How to Deal With a Defiant Teenager

Is your teenager violent, abusing substances, or facing other problems?

Here’s how to deal with a defiant teenager, as discussed by experts.

Javier Orti

Javier Orti

Life Coach | Clinical Hypnotherapist | Founder and Director, Helping Kids

If I had a penny for every time a parent has asked me how to deal with my kid when they are arguing, I’d be a millionaire. Parents want a shortcut without understanding the issues behind and simply blaming their teenager for being selfish or irresponsible.

Understanding the child’s feeling is the only way to eventually resolve the defiance and conflict.

Defiant behavior in teenagers is only an outcome. Dealing with the behavior will not result in any long term effect as those emotions triggering it will be there.

Another critical issue is that teenagers will see in defiance an moment of power. When they argue and shout, they are expressing all those emotions bottled up, giving them a sense of achievement. It’s the only time and way they feel they can exercise any power or control.

As painful as it sounds, there are no shortcuts to help children in those moments. It is a long term process and parents need to be ready for it. There is no alternative.

Here are my suggested strategies for parents to use:

Avoid conflict from escalating

Getting into a shouting argument will only generate the issues mentioned above. As hard as it is, avoid conflict from escalating. Be ready to give yourself a time out.

Have a line prepared with something like, “I see we are both a bit tense, so I prefer to talk when we are calmer, so we can have a grown-up conversation”.

Just be aware, your teenager will be surprised by it and, on many occasions, disappointed as subconsciously they were expecting the conflict. Almost like an addiction. After a few minutes, ensure you are both calmer, take step two.

Take time to listen to what they have to say

Virtually every teenager I have supported on this topic mentioned about their parents not listening. They don’t feel they have a voice, parents diminish them. They feel they are not allowed to grow up and express their voice in an adult-adult way. They are young adults but parents refuse to see them that way.

The second step is to shut-up and listen. Only ask relevant questions, don’t try to answer them or contradict them, just listen. By doing this, you are eliminating their biggest fear: being ignored.

Be inclusive

It’s not them or you. Whatever happens next has to be a joint approach (“How do we go from here?”).

Define some areas that are non-negotiable for you (i.e. going to school, being home at a certain time, etc) and other areas in which you are happy for them to make the call. In those areas, define some parameters. I suggest parents to think in three boxes and share them with their kids:

  • The no discussion box. These are the red lines were parents have full responsibility and teenagers understand they have to comply.
  • The trading box. Things they can do in exchange for some actions. For instance: it’s ok to go out with your friends as long as you have done your schoolwork. This box needs to be balanced and realistic. It also works in conjunction with the first one. In the example, the teenager can go out but still needs to be home at a certain time.
  • The “no but” box. In this box, we look for alternatives that could be in the same area but not that specific one. For example, “You cannot go to your friends’ party because I don’t know if there is any responsible adult there. Either your friends come home or your friends’ parents confirm they will be home.”

During all this exercise, it is important to leave them a degree of autonomy. They are exercising their autonomy and control and hate over controlling parents. It is critical to find a common ground.

Related: How to Stop Enabling Your Grown Child

Give it time

As mentioned, this is a process to change the relationship with your child. From a child-adult to an adult-adult. They will get it wrong, you will get it wrong. That’s ok, simply admit it and learn from it.

As you succeed and fail in the process, remember to continue listening and learning.

Think you are forming your long term adult relationship with your teenager. You are planting the seed of how you want to be with your kids in 10 years’ time. Do you really want a 25 years old child? or do you want an adult? Now is the time to help them take on that role.

Dr. Cameron Caswell

Cameron Caswell

Developmental Psychologist | Family Coach | Teen Mentor

Teens act out because they feel misunderstood and teens feel misunderstood because they are misunderstood. I work with many families and their defiant teens and the common thread is a feeling of injustice, unfairness, and powerlessness.

The psychology is similar to what is triggering the riots happening across the country—when we feel mistreated, unheard, and ignored, we get defensive, self-righteous, and often lash out. Why? Because we don’t know what else to do.

Learn to remain calm

If a teen is agitated and emotional, responding in kind will only cause things to escalate. When we stay calm, our teen will eventually take our cue.

