Izzy Connerly tiptoed out of her bedroom, carrying her shoes by her side. She switched on the bathroom light and closed the door loud enough for her parents to hear. Then she turned on the air conditioner, waited for it to start humming aggressively and slipped out the front door. She made sure to turn on her car while the AC was still loud. She backed down her driveway with her lights off.
The thrill hit her when she turned on to the road: freedom.
Many teens will do nearly anything to get a taste of that feeling. The teenage years have always carried the difficult weight of self-discovery and individuation from family. Since at least the 1950s, the act-out behaviors that often accompany these emotions have become classified as “teenage rebellion.” It’s a stereotype defined by the onscreen James Deans of the world: cigarette-smoking, leather-jacket-wearing, over-the-speed-limit-driving young men and women who embody the cool, careless, sexy attitude so many teens find refuge in as they struggle with the question “Who am I?”
But behind the stereotype, and amid the parental frustration and societal pressure that traditionally accompany the teenage years, lies a very natural process, one essential to growing up, teens say.
“Being a rebel is part of being a teenager. Society has made that a thing,” said Connerly, a St. Michael’s High School junior. “But it’s also part of figuring yourself out — experimenting with drugs and sexuality is just part of figuring out what you like and don’t like.”
Lark Miller, a Santa Fe Waldorf School sophomore, agreed.
“It’s kind of a rite of passage to rebel at least a little bit, and find out who you are outside of the rules of family and friends,” she said.
Often, rebellious behavior is more than a rite of passage and is fueled by anger at societal, parental and school-system confines. Connerly, for example, said that high school students often feel like numbers and feel pressed to earn good grades and follow the rules set down by adults and school officials. “And a lot of us teens just want to say, ‘Stop telling me what to do! I don’t want to be seen as a number,’ ” she said.
Daisy Barnard, Lark’s mom and a high school teacher at Waldorf, said, “Every teenager reaches a point in their life where they have to reevaluate everything. They discover that a lot of the things they thought are not true. They often feel angry, disillusioned, let down.”
Miller said that rebellion also can be about asserting control when everything seems like it’s out of control. Miller recognizes that using drugs can be detrimental to her health, but “if you have control over bad things that are happening, at least you have control over something,” she said.
For her, she said, rebellion is like a call for attention so someone can tell her what she is doing is wrong: “I just want to be seen. And if someone cares that it’s wrong, then at least someone cares.”
Parents are generally the first to feel the brunt of this discomfort and desire for control, Barnard said. She said it’s hard to be pushed away from her child, but it’s also about letting them grow and experiment while showing them support and love.
A lot of this feeling has to do with being an adolescent, said Odin Frostad, a junior at the Academy for Technology and the Classics. “You feel really confined, but you don’t want to feel confined, so you do a lot of pushing walls and boundaries to create space,” Frostad said. “Parents establish a system, and teenagers rebel against whatever system they’re confined in, no matter what.”
Frostad first started sneaking out of the house because his parents said no to “normal things” he wanted to do. Barnard, a goody-two-shoes on the surface, recalls sneaking out with her best friend nearly every weekend starting when she was 14 in the 1980s. She stole her parents’ car and spent long nights driving around Colorado “listening to music and talking, just wanting to be free.”
Her daughter, on the other hand, was looking for community. Miller remembers sneaking out when she lived in Los Angeles to hang out with “bad influences,” she said. There, “I found people who had the same pain and the same coping skills as me, and we actually helped each other get out of the bad stuff.”
Frostad cites teenage rebellion as essential, not just individually but for the good of society. “When people get older, they tend to get more comfortable and accept a lack of change or unhappiness with their lives, and I think being a teenager allows you to rebel in a positive way,” said Frostad, adding such activities may lead to a path of activism down the road.
Yann Lussiez, the head of school at Desert Academy and the father of two teenage girls, agreed that the responsibility of teen rebels is to “highlight the inconsistencies or injustices in the world, break the rules set before them and challenge authority.”
If teen rebellion is inevitable, what should parents, teachers and mentors do?
Connerly’s parents told her this in regard to her rebellious tendencies: “Don’t do it. If you do it, don’t get caught. If you get caught, don’t call me.” But, she said, she wishes they would instead say to her, “Call me, I’ll be there to help you figure things out.”
Barnard said the most important thing for parents to do is be compassionate: Let your children know that you are watching, that you do care and that their safety is paramount.
In the interim, teens are going to sometimes push back, Miller said.
“And to anyone who says we’re without a cause: Figuring out who you are is totally a cause,” she said.
Hannah Laga Abram is a senior at the Santa Fe Waldorf School. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.