Why They Rebel

Rebellion in a household, while admittedly unpleasant to live with, disturbs DR. J. ROSWELL GALLAGHER less than too much dependence or excessive conformity. In the paper which follows he reaffirms his belief that adolescents need to develop their own personalities, their independence, and a regard for others’ rights. Dr. Gallagher is the author of Understanding Your Son’s Adolescence, a book which parents and teachers have found most helpful. He is now Chief of the new Adolescent Unit at the Children’s Medical Center in Boston, a pioneer venture into the toolong-neglected field of the care of the medical and emotional needs of this group.



YOU must have heard a parent say, “I just can’t manage Bill, lie pays no attention to me; he’s positively defiant. Sometimes he just doesn’t answer and sulks; other times he slams the door and goes out. You’d think at sixteen he’d have better manners. I don’t know what’s gotten into him; he didn’t used to be this way.”

Rebellion rears its head when youth’s natural trend toward the development of independence meets with consistent opposition. Parents want young people to grow up and to become independent, but are not always willing to let them try. We forget that by our continuing to help, we rob them of opportunities to learn to do for themselves. When they rebel, their defiance baffles or infuriates us; we forget that rebellion is more praiseworthy than is a desire to remain dependent.

Bill caused his parents very little trouble or anxiety in his first fifteen years. Then, during his second year of high school, things began to change, and a few months later his frantic mother sought help. “I can’t figure Bill out. He ignores me; he acts as if he thinks I’m stupid, sometimes as if he hates me. I can’t understand what’s gotten into him. We do everything for him — we get him anything he wants. We try to help him with his schoolwork; we’re careful what friends he makes; we don’t let him wear himself out doing jobs after school. He used to tell me everything; now, if I ask him where he’s going, all he says is ‘Out ‘; and if I try to find out whom he’s been with, all he answers is ‘The gang.’ I tried for months to get him to have his teeth attended to before I finally gave up. Just last week we got a bill from the dentist: Bill had gone to him by himself and had never said a word to us. He’s going around with some girl. I guess she’s all right, but he won’t bring her home.”

That’s adolescent rebellion, but to name it neither makes it more pleasant to live with nor contributes much to understanding it.

Bill started out totally dependent — literally tied to his mother, figuratively dependent on his father; and as he grew he gradually strove for more and more independence. When he first tried to walk, it was with his hand in theirs: but slowly he broke away until he could walk by himself. The first evidence of his being able to do for himself made his parents very happy. They would have been upset if he had not walked as early as Aunt Gertrude’s boy, and they welcomed and applauded his early steps even though they were very awkward and even though he frequently fell.

Later, an adolescent with the size and strength to do a man’s work, if necessity demanded, he wanted to be treated like a man; he wanted to do his own schoolwork, to choose his own friends, to earn his own spending money, to develop his own interests, to have his own ideas — and his parents feared to have him try. They doubted his ability, his responsibility, and his judgment, and they believed it better for him to rely on theirs than to trust and to develop his own. They feared he would make mistakes; they feared he would make (he same mistakes they had once made; and they dreaded the thought of his growing up and needing them no more. They forgot that his own awkward efforts would do him more good in the long run than the perfect things he could do with their help. They forgot that a transition from dependence to independence is normal and natural, and something very much to be fostered. So they thwarted him — and he rebelled.

Rebellion is neither to be tossed off as “just adolescence,” to be laughed at, to be resented, or to be cried over. It certainly is not to be met with stiff resistance. It needs to be understood as unpleasant evidence that a natural desire to grow up, to develop one’s own identity, to become a self-sustaining individual, is being achieved in a very awkward fashion. It is important to understand what is behind it, what it is heading toward, and why you feel about it as you do. Parents have an essential role in the production of these young people. We understand that, and we realize that children need our love and protection and should be made to feel that they are wanted and that they are secure against inevitable threats. But as these young people change and grow up, parents’ roles change too. We must relax our protection and give them ever-increasing opportunities to do for themselves. Our real job is to produce an adult, not a child.