Take time to listen

The next thing is to listen, really listen to our teen. I like the 80/20 rule. Let them talk for 80% of the time, you talk for 20% of the time. Use your time mainly to ask clarifying questions and reflect what you hear to make sure you fully understand what they are saying and to let them know you hear them.

I’m not saying that defiant behavior should be tolerated, but when we only address that behavior by trying to shut it down, we just make matters worse.

Instead, when we seek to understand the underlying cause of the behavior, we can start making systemic changes that will remove the teen’s need to act defiantly in the first place.

Katie Lear, LCMHC, RPT, RDT

Katie Lear

Play Therapist | Drama Therapist | Clinical Mental Health Counselor

It can be demoralizing to see your affectionate, well-behaved little kid transform into a disrespectful, irritable teenager. I think it can be helpful for parents to remind themselves that some defiance is a normal–and even healthy–part of growing up.

Teenagers are doing the hard work of trying to figure out who they are as individuals, outside of their family unit, and are also dealing with tons of physical and hormonal changes in the process.

While extreme or destructive behaviors are never okay, normalizing some of the day-to-day defiances can help parents to build their empathy for their child and let themselves off the hook a little bit, too.

When your rules are consistent, you are showing your teen that you mean what you say

Teenagers are looking to push boundaries, which means it’s more important than ever to keep them consistent.

Keeping bedtime and curfew the same each night, or expecting chores to be done by a certain time each day can help to cut down on some of the negotiating and back-and-forth because there are fewer gray areas.

Natural consequences often work the best with older children and teens

Having consequences really help young people to notice how their behavior affects the world around them.

For example, if you have to spend an hour picking up your teen’s stuff that they did not get around to cleaning, maybe you no longer have time to drive them to the mall with their friends that night, since you have to catch up on your own work.

If your teen refuses to put laundry in the hamper all week, maybe they won’t have their clean uniform ready for practice on Friday.

Related: How to Deal with a Disrespectful Grown Child

Dr. Dace Tapley

Dace Tapley

Child Psychologist | Owner, White Tiger Integrated Services, LLC

Teens are at a special point in their life where they are attempting to define their identity while navigating social and interpersonal relationships. Parents are no longer their only influence and they are now spending more time in peer relationships.

This time in their lives is more fragile as parents see their teens as more capable of responsibility and independence so they unconsciously disconnect from bonding practices previously utilized when the teen was younger.

Finally, teens are in their “me stage.” This means parents will need to consciously and intentionally engage their teens on their teens’ level where interest is concerned.

The bonding process is the cornerstone of dismantling the defiant or rebellious teenager

Regardless of a person’s age, they will always do more for people they have a good relationship with.

Using choices will also reduce if not eliminate the defiant teen because they now have a voice in their choice

Provide choices you are ok with and allow the teen to experience the natural outcome of the choice without criticism or “I told you so” feedback.

Regardless of the outcome of their choice empathize with them so the consequence is the bad guy rather than the parent. This will allow the parent/child relationship to thrive in a healthy boundary driven environment rather than an unhealthy controlling environment.

Eric Allred, MA, LMFT

Eric Allred

Executive Director, Havenwood Academy

Dealing with a defiant teenager is challenging, however, it can be done.

It is more important to be more aware of your own emotions when a teenager is being defiant so you don’t react poorly. Here are some simple guidelines:

  • Be aware of what is going on with you and your emotions. If you feel that you are not emotionally right or tired, walk away and come back to the situation later.
  • It is not personal. Remember to take what is going on seriously, but not personally.
  • Anger and defiance usually is a mask to something else. The opponent to anger is sadness or the fear of getting hurt. You need to help the angry or defiant teenager to get in touch with what is really going on.
  • If a teenager is defiant and making demands, slow things down. You are not to be held hostage by their emotions to get what they want. It is okay to wait until you, as the parent, understand all the facts to make a good decision.
  • It is a teaching moment to help your teenager learn how to problem solve in the correct and socially acceptable way.
  • Set up firm boundaries. Do not let your defiant teenager get everything they want in the matter. Let them know that you want them to treat you with respect and that they need to cooperate in order to talk about what is going on.
  • Give choices. “You can deal with this issue in this manner or in this manner, which one do you want?”
  • Tell them that you love them and understand that growing up is hard. Be supportive.

