Breaking the Rules: Rebellion and Empathy – Teens and our Teenage Selves – February 2015
“I thought we had an agreement, ” I said in a panicked voice, “that you would not get your nose pierced until after your junior year.”
“It’s my body,” my son said. “And I don’t understand your reasoning.”
This is a dialogue that has been going between me and my 16-year-old for 2 years, with me scrabbling for solid ground, simultaneously longing to support creative expression and at the same time to provide protection and preserve choice with the strategy of staving off body modifications for as long as possible. Meanwhile, my son has been advocating for choice and autonomy and ownership of his own fate. He hasn’t rebelled in this area yet, but the time is not far off.
Rebellion, choice and autonomy are important from toddlerhood until death. These issues become particularly acute as mobility and self-motivation open doors for teens at the same time that their brains are not yet fully myelinated for self-control and wisdom. Their brains naturally take into account the possible pleasant effects of risk-taking, and ignore the negative effects.
When a person has survived their teenage years without any trust in other brains’ wisdom, they can be left with life-long rebellion that calls any requests for self-moderation into question. This dynamic can create trouble when trying to engage in self-care, especially when there is a desire to change habits related to eating, substance abuse, exercise, compulsions and sleep. Playful rebellion, on the other hand, can be harnessed for self-care, once we know how to frame the question.
Research shows that there are two forms of rebelliousness among teenagers: sensation-seeking rebelliousness, like the desire to get one’s nose pierced; and reactive rebelliousness which can result in bigger trouble. Both forms have their roots in our early attachment patterns, in our case in the years before I had started to repair and rebuild our family relationships using Nonviolent Communication as a pathway to better connection. (This is particularly poignant for me to write today in gratitude as I think of the changes we have made, just 3 days after the passing of Marshall Rosenberg, founder of NVC, surrounded by his family.)
Coming out of my relationship with my own traumatized mother, I was secretly rebellious as a teen, seeking different kinds of sensations and experiences to help me have a relationship with the world and other people in it. I snuck out at night and did all kinds of things that my mother would have been devastated by if I had done them openly and she had known. I had no trust in the wisdom of brains older than my own; I only had trust in myself. This question is still at issue for me at age 52. I want to try everything out for myself and find my own way, and I don’t trust my own requests for self-care.
This makes it complicated for me to advocate with my son for his long-term well-being. I want to let him decide things for himself as much as possible, or control him completely, which may not be very helpful when we’re talking about body piercings, doing physical therapy exercises every night or cleaning up Facebook for review by college application officers.
It would be so sweet to really lean into trust – to dog for my child’s well-being in a way that had warmth and consistency and relaxation. I’d love to be able to leverage humor and lightness and sweet respect. Sometimes, when I’ve had enough empathy, that’s what it feels like: parent-child flow, laughter, understanding and delicate communication.
I’m breathing a sigh of relief. The panic is dissipating. I can see the dream. Even just writing this intention supports me in continuing to advocate for my son’s long-term well-being without either collapse or spasmodic control.
“I’m advocating for my best sense of your well-being and your continued choice,” I can say to him. “And no matter what, I’ve got your back.”
Maybe next I’ll be able to say that to myself.