- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2000

How can parents decide if their rebellious teen is going through a phase or is suffering from something much more dangerous?

Kay Abrams, a therapist who counsels families and adolescents in Garrett Park, says many parents she encounters lack basic confidence in their parenting abilities, but still there are teens who have serious biochemical or other physical problems that fuel their rebellion.

"I don't want to moralize everything and blame the parents, when in fact there are a fair number of teens who have depression or anxiety disorders because of stress or divorce or other family factors," Mrs. Abrams says. "Those people need professional help, but they're not the average kid we're talking about, either."

Psychologist Kathleen McCoy, an author of 11 books on adolescents and a contributor to the National Parenting Center (TNPC) in Woodland Hills, Calif., says parents should ask two questions about their rebellious teen-ager.

"How frequent and intense is the rebellion?" she writes in ParenTalk Newsletter, a TNPC publication available on the Internet. "Normal rebellion is sporadic. If on the other hand, rebellion is constant and intense, this can be a sign of underlying emotional problems."

The other question she poses to parents is: "Is this behavior change drastic for my teen? Normal rebellious behavior develops over time, beginning with a teen wanting to be with friends more and disagreeing with parents more frequently. Problem rebellion is sudden and drastically out of character."

Once parents determine that this is a phase, counselors suggest several ways they can get through it with their sanity intact.

Mrs. Abrams says parents need to regain their confidence and authority. She says parents often lose confidence and cede their authority during teen rebellion by relying too quickly and solely on punishment instead of trying to use the rebellious behavior as a source of teaching moments.

"Every time you threaten or ground a kid, you're truly letting a kid know you're powerless and don't have authority," she says. "If you're grounded over and over again, what happens? Those kids truly become desensitized to grounding."

Other therapists, though, say punishment and groundings have their places in dealing with teen rebellion, but they need to be handled carefully.

Another attribute parents need to use, some therapists say, is a sense of humor.

"A sense of humor is an absolute must," says Brian Cross, a family therapist in the District. "You can't do it without a sense of humor. You have to be able to jostle a teen the way you jostled him on your lap when he was a toddler. They still need jostling, to be played with. But at the same time, they need to be taken seriously, too."

Raymond B. Wertheim, a counselor at the Family Therapy Institute in Fairfax, agrees.

"Some parents find their kids are 15 going on 3 going on 37," Mr. Wertheim says. "You have to have humor, and you have to be respectful all at the same time."

Mrs. Abrams says one way parents can do that is to continue "dating" each other, as they did when they were courting.

"We don't have time to sit and talk with our partners," Mrs. Abrams says. "When parenting is based on knee-jerk parenting, that's not good. Not only do I think parents should have a date as a 'fun' date, but I think they need another date for a parenting meeting themselves, to go over and see what everybody's doing, to think about where we're at here."

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