Just when you think everything is going along fine - you're finally making friends who aren't dweebs, you got that cool skateboard you wanted for Christmas, you made it to the last level of Quake - your body starts doing all these weird things, growing hair WHERE?!, the other sex starts becoming disquietingly interesting (despite your best efforts to alienate them), your parents completely lose their minds and become the dumbest people you have ever met, music and clothing are natural symbols of independence and peer identification that are suddenly way more important than which Pokeman is your favorite - in other words, you hit Puberty!

Adolescence is a very confusing time even for well-adjusted kids, because of the conflicting demands placed on them by peers, school, parents and society, as well as because of the rapid changes happening in the form and chemistry of their bodies. Add to the mix a little family conflict, some depression, a learning problem, etc., and you have a volatile mixture that is bound to give rise to at least minor explosions on the way to adulthood.

The challenges of adolescence stem from the extreme ambivalence kids feel about the whole process of growing up. On the one hand, they get to do more things and be more independent; on the other hand, they must leave the relative safety of their parents' protection to take responsibility for their decisions, which they feel impelled to make on their own with limited experience or knowledge of the world and a not-completely developed brain (the brain stops growing between 16 and 18 years of age).

Consequently, we hear teens expressing their desire for independence (they wish for the privileges of adults) without understanding or accepting the huge set of obligations and responsibilities which adults take on in exchange for the "freedom" to set their own curfew and buy alcohol legally.

Because a teenager's brain really has just recently developed the ability to do abstract thinking, comparison is the name of the game, and every teen measures him- or herself mercilessly (as they measure each other) against the yardstick of popular teen culture and their peers. They also have a hair trigger for hypocrisy, and find any inconsistency in adult values to be particularly abhorrent. They don't seem to be able to understand compromise, and they will usually opt to "crash and burn" if necessary in order to prove a point, such as "you can't force me to learn anything."

Erik Erikson, a well-known psychologist who developed a social-learning based theory of the development of personality, believed that adolescents have as their primary task the development of "identity," which is a set of attitudes and beliefs about ourselves which lie underneath every interaction we have with other people, and which determines how we plot the course of our lives. Our parents have much to do with the development of identity up until we hit puberty, but at that point we begin very actively to seek other input and we become much more self-determining in regard to the identity we forge for ourselves.

The development of identity involves the discovery and "trying-on" of various alternative attitudes, beliefs, and personae (social identities). This accounts for the frequently observed, sudden shifts in teens' entire lifestyle and orientation ("NO, you cannot get a tattoo of the devil smoking a joint!"). Traditionally, hobbies and activities are a source of this alternative input, as are musical groups.

The Teenager's Dilemma

One aspect of the development of identity which is puzzling and upsetting for parents, and which they often are unable to understand, is why their teen becomes oppositional and defiant. Remember, although this is a "normal" aspect of teen emotional development, there is a somewhat fuzzy line between healthy opposition in the development of identity and a serious emotional problem that requires help. If you are unsure, a session or two with a psychologist can help you sort this out.

Because it is so important for teens to feel their developing sense of identity, which will eventually help them to make the transition from their parents' protection to an independent life, they will go to great lengths in order to reinforce the feeling that "I did this my way." Once parents express an opinion about something, the teenager will never be able to feel that he or she made up their own mind about it. If the teen does what the parents want or recommend, it will feel like he or she is cooperating with them and they won't feel like it was their choice. If he or she does the opposite, at least he or she won't feel that they are being a "goody goody." However, they will never be sure whether it was their choice or whether they did it because their parents wanted them not to.

Remember - Family Is Voluntary

One thing that parents often forget is that there is a difference between being oppositional and truly opting out of the family. There is a line which most teens will not cross - once you truly disregard your parents' authority, things in the family will never be the same and you have given the message that you are no longer a member of the family - and even heated arguing about parental decisions still demonstrates acceptance of parental authority.

Being a member of the family must be a voluntary commitment. Simply living in the house does not make one a family member. Shared tasks and responsibilities appropriate to your role, as well as shared concern and sacrifice for the welfare of others, are what make you a true member of the family.

While there are a few teens who become completely unresponsive to parental authority, most teen opposition is really about the creation and maintenance of a power struggle. If you engage in a power struggle with a teenager, you have already lost the battle before you begin.

Power struggles happen because parents believe that their job is to convince the teen that the parental view is the "right" one. When the teen refuses to be convinced that he or she really should not get what they want, and they take the limit-setting badly, the parents weaken in their resolve or delay implementation of their decision because of the teen's lack of cooperation. This reinforces the teen's behavior and encourages him or her to continue to use oppositional behavior.

YOU CANNOT WIN THE POWER STRUGGLE! For one thing, you have things to do besides argue, and your teen does not. For another thing, your teen will almost always be willing to escalate his or her behavior higher that you are willing to escalate yours (for example, they will be willing to fail a class to show you that you can't make them do their homework). For a third thing, if you get surface compliance, your teen will "get you back" in some other way, such as by failing in some other task.

The only way to avoid the power struggle is to neatly sidestep it. Do not try to convince your teen that your decision is the right one - it is impossible to change his or her mind about it. Meet any objections with an acknowledgment that yes, you know that they do not agree with your decision. "I'm sorry you feel that way" is a good response which validates their feelings but does not accept the proposition that your decision is up for negotiation. If you are easily manipulated into feelings of guilt, or are easily broken down by repetitive harangues, it may be wise to obtain professional help with a parent training class or family therapy.