We must also occasionally assess the part our emotions play in our attitudes toward our children, and try to discover what is behind our wishes and our plans for them. Is it our own fears which force us always to think of the dangers which threaten our growing son or daughter? Are our restrictions and restraints deeply colored by our own anxiety and insecurity? Are these the bases for our secretly wishing that our children would not grow up? We complain that they no longer confide in us; but how often does our own embarrassment prevent us from talking to them about really important matters? During our children’s adolescence, when we are being alternately renounced and sought by them — when our children awkwardly strive for independence and yet fear to accept it—it is hardly strange that we alternately try to push them into maturity and then, fearing they are not ready to accept responsibility, refuse to let them try.

The female is indeed the gentler, less aggressive sex, but girls also need to develop their individuality and to gain independence. A spirited girl can upset a home as completely as her brother can. When Mary was fifteen, a year after her father had died, she and her mother were at swords’ points. Dresses her mother bought her hung untouched in her closet; when questioned she would o’ffer a limp excuse for not wearing them. She refused to help with the housework when her mother asked her to; but occasionally, when the mother would go off for a holiday, she would return to find that Mary had cleaned the house from top to bottom. The neighbors couldn’t believe that Mary refused her mother’s request for help, that she was disobedient and impertinent and that she never talked to her mother about her friends and her activities. She chattered endlessly to some of these neighbors and frequently helped them with their household chores. Mary’s telephone calls and her going off on dates without permission caused the most violent scenes. Sometimes, when a boy would telephone Mary, her mother would fly into a rage and snatch the receiver from her.

Mary became more and more surly and evasive and stayed away from home more and more frequently, until finally her mother became desperate. “I do everything for her. I buy her clothes, I try to teach her how to do things properly, but she resents every suggestion I make. I try to protect her and she flies into a rage, screaming that she is no longer a baby. The only time she is fit to live with is when she has her own way.”

Mary didn’t need all this protection, all those suggestions. She had grown up more than her mother, still feeling acutely the loss of her husband, could bear to believe. And Mary, needing and wanting her independence, failed to understand the deep emotion which made her mother try to hold her so close.

When understood as a manifestation of thwarted attempts at independence, adolescent rebellion is easier to tolerate. You also find it easier to sit by and see mistakes being made when you know that mistakes today mean fewer in the future. The errors in choice of friends, the poor planning, the low grades in subjects you could have helped your children with, are hard to take — much harder to take than the falls that accompanied those first halting steps. But even as they learned to walk smoothly by being allowed to try, so will they become mature only if you let them do for themselves.

It does not always require restraint to produce signs of rebellion. These young people are less confident than they care to admit; their show of defiance is balanced precariously. Angrily protesting that they are no longer babies, they fear independence and may tomorrow seek the very help they reject today. Small wonder that, being confused and anxious, they behave childishly at times.

Ironically, those adolescents who find the leaving of their parents and the acquisition of independence most difficult may treat their parents the most cruelly. The more the breaking away disturbs them, the more fierce and childish will be their outbursts.


So MUCH for understanding what rebellion can mean. The extreme instances of rebellion are the unhappy incidents which follow when parents rely on authority to produce the respect which can only grow out of years of affectionate relationship; when parents thwart every attempt at growing up; when parents refuse to let their children go. Because they are afraid that their children will be hurt, or because they do not appreciate the importance of independence, or simply because they need their children, parents will sometimes squelch all efforts at growing up.

But rebellion really is desirable. Suppose it never happened. Suppose an adolescent never had the desire to do for himself. What sort of future would then be in store for him? Fortunate and happy the home where maturity and independence are approached gracefully; hutit is better to have slammed doors and monosyllables than that a boy or girl never should want to stand alone, It is obviously independence, not rebellion, which deserves approval; but when youth’s natural striving toward independence is thwarted, rebellion is more praiseworthy than deference. Fear of responsibility and failure to struggle against too tight reins are more disheartening than defiance. Few of us can view complacently the prospect of the spiritless boy or girl who today accepts a parent’s oversolicitude and tomorrow may relinquish his independence to the blandishments of demagogues.

