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Teenagers: Why Do They Rebel?


WebMD Feature

By Jeanie Lerche Davis

Driving fast, breaking curfew, arguing, shoplifting. Teenagers can push your patience, but unfortunately, some kids go as far as blatantly flouting rules or breaking the law, often with tragic results. What's with this rebellious streak? How can parents funnel it into less risky business?

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All teens go through similar phases -- the need for independence, a separate identity, testing authority. It's part of growing up; it's also linked to developmental changes in the brain that will eventually help them become analytical adults.

But today's teens get an extra whammy -- social pressures come earlier than in previous generations.

To understand this complex picture, WebMD turned to two of the nation's experts.

David Elkind, PhD, is the author of All Grown Up and No Place to Go, and is a professor of child development at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. Amy Bobrow, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and professor in the Child Study Center at New York University School of Medicine in Manhattan.

Brain: Under Construction

During the teenage years, the area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex is developing. This is the part of your brain that is behind your forehead. It's your thinking cap and judgment center, Elkind explains, which means kids can now develop their own ideals and ideas.

Whereas younger children don't see the flaws in their parents, adolescents suddenly see the world more realistically. "They construct an ideal of what parents should be, based on their friends' parents, on media parents. When they compare their own parents to the ideal, they find them wanting. Their parents don't know how dress, walk, talk; they're embarrassing," he tells WebMD.

All the arguments -- they're also the result of the prefrontal cortex at work, Elkind says. As a child evolves into a teenager, the brain becomes able to synthesize information into ideas. Teens want to exercise their new skill -- and they tend to practice on their parents. "It may seem that they argue for the sake of arguing. But really, they're practicing their new abilities."

Going Social

Whereas wild clothes and make-up used to be a rite of passage into adolescence, that's not true today, says Elkind. The preadolescent 11- and 12-year-olds -- the Britney Spears generation -- are pushing that fashion envelope.

Body piercing, tattoos, and music are today's "markers" of adolescence. "No self-respecting 15-year-old is going to listen to Britney Spears," he says.

Another dynamic: first love, first sex, first drugs, first drinking. In earlier generations, kids weren't expected to be sexually active -- or experiment with alcohol or drugs -- until they turned 17 or 18, when they were better able to resist peer pressure, says Elkind. "Now they're getting pressure at 13 and 14, when they're too young to resist. It's not that child development has changed, it's that the demands are coming at earlier ages."

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