Nurture Shock: Chapter 7

{This is the seventh in a series. Click here to read more.}

The Science of Teen Rebellion

Now that I’m in my 40s and many of my friends have children who are entering high school, I wonder: how do we keep our kids from doing some of the stupid things we did at their age?

I was a late bloomer to the teen rebellion thing. According to the authors, 96% of teenagers lie to their parents. Well, you would have to group me with the 4% of those who didn’t. Unfortunately, that’s because I had such a lame social life, I had nothing to lie to them about. On Friday nights, when I said I was babysitting, I was actually babysitting! I was one of the “goody-two-shoes” that two of the researchers quoted in this chapter said they wanted to avoid having participate in their study. Nice.

I did have a few moments in high school: once, before a formal my senior year, my date, our friends, and I drank champagne and wine coolers before the party. I remember having one glass of champagne and about half a wine cooler. I was hardly drunk – maybe a little tipsy – but somehow, my mom found out about it (to this day, she won’t reveal her source! Grrrr!) Another time, I kissed a boy at a church-wide retreat. Granted, we were alone in one of the bunk rooms in the lodge where the youth stayed, but we were fully and completely clothed, I promise! It was my first “make out session”, and yes, my mother found out about it, and no, she still won’t reveal her source. So the only things I ever did in high school that would have qualified me for the 96% group, my mom found out about anyway!

I saved most of my rebelling for college – it was while I was a student at a prestigious, liberal-arts university in the Texas Hill Country that I got drunk for the first time, smoked my first cigarette, and went skinny-dipping with frat boys (at Canyon Lake – it was kind of a tradition.) One night, armed with red spray paint, some of my sorority sisters and I decorated an overpass near campus with our sorority’s letters. Now I’m thinking, what were we thinking???

According to brain research, maybe we weren’t.

Bronson and Merryman cite two studies that give us insight into the teenaged brain. In the first study, children, teens, and adults played a pirate video game while inside an MRI scanner. Each time they successfully navigated a challenge in the game, the subjects were rewarded with gold – a single gold coin, a small stack of coins, or a jackpot pile of gold. The children’s brains lit up the same no matter what reward they received; the adults’ brains lit up according to the reward – single coin, small pleasure response, jackpot, big pleasure response. The teenagers in the study? Their brains didn’t light up when they won the single coin or the small stack of coins; in fact, their responses dipped below the baseline. The teenagers’ brains only lit up when they won the jackpot, and they really lit up, more than the children or the adults in the study. The researchers compared this response to that of a junkie who no longer finds pleasure in taking a small amount of a drug. The junkie’s brain needs more of the drug in order to get the high he or she seeks.

In another study, researchers asked subjects to decide if something was a good idea or a bad idea. The good ideas were things like “eating a salad” or “walking the dog.” The bad ideas were instantly, physically repulsive to the adults in the study: bite down on a lightbulb; swallow a cockroach (ACK!!!); light your hair on fire; jump off a roof; swim with sharks. The adults’ brains signaled distress and danger immediately when these grisly scenarios flashed on the screen, and they identified them as bad ideas. The teenagers didn’t answer differently (they didn’t think swimming with sharks was a good idea) but the areas of the brain that signal danger and distress did not light up immediately. They had to think about each concept before they could decide whether or not it was a good idea.

So, saying to teenagers “What were you thinking? Didn’t you know it was a bad idea?” is missing the point. Teenagers can think abstractly about choices, and they know which ones are good and which ones they should avoid, but in the moment, the feeling parts of their brains don’t operate automatically because they haven’t had enough life experience to form instinctive responses.

Back to the 96% of kids who lie to their parents. Drs. Nancy Darling and Linda Caldwell of Penn State (the researchers who wouldn’t have wanted me in their study) conducted an interesting experiment to discover what kids lie to their parents about and why and how often they lie. They recruited undergraduate students to interview teens at a local high school (they targeted the cool kids first, the ones with the not-lame social lives) and went through a deck of 36 cards designed to elicit conversation. Each card described a topic teenagers sometimes lie to their parents about – sex, drugs, clothes, dating, homework, etc. As they went through the deck, the undergrads asked the kids which issues they disagreed with their parents about, whether or not they had broken their parents’ rules, and how they had deceived their parents. Of the 36 topics, the average teen lied to his or her parents about 12 of them. One-fourth of the time, teens devised outright lies to cover up transgressions they thought would get them in trouble; half of the time teens withheld information they thought would upset their parents (saying they were going to the movies with just the girls, when, really, the boys would be there, too); the other quarter of the time, kids just didn’t mention the topic at all, hoping their parents wouldn’t ask them about it.

Dr. Darling and Dr. Caldwell also wanted to find out if being an honors student or being really busy with extracurricular activities lessened the incidences of lying. It didn’t. Most kids, at some point in their lives, carve out their independence by rebelling against authority, regardless of circumstances. We think of kids as gradually becoming more resistent to authority as they move from pre-teens to adulthood, peaking at age 18, but the researchers found that kids aged 14 and 15 were most bothered by parents’ intrusion into their lives.

Interestingly, when kids lie, it’s to protect their relationship with their parents, not because they don’t want to get into trouble. This is true for children of both permissive and strict parents. The researchers surveyed the parents of the kids in the study about their parenting style and their relationship with their kids. Permissive parents imagine that if they don’t set too many rules and allow their kids to have a great deal of freedom, their kids will confide in them, even if they are doing things they know their parents won’t like. Strict parents believe that giving kids a long list of rules to follow will set up parameters their children will surely be afraid to breach. The problem is, many strict parents don’t actually enforce all the rules. In both types of families, teenagers do things they don’t want their parents to know about, and they lie to cover them up. Only a few parents in the study were truly oppressive, psychologically intruding into their children’s lives. These kids didn’t rebel – they were obedient. And depressed.

I love this description of the type of parents whose kids lie the least:

[The researchers found that] the type of parents who are most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids. They’ve set a few rules over certain key spheres of influence, and they’ve explained why the rules are there. They expect the child to obey them. Over life’s other spheres, they supported the child’s autonomy, allowing her the freedom to make her own decisions.

Bronson and Merryman, 2009

These parents’ kids lied the least. Instead of hiding twelve areas of their lives from their parents, they only hid about five. This parenting style is commonly known as authoritative, and I believe it is the key to making sure our kids are among the 4% who don’t lie to their parents. That doesn’t mean they won’t rebel or do things we don’t want them to do. Parents with an authoritative style of parenting develop relationships with their kids based on mutual respect and understanding.  Because the teens have freedom in some areas of their lives, they are less likely to disobey the guidelines their parents have set, and they are more likely to talk to their parents about difficult subjects.

My teaching style is authoritative (at least, that is what I aim for!) so I have done a fair amount of reading about how to develop a child-centered, adult-guided classroom. I highly recommend the following books to anyone seeking to become an authoritative (as opposed to authoritarian or permissive) parent:

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