Do you know that your teen is addicted?

The fact is, even if our kids have never touched an addictive substance, they’re still hooked on something with a high far greater than anything a basement lab can conjure up. This intoxicating agent is called freedom. And as it turns out, a lot of behavior that confuses and even alarms parents can be tied directly to a child’s desperate quest for the rush of freedom—and the fear of losing it.

Freedom is like cocaine

Enter Dr. Julie Carbery, an adolescent and child psychotherapist, who has seen and heard it all in her twelve years of family practice. “What’s going on is freedom. Freedom is cocaine to a teenager. It’s intoxicating. It’s addictive. And it is often their biggest motivator. They will do anything to get it, and they are terrified of losing it.”

This craving was demonstrated in our national survey, in which nearly three out of four kids said they were strongly motivated to pursue freedom, and only a tiny fraction didn’t really care about having freedom at all.

In other words, freedom is not just a big deal to kids; it’s what gets them up and going in the morning. (Or noon.)

People who use drugs or alcohol are seeking a temporary, exhilarating high—often described as the feeling of being able to do things they normally couldn’t. Our kids are getting the same rush, but in a good way. They’re experiencing the thrill of freedom, of being liberated to do things on their own, often for the first time!

Remember, for their whole lives, our children have been dependent on us in countless ways. If your daughter wanted to go to the movies, she had no way to get there without you. If your son desperately wanted to play on the soccer team, he had to rely on you for the necessary money and transportation. Even if your daughter simply wanted to talk with a friend about homework, she first had to be sure you didn’t need the house phone at that moment. And if you suddenly did need to make a call, she had to wrap up her conversation.

You can see why finally being able to do things on their own is such a thrill for our kids. Once a kid enjoys the entrancing feeling of being a “real person,” you can see how scary it would be to think of giving that up.

The five facts of freedom

When we see our teens pushing the independence envelope, taking foolish risks, evading straight answers, or even breaking rules, we often chalk it up to peer pressure, media influence, and even rebellion—and we come down hard. Sometimes, obviously, there is a rebellious heart that needs to be dealt with, and lowering the boom may be necessary. But if we can spot the much more common signs of a spirit that is simply straining for a healthy freedom (albeit imperfectly), we can guide our child’s quest in ways that are healthy instead of counter-productive—helping them learn responsibility instead of triggering their sense of desperation.

We found five often-overlooked truths about this freedom-seeking aspect of a child’s inner life.

Fact 1: Freedom wields a greater influence than even parents or peers.

Over the years, many studies (and parents!) have asked whether parents or peers exert a bigger influence on kids’ behavior. Our research convinced us that this question misses the main point. When freedom is added to the mix, it seems to far outstrip the influence of any person. Look at the astounding survey results.

Nine out of ten kids said that when they do something questionable, it’s not because of peer pressure, and it’s not because they are rebelling against parents; it’s because they are pursuing their freedom and their ability to do what they want to do. And although parents with strong faith beliefs might wish otherwise, this dynamic wasn’t markedly different among kids who described themselves as Christians attending church every week.

On our survey, nearly seven out of ten kids admitted they would find a way to do something they wanted to do, even if their parents might disapprove.

Here’s what one representative teenage guy told us: “I’ll stop at nothing to get my way. I might make a slight modification based on my parent’s wishes, but yeah, I’ll do what I want.”

Fact 2: Under the influence of freedom, kids may do stupid things.

Like addicts under the influence of a real drug, kids high on the thrill of freedom may not be thinking clearly. To complicate matters, it’s not just the high of freedom at work.

It turns out—and we say this as respectfully as possible—our teens are not only addicted; they are brain deficient. Science demonstrates that the frontal lobe of the brain—the area that allows judgment of consequences and control of impulses—doesn’t fully develop until after the teen years. So in the absence of a fully functioning frontal lobe, teens rely more on the parts of their brain that control emotion—which in effect means they give in much more easily to impulses.

Fact 3: Kids deeply fear losing their freedom.

Once we understand just how much teenagers revel in their first tastes of real freedom, it shouldn’t be surprising that, like any addict, they’re also dealing with a deep fear that we will forever take it away. An enraged teenager’s out-of-proportion response to your words or actions may be a sign that you’ve set off her ultra-sensitive “loss of freedom” radar.

Fact 4: Teens will do anything to get freedom and avoid losing it—including deceiving themselves and you.

Driven by the all-consuming quest for freedom and the intense fear that we’ll revoke it, even teenagers who are generally good and trustworthy sometimes resort to bad behavior. They may downplay problems, fool themselves into thinking that they weren’t doing anything wrong, hide things, and even lie to us—all in an effort to secure and protect their independence.

Like other “addicts,” our kids may try to delude themselves—and us—into believing they don’t really have a problem. Of course, sometimes the deception is intentional. In order to protect their freedoms, 83 percent of the kids we surveyed admitted hiding things from their parents.

