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Fatherhood and Teens on the Spectrum who Rebel

It’s not uncommon for fathers to feel like they don’t get any respect from their teens. This is the case in many families regardless of whether the kids are on the spectrum or not. Boys will rebel against both parents but when they rebel against their fathers it's usually because he’s the authority figure with the same gender. Sometimes it’s a test of strength, sometimes it’s just because dad is easier to push around. Girls on the other hand, tend to rebel no matter what. It’s an age thing for them. 

Rebellion is normal and the reasons for it are wide-ranging. In this post, I want to look at the ways in which teens on the spectrum rebel and in particular, I want to look at the father-son relationships. 

picture of the irish rebellion, captioned when teens rebel

What’s different about Spectrum Rebellion?

Teen spectrum rebellion differs from normal teen rebellion in that quite often the teens don’t realise that they are rebelling. They’re not fighting to go out or fighting to do adult things. Teen spectrum rebellion incidents are often unintentional and more to do with words and actions around the home and the fact that they now feel “grown up enough” to challenge some of their parents’ rules.

Teen spectrum rebellion is often about the language that is used and hurtful words and phrases. Sometimes it’s about not listening or not allowing others to speak. Sometimes it's about chores, school, TV or computer games. It’s also very often linked to meltdowns.

Waning Strength

Fathers often present an easy target to teens on the spectrum because as kids get older, they begin to realise that there is little that their parents can do to punish them. These days, it's unacceptable for parents to raise their hands to children -- and kids are taught that in schools. It's called assault.

Any fathers who have used negative consequences, such as their voice, bullying or their physical strength, to control their children will quickly find themselves overwhelmed as their kids realise that this is no longer an option, or even worse, that they're growing to possess the same levels of capability.

historic photo of men issuing corporal punishment - saying spanking is no longer an option.


Kids on the spectrum will often realise their own strength at an older age than their peers. It means that they're often older and stronger before they realise that they can fight back. This often allows violent parents to keep them under control for longer but it also means that when they finally do start to retaliate, it's often with full adult strength.

You simply cannot use violent methods of control. It's unacceptable... and they don't work in the long run. Violent control teaches kids that violence is an option. It increases violence in the home.

Lack of Emotional Connection

Mothers tend to be the centre of our children's lives while fathers are usually far less involved. Dads are less likely to attend school meetings or doctors appointments. Dads are often "time poor".  This may be due to work or sporting commitments but it's also a way that dads can avoid emotionally difficult scenarios. The result of this is that kids tend to naturally gravitate to their mothers.

New mothers often attend mother's groups to socialise during the difficult years of early care. These groups have the added bonus of allowing mothers to share tips on child-rearing and to see how others handle the hurdles that parenthood brings. There are no "father's groups" to teach men these skills and it's little wonder that men in general simply don't have the expertise in this area that women do.

When kids get hurt physically or emotionally, it's usually their mothers, not their fathers, that they run to. It doesn't help that men are often trained from an early age to suppress emotional displays with phrases like "boys don't cry" being the norm in many families.

Dad's of kids on the spectrum are often more likely to be on the spectrum themselves, though actually being diagnosed is not so common. While in theory, this should give fathers a way to connect with their children, the opposite is often true. Dads on the spectrum often lack the social skills to talk effectively with their children.

If you don't have a strong emotional connection to your children, you can't expect them to be able to communicate their feelings to you. 

Fathers need to interact more in the early years. They need to realise that their father-child communication skills can only be honed by years of use and practice, and if they're on the spectrum, they need to recognise this in themselves and use their shared "differences" to better communicate with their kids. 


Mothers who won't let go

While not being involved in their children's lives is one reason why dads struggle, there's also the issue of mothers who simply can't share their children. It's surprisingly common to find moms who simply won't hand over the reins to their partners where their kids are concerned. This is particularly the case where kids are on the autism spectrum. 

Moms will often resent the different approach that fathers bring to situations and will see it as dad "messing with the routine". It doesn't help that psychologists are telling mothers that their kids on the spectrum need strict rules and structure. This leads to arguments and general exclusion of fathers at young ages. 

While it may be true that fathers are less important than mothers in those early years, the balance changes considerably as kids grow older and if fathers are not given a chance to build their connections when their kids are young, they may not develop at all as they get older. 

While "over-mothering" can create a feeling of calm and protection that soothes children, it can also significantly delay their development. Two parents, regardless of gender, will always be more effective than one. 


Reducing the Issue of Rebellion

There are a few things that stir up rebellion in teens. Poor communication, the perception of unfairness, a lack of discipline and a weakness of authority.

a family communicating at the dinner table.

