid out of the house. As a parent, it's your job to be their safe place.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:29 PM on February 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think it depends on part on how you see teenagers. My mom saw us as adult as we tried to be and gave us a lot of leeway. I was probably the "good kid" of my siblings, always made good grades, rarely skipped classes, my friends and I didn't get in trouble in school. I also stayed out late, drank, and had sex, but none of that was viewed as a particular problem (nor distinguished me from my siblings). The thing is, no one would think badly of an adult for occasionally hanging out with friends until 2am, having a drink, or sleeping with their sweetheart; so why think badly of teens for it?
I didn't have a curfew, unless I was ever in a situation in which I felt like I needed a good excuse to get out of, in which case I did. I love that my mom actually talked that over with me, even though I never needed to use it. I love that she talked to me about alcoholism and my family risks, so I had a framework for her don't overdo it advise. (She's a teetotaler herself.) It was sometimes embarrassing, but she kept a bowl of condoms in the living room for us or any friends to help themselves to. (My sister actually took boxes to school sometimes to hand out.)

I mentioned to my mother-in-law one time about having been the "good kid" and she was really surprised. I figured out afterwards that from her perspective, I was the wild child who, amongst other things, kept her previously obedient son out until all hours. My mom knew I was responsible for myself and didn't worry too much. And as an adult, she still assumes I've mostly got it under control, offers advice when I ask for it, and only on the rarest of occasions brings up a concern if she has one. So I guess my advice is, as your children grow, trust them, and let them be as adult as they act ready for.
posted by Margalo Epps at 4:22 PM on February 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

I can't stress enough the importance, given the model you have, of avoiding the power struggle. The goal for your children should not be obedience, but use of good judgment. Teenagers are often notoriously lacking in the latter, of course, but your goal should not be to get them to do what you say because you say it, but because they understand and accept your reasoning, or at least get that sometimes your experience may be broader than theirs. Turn an ordinary dispute into a power struggle and it can escalate insanely.

Looking back at my own strife-torn adolescence, I have to laugh. One of my parents thought I was the worst, most disobedient, most disrespectful children ever born. Meanwhile, I was a bookish, law-abiding kid on her way to the Ivy League who found drug use as a form of rebellion to be absurd and didn't have time for boys of garbage character. I was just also an atheist who didn't like taking orders that were patently unfair (it was not a well-run household), and expressed that with your typical adolescent restraint and nuance. My God, all the trouble I (and later my siblings) could have gotten into! But it was continual warfare at home, because this parent wanted power and "respect"--except, of course, the more disproportional the behavior designed to secure the respect, the more it faded away.

Ultimately, you can't win a prolonged power struggle with your teens, because they're going to grow up. So don't get into them in the first place.
posted by praemunire at 7:04 PM on February 10, 2018 [8 favorites]

See if you can help them develop more than one group of friends. Having a group of friends outside of the school community, whether it is built on sports, religious, scouts, etc, builds confidence and provides an escape from the meanness/ pressures of school friends. In general, keeping busy helps
posted by leslievictoria at 8:45 PM on February 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

The more time you spend with them young the less time you will worry about them old. To a child there is no such thing as quality time, there is only time. If you give your children your time and attention they will return the love many multiples. Keep it simple.
posted by ptm at 9:58 PM on February 10, 2018

As the lone parent of a teenage daughter, I always try to treat her like a human being. The problem of course is she's not a human being she is the centre of my universe. So I think the difficulty is not keeping them from harm it is respecting their agency, respecting their choices and remembering that sometimes being a teenager sucks.

Communication is important. In some ways I am lucky that we have to talk to each other, even about each other because there's nobody else. This constant communication allows my daughter to know that when she speaks I will listen even if she says "I don't want to talk to you right now"

When the centre of your universe "hates you" and wants to be alone it can be heartbreaking. Remembering that it's not really about you and respecting their own journey is the best you can do.

You give them space, you be there when they need you, you cry on your own and you cross your fingers really fucking hard.

There are rules but they are rules for being a human being not for being a teenager.

Be kind.
Don't be a bigot.
Don't support Manchester United.

Still, it's worth it.
Sometimes I think this is what it must be like to believe in god.
If you and your god got to make each other laugh so hard you couldn't breathe.
posted by fullerine at 11:47 PM on February 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

« Older I have a problematic relationship with alcohol...   |   Colp or Followup PAP? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.