Fact 5: Ironically, too much freedom can be scary, and our kids want to involve us in their quest.

After this fairly brutal reality check, the good news is that even freedom-intoxicated teens realize that unlimited freedom isn’t a good idea.

One girl eloquently captured the perspective so many teens shared with us: “My parents are really strict, and I wish they’d lighten up a bit. But if they didn’t give me rules, I’d know they didn’t love me. We expect some boundaries.”

We were also thankful to hear that kids didn’t always want to hide things or lie to their parents. In fact, they’d much prefer to talk to their parents about the choices and challenges they face, if they could do so “safely.”

What’s a parent to do?

As I (Shaunti) read about the freedom-seeking teenagers that my sweet little kids will soon grow into, I felt a strong desire to climb into bed and pull the covers over my head! But since that’s hardly a viable reaction, what can we do?

Thankfully, the kids themselves offered a lot of wisdom, starting with the appeal to neither give them all the freedom they want nor clamp down so hard that they’re dying to get away. Instead, they say, we can help them learn to want the right things and handle their independence responsibly. Let’s look at how we can do exactly that.

1. Get to know your teen.

One of the most common appeals we heard from the teenagers was for parents to see them as individuals and understand how they’re wired. Quite simply, some children can handle more freedom than others.

As we look for evidence of growing maturity, recent events can provide insight. Does she lose her cell phone weekly? If your son can’t turn in his math homework, is he really responsible enough to be trusted with your car?

2. Choose discipline with their key fear-triggers in mind.

The fear of losing freedom often explains why a teenager’s reaction seems way out of proportion to a given situation. And knowing what freedoms are most important to your child will help you avoid unintentionally triggering her “fight or flight” instincts. For example, one child might view her cell phone as her lifeline to the world and vital to her identity as a “real person.” For another teen, the use of the car may be a far more critical tool of independence.

Since we usually have multiple discipline options at our disposal for a given infraction, it may be most productive to focus on the option that brings home the consequences without setting off the “loss of freedom” radar. Sometimes the loss of freedom is itself the appropriate consequence, but we want to exercise it wisely: treating it as the “nuclear bomb” of discipline.

3. Set specific expectations.

Your kid will tend to feel more settled and secure—and be more honest with you—if he understands exactly
what circumstances will result in his losing a particular freedom and what circumstances won’t. For example, if your child feels particularly possessive about his cell phone, establish that it is for your convenience as his parent, and if he doesn’t answer your calls or abuses his minutes, the phone will be taken away. But if he does stick to the rules he can rest assured his cell phone privileges are secure.

And since gaining freedom is a huge incentive, you might want to help your child realize that he’ll have more freedom if he shows he can handle it—and that purposeful deception is the quickest way to lose it.

4. Equip them to cope wisely with their growing freedoms.

We’ve seen that seven out of ten kids will do what they want to do, no matter what we say. Even the fear of our finding out doesn’t compel them to stop their behavior, only to hide it. (Scary!) So we need to help our teens want to do the right things and not the wrong ones. Beyond consistent, fervent prayer—which we advocate wholeheartedly—here are a few suggestions for pointing them in the right direction.

Help your kids learn to think through their decisions on their own—and see where they might have been wrong.

Kids said they have to understand the reasons for the rules so they can embrace them for themselves and not think of them as being externally imposed. In addition, since the frontal lobe of your child’s brain is probably underdeveloped, she may need you to act as an “external frontal lobe” to help her think through consequences. (“If you go to the mall, what does that mean for how much time you’ll have to do your homework?”) Similarly, your child could easily be deluding herself about whether a choice she already made was actually a bad one, or involved deception.

Help them move from fearing parents to fearing God.

On the survey, we were surprised that fully six in ten kids said they consider whether God sees everything they do when they’re tempted to do something that might be wrong. And among those kids, six in ten also said that the fact that God might be disappointed in them was a bigger influence than even whether their parents would be disappointed. Parents of such kids can help them transition from fear of Mom and Dad to fear of God.

I (Lisa) saw this principle in action when I overheard my kids asking their dad if they could do something, and he answered, “You know your mom wouldn’t like that!” Without looking up, I casually answered, “Oh, it’s not about me … I’m not the ultimate one they have to answer to in the end. They’ll have to talk to God about their choices.” Later that night I was amazed when both girls separately came to me, saying that they felt God was urging them to be careful about certain friends and activities. His view of their actions had a far greater effect on them than I realized.

As we watch our cherished no-longer-little ones begin the process of flying free, what a comfort it is to entrust them to the One who made them and to know that He holds them securely in His hands. Although it may be scary for us to watch our children venture toward adulthood as an independent person, one thing the kids said was scary for them was figuring out who on earth that independent person is.

Adapted from For Parents Only © 2007 by Veritas Enterprises, Inc. Used by permission of WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Excerpt may not be reproduced without prior written consent.