The Disobedient Teen
Say “teenager” and many adults get an immediate image of rebellion. It is not unusual for teens to rebel against authority by either arguing, disobeying, or talking back to their parents, teachers, or other adults. Defying the wishes of their parents, or other authority figures, is actually a part of growing up, testing limits, learning about themselves, expressing their individuality, and achieving a sense of autonomy. However, there is a fine line between the normal testing of limits and flat-out defiance. Sometimes a teen’s defiance can become a pattern for how parents and children interact, creating conflict in the home. In this blog, we will explore the causes of teen disobedience, ways parents should handle rebellion, and when disobedience goes too far.
Disobedience can have a variety of causes, such as school problems, family stress, the child’s personality, or unreasonable parental expectations. If your family has a teen who is frequently disobedient, evaluate the family situation:
- How much respect do your family members show for one another?
- Do your family members respect one another’s privacy, ideas, and personal values?
- How does the family work out its conflicts? Are disagreements resolved through rational discussion, or do people regularly argue or resort to violence?
- What is your usual style of relating to your child, and what form does discipline usually take?
- Do you and your child have different personalities and living styles that cause friction between you?
- Is your child having trouble succeeding at school or developing friendships?
- Is your child undergoing some especially stressful times?
How to Deal with a Rebellious Teenager
If you react to your child’s talking back by exploding or losing your temper, he may respond with disobedience and disrespect. By contrast, he will likely become more obedient when you remain calm, cooperative, and consistent. He will learn to be respectful if you are respectful toward him and others in the family. Here are some more specific tips:
Include your teen in rule setting. Sit down with your teen to establish boundaries. Actively listen to their ideas for rules and limits. Explain your own thoughts. Try to incorporate your teen’s input and create a few (not a lot) house rules. As you are creating the rules, be sure to take a balanced approach by not being too strict or too lenient. Too much freedom offers teens too many opportunities to engage in risky behavior, but being too strict can turn a child rebellious. Once decided, the rules should be non-negotiable. They might be “no television until homework is finished” or “put dirty clothes in the hamper.” Your expectations for your child’s behavior and the consequences for breaking the rules should be clear and enforced. You may want to develop a written document that details boundaries, expectations, and consequences. This written document leaves little room for misunderstanding, substantially reducing your teen’s opportunity for manipulation later. Additionally, it allows you to develop appropriate consequences when you are calm instead of throwing out an overly harsh punishment in the heat of anger and later have to change it. Be sure to choose consequences in which you have complete control. For example, reducing allowance, refusing access to the car, and limiting time with friends are all punishments that can be enforced by the adult. A consequence that relies on the teen’s cooperation, such as extra chores, is difficult to enforce.
Consistently enforce rules. This is arguably the most important tool in a parent’s pocket. Once you have established firm rules with consequences, you must enforce them immediately and every time an infraction occurs. Consequences must be followed through or the rules lose all meaning. If you are a parent that tends to give in before the punishment is up, try setting up the restriction in a way you can’t break. Take your teen’s video game to your friend’s house and tell them to hold it until Friday – then you can’t give in! When a teen pushes back on one of the house rules, don’t argue over details or negotiate. Simply remind them of the rule. Teens will try and outwit you, find any hole in your argument or start a battle. Don’t over-explain or renegotiate. Adults who do what they say they will, and enforce their rules each and every time, will have less issues with power struggles than those who don’t. If a parent states a punishment, but then lets it slide and doesn’t follow through, then the parent has lost all credibility and the teen has learned nothing other than the fact that mom or dad are pushovers.
Notice positive behavior. Express your appreciation for obedience in sincere, respectful ways. For example, say “Thank you for being home before curfew. It helps me to trust you more.”
Create open communication. Don’t just interrogate your teen when you’re upset with them. Spend time with your child actively listening to their hopes and disappointments. The worse thing you can do to a rebellious teen is to make them feel isolated. Lend an ear to their concerns, be the shoulder to cry on. Give them opportunity to open up their minds, instead of suppressing their stance.
Pick your battles. Know when to walk away. Spend time with your spouse and decide what is important. Then, concentrate only on those issues that truly need your attention to protect your teen’s well-being. Many family conflicts are not worth your time and energy. The key to successful parenting is to know which battles are worth tackling. Sometimes you just have to let it go. Ignore the attitude. Agree to disagree. By avoiding minor disagreements, you create a peaceful environment and the space for a teen to approach you on more significant issues.
Stay Calm. Whenever you start to feel your emotions rise, remember that you are always modeling behavior to your teen. Your goal is not to win a fight but to teach your teen life lessons about responsibility. Take a break if you or your teen begin to escalate the conflict or become angry. It’s easy to respond in the heat of the moment with something you’ll later regret. Instead, refuse to get engaged in a battle and simply say that you need time to think. It’s a good way to buy yourself time so that you can think of an appropriate response that will make you feel good.
Stay Respectful. Kids can often come across as rude and disrespectful to their parents, teachers or other authority figures. No doubt, it can be incredibly frustrating. Unfortunately, many adults will respond by being rude and disrespectful back. Remember that you are the adult – you must model behavior you want to see. If a teen sees you being disrespectful, then they will assume that their behavior is appropriate (regardless of what you say). When an adult responds to a teen with sarcasm, insults, and other jabs, they diminish and damage their relationship. Also, it is never good to humiliate the child in front of their peers. Talk to teens in private. Parents should wait until their friends leave or call them out of the room. Teachers should call them out of the classroom or speak to them after class. Finally, do not compare your teenager with someone else who has achieved more, which does nothing but make them feel inferior.
When Defiance Has Gone Too Far
When disobedience begins to get out of hand, lasts longer than six months, is excessive compared to what is usual for the child’s age, and starts to affect both you and your child’s social and educational life, then it may be a disorder that needs to be addressed. Once such disorder is Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), which is a condition in which a child displays an ongoing pattern of uncooperative, defiant, hostile, and annoying behavior toward people in authority. The child’s behavior often disrupts the child’s normal daily activities, including activities within the family and at school. Studies estimate that less than 20% of children have ODD. It can begin by age 8, and in those earlier years, it is more common in boys. Common symptoms are:
- Actively refusing to comply with requests and rules
- Angry and resentful of others
- Argues with adults excessively
- Blames others for own mistakes
- Has few or no friends or has lost friends
- Intentionally tries to annoy or upset others
- Is in constant trouble in school
- Loses temper and is irritable
- Spiteful or seeks revenge
- Touchy or easily annoyed
Regardless of whether your child has ODD, ADHD, or is just plain rebellious, children who struggle with excessive disobedience for over 6 months should be evaluated by a psychiatrist or psychologist. The best treatment for the child is to talk with a mental health professional in individual and possibly family therapy. Family therapy will help teach the parents the best ways to manage the child’s behavior.
The adolescent years are a time filled with rapid change, mood swings, and growing independence, but it does not have to be a time of war. So many people have talked about the difficulties of raising a teenager that many parents approach the adolescent years as an ordeal to survive. But this is still your child, and he or she needs you.
Amazingly, raising teenagers with negative expectations can actually promote the behavior you fear most. According to a recent study conducted at Wake Forest University, teens whose parents expected them to get involved in risky behaviors reported higher levels of these behaviors one year later. So while you are alert for problems, stay focused on the positive. Enjoy the unique person they are becoming. Try to learn about your teenagers’ interests and hobbies, even if you don’t understand them. This is an excellent way to reconnect with the child you love and help prevent acts of defiance before they start.