Improving Communication

Poor communication occurs when your children don't feel that they can discuss everything and anything with you. You need to work hard to keep communication channels open at all times. This means that you will sometimes have to suppress your shock or anger at your teens expression, thoughts, plans or deeds. Sometimes you have to "hold your tongue" and not be negative about things even if you know that they're heading into trouble.

It's better to discuss things calmly and offer options in the hope that your teens will pick up on risks. You won't always be able to change their minds but choose your battles. After all failure is as much a part of learning as success. You can't protect your child from everything, so choose to protect them from the things that are really dangerous rather than the simpler mistakes in life. 

Improving Fairness

The perception of unfairness is arguably the single greatest motivator for rebellion and indeed "revolution" in the world. When it comes to teens however, things don't actually need to be unfair, they just need to be perceived as such.

Listen to your kids and take note of their perceptions of unfairness. This usually comes through in statements like; "but Casey's parents allowed her to go" or "everyone else has one" or "all my friends get to stay up late".

Obviously you can't relax rules entirely but you should always consider what other people are doing and ask whether your rules are still valid. Are they arbitrary or are they providing a protection? Are they at the right levels for the age of your child?

Is there a way that you can perhaps compromise?  If you child wants to attend an event, can you perhaps be there (or be close) to drop-off and pick-up?

Sometimes, even admitting that you understand that something isn't fair and asking your kids what they feel you can do about it will help. This is particularly the case when it comes to items and outings that you simply can't afford. Your teen may be willing to get a job to help pay expenses.

You can't always make things fair but you can alter the perception of unfairness so that your teens don't resent YOU for it. 

The Art of Discipline 

Whenever anyone mentions discipline, everyone seems to think about hitting children. It's terrible.

One of my favourite things to remind people about discipline is that it comes from the Latin word discipulus, which means "student, learner, or follower."  We need to make good "disciples" of our children by giving them great role models to follow and useful, easy to repeat, life lessons.

a father talking to his son, while teaching him carpentry


If your teens are rebelling, then they'll be rejecting your teachings. You need to take a few steps back and ask yourself what is wrong with your teachings;

  • Are you trying to give them the wrong message? or one that they don't want to hear? 
  • Are you a good role model, do you practice what you preach?
  • Do you have "from the heart" or "from experience" wisdom that you can impart?
  • Will they perhaps learn from their rebellious behaviour?
  • Are you being easy to listen to? If not, perhaps find something else to do with your teen while you're talking. 

Discipline means not only having a good student who is willing to listen. It means having a good teacher who is willing to look at the wider picture and embrace views outside of their own. 


Maintaining Authority

It's sometimes hard to see how allowing room for exploration in discipline is still maintaining authority but it is.

If you completely forbid a certain behaviour and your teen does it anyway, then you no longer hold authority and must consider options for punishment in order to regain it.  If you discourage a behaviour while talking about it and perhaps allowing controlled exploration, then you are never actually relinquishing your position of authority. Minor transgressions don't need to be punished but can instead become the foundation of discussions and lessons.

The other key element to maintaining authority is to ensure that both parents are fully supportive of each other.  If you're seen to be at odds with one of your partner's decisions, your kids will fully exploit that weakness. 

The best way to move forward as a couple is to ensure that you discuss issues either before they arise or before you deal with them.

If your teen confronts you with an idea that you're uncomfortable with, one of the best approaches is to say; "I'm not sure and I'll have to think about it. Can you leave it with me so that I can discuss it with your mother/father when they get home?"  This will buy you some time while also allowing you to come up with a comprehensive answer and a united front. 

If you're using this technique, find a way to contact your significant other to let them know not to give a direct answer (yet). This is important, especially if your kids tend to ask the other parent if they don't get a satisfactory answer from the first. 

Authority and respect for authority is best maintained by having a united front and by avoiding direct negative answers. Try to find ways to compromise so that everyone gets a little of what they want and there's no need for direct challenges to authority. 


Keeping the Peace

It's only natural that teens will rebel against their parents. This will come through in their words and actions. You'll need to ensure that you have a checklist of "absolute NO's", where a given behaviour is simply not permitted and must be apologised for. Violence, property damage and name calling spring to mind as good "absolute NOs" and you'll need to ensure that all members of the household, parents included, adhere to those rules. 

Beyond that, parents particularly fathers, need to try to get closer to their children at younger ages. It's important to be able to relate to them in order for them to take their grievances to you instead of into their own hands. 

When teaching and imposing limits on your children be sure to think about whether what you're asking for is fair and whether it applies to everyone. Be prepared to compromise instead of giving absolute "NO" for your answer. 

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