10 Strategies for Dealing with a Defiant Teen
Adolescence can be a difficult phase in life to navigate. Defying the wishes of their parents (or other authority figures) and testing limits is a normal part of growing up for teens. Youth are trying to figure out who they are, establish their independence, and express themselves. Unfortunately, in some teens, this process can cause them to act out in an angry, argumentative, spiteful, or rebellious manner. But, just because it’s normal behavior, doesn’t make it acceptable. To keep the peace in your home, parents need a strategy to deal with a teen’s defiant behavior.
Today’s blog offers 10 strategies for the weary parent to handle a defiant teenager:
1. Tie Privileges to Good Behavior.
What your teen might consider as necessities are really privileges that they should have to earn. Electronics, money, driving, and time with friends are all wonderful things that your teen may be allowed when they are behaving appropriately. While you should try to keep the link positive – for example, telling your teen that they have the opportunity each day to earn more privileges with good choices – these privileges should be taken away if your teen calls you names, refuses to comply with house rules, or engages in some other disrespectful behavior.
2. Avoid Repetition.
For some reason, it seems like most parents, at one point or another, resort to repeating themselves. Nagging your teen, or reminding them over and over that if they don’t do something they will be grounded, usually does not work. Many times, it just encourages defiance and steals your authority. Instead, give directions one time only, offering only one warning, and then, follow through with a consequence. It is the fastest way to achieve compliance while also maintaining a more peaceful household.
3. Enforce Consequences.
Once you have decided what limits and/or rules are important to you, stick to them, and establish specific consequences for breaking them. You absolutely must follow through in enforcing consequences to see change in your teen’s behavior. Do not ever threaten a consequence that you will not enforce – your teen will call your bluff, and, when you don’t follow through, you will lose your authority. If your teen doesn’t comply, provide the consequence in a calm manner. For example, you might say, “You didn’t clean your room like I asked you to, so you won’t be allowed to go to the movies.” Or, “Since you came home late tonight, you will not have access to the car this weekend.”
The other important key in this area is not rescuing your child from the consequences of his behavior. This will only encourage further defiance. For example, if he backtalks a teacher, do not call and make excuses for his behavior or try to lessen his punishment. Instead, talk to your teen about how he should make choices that work in his favor rather than choices that ultimately make him unhappy.
4. Have a Plan.
When your teen acts defiant, the situation can become very emotional. Your teen may be angry and their behavior can, in turn, make you angry. Unfortunately, emotional gut reactions generally do not help calm the conflict, so it is best to create a strategy beforehand. Plan out what you’re going to say to your child ahead of time, before she acts out again. Deliver your message in a simple, clear, and calm manner.
5. Praise Good Behavior.
Offer your teen a compliment or simple thank you when you see them making a good choice or doing something you asked. You might say, “Thanks so much for cleaning your room without even being asked.” Your compliments (as long as they are not sarcastic or over-the-top) will encourage your teen to continue to do good things. If you are always on his back about what he does wrong, he will end up feeling like he can’t do anything right, so why bother? Acknowledge the small steps they take in positive directions.
6. Teach Problem Solving.
Despite what your teen may say, they usually do not prefer to deal with their problems alone. As a parent, you are your teen’s teacher, coach, cheerleader, and disciplinarian. Part of your role is to teach your teen how to solve their own problems. You can read our previous blog Teaching Problem Solving Skills.
When things are calm, you might say, “This behavior won’t solve your problem—it will only get you into more trouble. So, how can you solve this problem differently next time?” Listen to what your teen has to say, and suggest ideas if he can’t come up with anything.
Additionally, it’s important to realize that, sometimes, defiance is really a symptom of an underlying problem. Don’t just assume your child is being defiant when they refuse to do something. Perhaps they don’t understand their classwork, so they refuse to do their homework, or perhaps they are afraid of speaking in public, so they refuse to prepare their project. You might need to help them develop a new or specific skill to address an underlying problem.
7. Focus on One Behavior.
If your teen is acting defiant in a number of different ways, it will be difficult and exhausting to try to address all of the problems at once. Instead, choose one behavior that is bothering you the most and begin to plan the steps you will take to improve that behavior. For example, if your teen is disrespecting or cursing at everyone in the family, not doing their homework, and also breaking their curfew, you need to decide which of these behaviors you cannot live with or seems most detrimental to their safety. When you have enforced consequences for the first behavior and it is under control, then you can move onto the next most bothersome behavior.
8. Pick your Battles.
In all honesty, many family conflicts are not worth your time and energy. It’s important to decide (with your spouse) which battles are worth fighting and which are best to let go. Avoid power struggles. Many times, teens will use petty arguments to delay having to comply with rules. Instead, concentrate only on battles that truly need your attention to protect your teen’s well-being. By avoiding minor disagreements, you create a more peaceful environment for your family, which can actually give your teen more confidence to approach you on more significant issues.
9. Stay Respectful.
Youth often come across as rude and disrespectful to their parents, teachers or other authority figures, which can be incredibly frustrating. Unfortunately, many adults respond by being rude and disrespectful back, but this is not constructive. As the adult, you must model behavior you want to see. Regardless of what you “preach,” if your teen sees you respond disrespectfully to them, then they will assume that disrespectful behavior is appropriate.
10. Get Support.
When our teens act inappropriately, it becomes easy to think we are bad parents and feel disappointed or even depressed. Do not buy into these negative thoughts or isolate yourself. Instead, find someone to talk to, whether it’s a therapist, support group, friend, or a trusted family member. You will be surprised how much better you will feel when someone simply listens to you.
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/or starts to affect both you and your child’s social and educational life, then it may be a problem that needs to be addressed. Children who struggle with excessive disobedience for over 6 months should be evaluated by a psychiatrist or psychologist. One possible diagnosis could be Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), which is a condition in which a child displays an ongoing pattern of uncooperative, defiant, and hostile behavior toward people in authority.
Remember what you were like when you were a teen, and have empathy for your son or daughter. 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 talk 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. So while you should stay alert for problems, you should also stay focused on the positive. Enjoy the unique person your teen is becoming.