Why Must They Rebel?

Category: Play Therapy

Why Must They Rebel? What our children are telling us and why rebelling is important at every age
Caitlyn Valle, LMFT

You’ve read the books, you talk to your friends, you get advice from the teacher. For the most part, you feel like you’re doing the best you can. So why do the children still feel the need to rebel? You’ve all been there…those days when your child must do everything by themselves, when the only word they know that day is “no!” and where you need to ask them at least 5 times to put on their shoes. The terrible two’s, the challenging threes and impossible fours. The reality is that every age has both its joys and its difficulties. Rebelling is a natural part of development and growth and truthfully, it’s how you know you’re doing something right!

When looking at your child’s behavior, it’s important to look at the function of the behavior or what need the child is looking for you to meet. When you look at behavior from this lens, it can often take out some of the judgement we have about the behavior. It’s not that your child is being manipulative, it’s that they have a need and are trying their best to get it met…even if it’s not always in a positive way. Children who rebel often are seeking for a chance to feel more competent or powerful. Children who don’t listen might feel like their desires are being acknowledged. Children who appear overly controlling may worry that their needs won’t get met. One of the most surprising is that when children are being disrespectful, it is likely their way of showing that they don’t feel they are connected enough to their parent.

When children rebel as smaller children, there is an instinctual quality about their behavior. It’s as if they are saying “I know we have a long road ahead mom/dad. In this moment I’m going to challenge you to set limits to prove to me you can be the strong mom/dad I am going to need you to be as I grow up.” Children not only crave limits but need them to feel safe regardless of how hard it might be as a parent to set that limit. By showing them that you can be consistent as a small child in setting a reasonable limit, you’re demonstrating your effectiveness and confidence as a parent. The more consistent you can be, the more quickly you will see your child respond. Your child will likely need to explore, try new things and test boundaries of themselves and others. During this time, it’s important to know expectations and for parents to set reasonable (age appropriate) limits. Children at this age need lots of active play, patience, love and attention. Children need individual uninterrupted playtime with parents for a minimum of 10-20 minutes per day. Children at this age are still learning about personal space, boundaries and social cues. Children need praise to know what they are doing right and still need to be allowed to have moments where they are your “little baby” from time to time.

As an older child, they will have lots of questions as they learn to navigate the world of cooperative friendships. As they develop these friendships for the first time, there are bound to be ups and downs. You may start to see some of that notorious teenage “attitude” come out as they seek to begin to find some independence and strive to be both unique and included at the same time. When they don’t feel they fit in with their peers, it can cause some distress and you may see some heightened emotions. Listen to their wants and needs and keep in mind that the “must have” pair of pants might truly feel like the only way she will be accepted by her peers. Help them to navigate these struggles and keep them active in recreational activities that will build self-esteem. Children at this age may now know what they want and may feel eager to be seen and treated as a budding adult. They want their independence and will push you to find time to explore it. Open communication and structure are important during this time to help them find safe ways to explore independent growth. These children need to be seen and heard while being held accountable. Don’t be afraid to give older children/pre-teens more responsibility and ask them to take on household chores. These children want independence but very much still need guidance. Continue to make special time with your child daily and ask them about their experiences, feelings and challenges at dinner time or before bed.

Every behavior has a function and therefore something to be gained. The good news is that when your child rebels, she gains independence and confidence as she challenges limits. She will find her identity and practice navigating situations in which she will need to stand up for herself with peers and later in the workplace. He will find mastery and pride when he gets his needs met despite your restrictions as a parent. He will feel more confident as an individual person with each protest and learn to navigate the complexities of communication and negotiation. Continue your journey as a curious, compassionate, patient, consistent and confident parent as you navigate through each stage of rebellion. Remember that with each protest, they are growing!