What Are the Causes of Rebellious Children & Teens?

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Rebellion is part of the development process in healthy children and teens. You might see this in a child as young as 2 years old when he throws a fit, according to the KidsHealth.org article “Taming Tempers.” As a child grows and matures, his desire for control of his environment and autonomy increases, which can brew together the perfect conditions for a power struggle.

Denying the Existence of Authority

A child might act rebellious as a way to exercise independence. For example, a younger child might constantly ask, “Why?” An older child might contradict everything a parent says, while a teen won’t follow instructions or will do the opposite of what her parent requests. In the Psychology Today online article “Surviving (Your Child’s) Adolescence,” psychologist Carl Pickhardt says that a child or teen’s act of independence is actually an act of dependence because the young person’s actions depend on doing the opposite of what authority figures want.

Testing Boundaries

As a child grows, she’ll test the established boundaries to see what she can get away with and learn the true limits. For example, a child might refuse to go to bed at the normal bedtime to see how late his parents will let him stay up if he presses them. In addition to exerting independence, a child or teen can test boundaries because he doesn’t understand them or because he’s developing his own identity.

A Form of Self-punishment

If a child has a bad thought or believes that she secretly misbehaved, she might use rebellion as a form of self-punishment, according to J.P. Kahn in the publication “Child Development -- Problems of Discipline, Authority and Rebellion” on the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine website. In an effort to atone for the negative thoughts or behavior, such as wishing harm on a sibling, a child might perform an action that she believes is equally as bad in a manner that makes her parents take notice. For example, a young child might purposefully use profane language, while a teen might destroy property. Kahn states that when a child or teen acts in this rebellious manner, she wants to ensure that her parents know about the risks she thinks she poses.

A Defensive Mechanism

When a child or teen feels anxious or scared, she might use rebellion as a defensive mechanism. A young child, according to Kahn, tests boundaries and pushes authority figures to see whether her fears regarding the consequences are real or imagined. Alternatively, she might act out just to see what would happen. If a child or teen feels anxious about being let down in a relationship, or is afraid of letting someone down, she might use rebellion to push a person.

Brain Development

As the adolescent brain develops, it becomes more complex, giving a young person the ability to reason and think abstractly. According to a Johns Hopkins University publication titled, “The Teen Years Explained,” as a teen develops cognitively, risk-taking behaviors naturally increase. It’s normal for a teen to act defiantly or rebelliously as she exercises her newly developed thinking, communication and social skills.