Phil’s mother couldn’t understand that. And later she couldn’t understand his failure in his senior year in high school. She had “done everything for him.” That, of course, was exactly it. Not being allowed to do for himself, it was inevitable that either he would remain totally dependent or he would become resentful. Phil’s marks were terrible. He was fed up with school, but he had no thought of doing anything but dragging along. During his grade school years he had done very well, and there was no reason to doubt his ability. He talked freely about his mother — of her boundless energy and the efficient way in which she handled things both at home and in his father’s business. Phil had always been told exactly what to do, exactly what to wear, exactly where to go. He had never tried to make plans for himself, his mother always planned thingss so very well. She bought his clothes, arranged for his summers, told him what girl to take out, what college to try for.

It was not her domination and overprotection which bothered me—though those were certainly not commendable: it was Phil’s failure to rebel that I found disturbing. Dependent and irresponsible by nature, neither independence nor responsibility was being fostered by others or sought by the boy himself. He was “such a nice boy” that his school thought him “perhaps a little lazy, but he’ll grow out of it. And he’s no real trouble at all — not like some of our boys.” He would play a little football, but never hard enough to make the team; smaller, less able boys would beat him out. “Too eager” he called them. He wrote well, but he’d never take the pains to polish his themes—“If you do well, then they always expect you to.” He was an expert swimmer but he wouldn’t take a lifeguard job in the summer — “I’d rather let somebody else worry.” Never leading, always hanging back; sensitive and not seeking the knowledge and prestige which would bring him responsibility — there he was, a beautiful machine, carefully wrapped in cellophane.

Bill and Mary, who rebelled against overprotection, needed more opportunities to develop the independence they so badly wanted. But what can one do for a Phil? It is not easy to instill a desire to grow up, to eradicate complacency, to make a helmsman out of a drifter. Phil had to be made to see himself for what he was; he had to be helped to develop an interest and faith in himself; and then he had to learn to assert his individuality over anyone who threatened to dominate him.

Such a rebuilding is not easy, but in adolescents it is not an impossible task. Encouraged to put into words long-suppressed feelings of resentment toward the smothering authority of a dominating parent, or given a strong adult whom they deeply admire and wish to emulate, adolescents can slowly develop a wish to grow up and to be independent. Some, seeing then that success in school may later be a means of avoiding further domination, begin to show a real interest in their studies.

The career a boy chooses can be of less significance than that he have ideas about it, that it he his own choice. He can, and should, be guided, but a poor choice of his own is better than for him to have no ideas of his own and blindly to follow someone else. Their own latchkey, their own bank account, a job, buying and earing for their own things, sharing in the family’s problems, doing for others, buying their own clothes — all these develop a sense of responsibility and independence and make boys and girls feel that they are trusted and tbought of as people who are trying to become adults. There is everything to gain, and nothing to lose, by efforts to help them to grow up. it may be painful to watch them try to become mature, but it should not he half as disturbing as to find that they don’t want to do so.

Adolescents thrive on responsibility — the more you give them, the better they learn to handle it. It is only when they are given too much too soon, when without any preparation too much is expected of them, or when it is too long withheld and then thrown at them all at once, that they come a cropper. Rebellion is a straining at the bit; it is solved by loosening, not by tightening, the reins.

If young people are to develop into mature, independent, self-reliant men and women capable of respect for authority and for the rights and needs of others, they must be given ever-increasing opportunities to venture on their own. They need to put meaning into that personality which love and security gave so fine an early start. As boys and girls grow, they must learn to protect themselves, to develop their own attitudes and interests, their own personalities. Free and independent themselves, they will have more respect for the rights and the opinions of others. To continue to run their lives, to continue to protect them, is to leave them without protection. The affection and security given adolescents in childhood will have been an empty gift if later they are not allowed to build on it — if they are not allowed to temper and to test their mettle.