As parents we want our children to grow up to be humble and obedient to the laws of God. But not all children grow up this way, and many parents have a rebellious child. We know that love and concern for our children may not be enough to produce obedience. Children who have been loved and taught may still be rebellious. These children deliberately disobey important family rules or gospel principles, they continue rebellious behavior for a long period of time, and they often show no sorrow for their actions. Their behaviors may include chronic profanity, immorality, the use of alcohol and drugs, and truancy from school. Often this rebellion starts with not attending church.
Because our children are free to make choices, they sometimes make the wrong choice. Although we cannot force anyone into righteousness, we can teach them by precept and example and then pray that they will feel the influence of the Holy Ghost to choose the right. Having a rebellious child can be a frustrating and disheartening experience. However, although we must not force our children to obey, there is still much we can do.
Rebellious behavior often results when a child has a need that is not met. If we do not have a loving, respectful atmosphere at home, our children may not want to follow our teachings. Children need freedom to grow, develop, make decisions, and learn from their use of this freedom. If we smother them with rules or are too harsh and demanding, our children may rebel just to embarrass us. On the other hand, if we are too permissive or do not spend enough time with our children, they may feel they are being ignored. Then they may be rebellious to get our attention.
Our children might also choose to rebel if they see us setting a bad example. We cannot be hypocritical—saying one thing and doing another—and expect our children to be obedient. We cannot, for example, bring inappropriate videotape movies into our homes, run the tape fast past the “bad spots” (which we can do because we have already seen the movie), and then expect our children to choose good movies.
Sometimes young children test their independence by disobeying family rules. It is a mistake to ignore this kind of behavior. There are many ways for our children to gain a feeling of independence without breaking family rules. If we enforce limits firmly, fairly, and consistently when our children are young, we can help them avoid more serious rebellion later on.
Parents often blame themselves for the misbehavior of their children. While this may or may not be true (our children are influenced by many people and things outside the family), it is not helpful to spend time blaming ourselves. Nor is it productive to feel that others are blaming us. Too often this feeling of failure keeps us from our church meetings or from other places and people that might help us. It is better to recognize that there is a problem and then try to solve it.
Let us consider, then, some things we can do as parents to help the rebellious child.
Perhaps the first thing we can do is take a close, clear look at ourselves. Elder Boyd K. Packer, of the Council of the Twelve, has given us this advice: “Parents, can we first consider the most painful part of your problem? If you want to reclaim your son or daughter, why don’t you leave off trying to alter your child just for a little while and concentrate on yourself. The changes must begin with you, not with your children.
“You can’t continue to do what you have been doing (even though you thought it was right) and expect to un-produce some behavior in your child, when your conduct was one of the things that produced it.
“It’s you, not the child, that needs immediate attention.
“Now parents, there is substantial help for you if you will accept it. …
“And parents, if you seek for a cure that ignores faith and religious doctrine, you look for a cure where it never will be found. …
“Once parents know that there is a God and that we are his children, they can face problems like this and win.
“It would take a miracle, you say? Well, if it takes a miracle, why not.” (Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, pp. 106–7; italics added.)
As parents, we need to look at and change our own actions. Quite often, a key action parents can take is to reestablish (or establish for the first time) a relationship with the child. Often a child rebels because he feels lonely, ignored, or worthless. He uses bad behavior to get our attention. Giving time to your child will help him get over these feelings.
Developing a relationship takes time and sacrifice. We need to talk with (not to) our children and do things with them.
One mother tells the story of her initial attempt to do something with her antagonistic daughter. For some time the daughter had associated with a group of girls whose behavior—drinking, late parties, and skipping school classes—had been the cause of much contention in the home. Soon the only conversation the girl had with her parents was loud and condemning. The mother, finally realizing how far their relationship had deteriorated, determined to do something about it.
The daughter was unwilling to spend time with her mother in any kind of activity, but she was willing to let her mother drive her to school each morning. The first few weeks were strained; their conversations were simple questions with yes/no answers. But as time went on and the daughter saw that her mother would not criticize or condemn her, she began to open up to her mother, to share her life and feelings with her. Their morning rides became close and comfortable conversations, and the young girl found her mother to be a loyal friend.
A rebellious child needs our continual love. Even though we don’t agree with his actions, we can accept and love him, keeping him within the family circle where we can teach and encourage him.
Accepting a rebellious child does not mean that we allow him to use us or to continue in a path that would hurt others. A widowed sister whose teenage son wanted to smoke in her home told him the rule governing their home: “I love you, but in this house gospel standards are upheld.” When her son threatened to leave home, she replied: “You are always welcome here, and you will be loved no matter where you live. But when you are here, the rule of this house remains the same.”
We should not let a rebellious child cause us to neglect the other members of our family. Even though a rebellious child takes a large share of our time and resources, we cannot ignore our other children. We also have a responsibility to those who aren’t being disruptive or rebellious.
It is also very important to be considerate to and united with our spouse. A rebellious child should not be allowed to divide parents.
There is hope for change, but we need to be patient and open to help. Elder Loren C. Dunn, of the First Quorum of the Seventy, has given us this advice: “[There] is the temptation of parents to give up on their children, especially when those children seem to flaunt and disregard the laws of morality and conduct, which the parents hold dear and which govern the home, and when the children seem to rebel against every effort parents make to correct their behavior or show them a better way.
“The tragedy of our times as we look around us is that we see too many young people cut adrift—some of them in trouble and some of them causing trouble for society. Perhaps it is hard to realize that our Eternal Father also refers to these as son or daughter.
“Oh, parents, no matter what the difficulty, may we never desert our children in some dark and dangerous thoroughfare of life no matter what prompted them to get there. When they reach the point—and for some it may be a painfully long time—when they reach the point that they need us, I pray that we might not let them down.” (Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, pp. 62–64.)
We never give up on our children. If we have taught them correct principles, if we make the necessary changes in our lives, and if we always love them, many rebellious children will change their behavior. The process may take years, but we need to remain hopeful.
We do not have to carry the burden of a rebellious child by ourselves. It can be very helpful to share our burden with someone else not in the family. The bishop, close friends, counselors, or other parents who have had a similar experience can be a great support. The Lord is our greatest source of support, and we can always share our concerns with him.
Nothing brings righteous parents as much anguish as a rebellious child. The intensity with which the child flaunts family rules and the commandments can strain parents to the breaking point. But it will not help to indulge in feelings of guilt and worthlessness. Rather, we can turn to the Lord. He can bless us with the patience to endure such behavior as he inspires us in what we can do to influence change. The Lord will bless all our efforts, and in the end that is all that he will do. Our children will remain agents unto themselves. Neither the Lord nor we can force them. But we can do all we can to help and influence them.
“I think a child has a right to be right and a right to be wrong, and to know that his parents will stay with him through it all.” (Christian Science Monitor, 9 Sept. 1970, as quoted by Loren C. Dunn in Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, p. 64.)
Once you have read this article, the following might help you apply it to your family:
1. If you have a rebellious child, consider how your child may have interpreted your interest or disinterest in him. What can you do to show more interest in him? What can you do this week? What traditions might you establish with him?
2. Take a close look at your actions. Could any of them have influenced your child to rebel? What can you do to change your actions?
3. What interests, hobbies, and friends does your child have? What television shows does he watch? What music does he listen to? Could any of them be having an adverse effect on him? Discuss ways you might minimize their influence.
4. Have you prayed about your child? Have you fasted if necessary?