Terry B. McDougall, PCC, MBA

terry mcdougall

Executive & Career Coach, Terry B. McDougall Coaching | Author, “Winning the Game of Work”

Being an active listener can help teens to know they are being heard

Here’s how it works. When your teen tells you something, use a neutral and caring tone. This gives the teen room to provide more details or clarify what they are saying.

“Okay. I want to make sure I understand you. I heard you say [insert factual recap of what you heard]. Did I get that right?”

Try to keep your cool and have a factual conversation about the impact of what is going on — not how you feel about it

Typically it’s your expression of anger or frustration that causes your teen to avoid you, rebel, or be passive-aggressive. If they feel that they can trust you to hear them out without judgment or condemnation, they may open up more.

Just be sure to put your concern for your child above any desire to be “right” or exert control over them. This will only cause them to become more defiant.

Elise Guthmann, LMFT

Elise Guthmann

Clinical Program Director, Evolve Residential Treatment Center for Teens – Ojai, CA

Every teen behaves in ways that are frustrating at least on occasion, and perhaps even numerous times.

While some measure of defiance in teens is normal as they strive to assert their burgeoning independence, very frequent occurrences of noncompliant, blatantly defiant or angry behavior can indicate a mental health disorder.

As a rule, mental health and behavioral challenges often go hand-in-hand. For example, teens with BPD have conflicted relationships, lack of sensitivity towards others, and high reactivity.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can involve anger outbursts, anxiety, and acting out at home or school.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder both involve severe defiance against authority, negative attitude, and temper tantrums. If your teen has ODD, they often have angry outbursts. They get upset by the seemingly smallest things and defy rules you set when they’re angry. They are spiteful, irritable, and make hurtful remarks on a consistent basis.

Teens with ODD and DMDD can be verbally aggressive and physically aggressive, too. Other mental health issues that could be the source of your teen’s behavioral problems include Conduct Disorder, PTSD, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

ADHD in particular can significantly interfere in many areas of a teen’s life, including social life, family life, and school/academic performance.

The solution is simple: mental health treatment

Of course, not all teens who fight with their parents or are intensely rude to them have a diagnosable mental health issue.

Teens could be just going through a phase or struggling with a crisis in another area of their lives (such as school or friends). Substance use could also be a factor that can contribute to your teen’s challenging behavior.

Frequently Asked Questions

What to do when a child doesn’t respect you?

It can be challenging when a child doesn’t seem to respect you, but there are some effective strategies you can try. Here are a few things you can do:

Lead by example: Children learn how to treat others by observing how the adults in their lives treat them. Make sure you are modeling the behavior you want to see in your child by showing them respect and kindness.

Set clear boundaries: Children need to know what is expected of them. Set clear rules and consequences for breaking them, and enforce them consistently.

Listen to your child: Children are more likely to respect you if they feel heard and understood. Take the time to listen to your child’s perspective and try to see things from their point of view.

Validate their feelings: Let your child know that it’s okay to have feelings, even negative ones. Acknowledge their emotions and help them find healthy ways to express them.

Encourage positive behavior: Catch your child being good and praise them for it. When they do something you approve of, make sure they know how proud you are of them.

Spend quality time with your child: Building a strong relationship with your child is key to earning their respect. Make time to do things together that you both enjoy.

It’s important to keep in mind that respect is a two-way street. Children are more likely to respect their parents when they feel respected themselves.

If you are struggling with a particularly difficult behavior, it may be helpful to seek the advice of a therapist or counselor. They can help you find additional strategies and support.

Are parents responsible for their child’s behavior?

Parents play a crucial role in shaping their child’s behavior, but it’s important to remember that responsibility is a multifaceted concept.

Nature and nurture: While genetics influence a child’s temperament and disposition, parents’ actions and guidance are pivotal in molding their behavior. By setting expectations, providing consistent discipline, and modeling good conduct, parents can help their children develop positive habits and social skills.

Early years matter: A child’s formative years lay the foundation for future behavior. As caregivers, parents have the responsibility to create a supportive, nurturing environment that fosters emotional security and a sense of belonging. This enables children to develop healthy relationships, manage emotions, and navigate social situations effectively.

Communication is vital: Open and honest communication between parents and children is essential for understanding and addressing behavioral concerns. By fostering a strong parent-child bond, parents can better guide their kids towards positive behaviors and away from negative ones.

Team effort: Parenting isn’t a one-person job; it often involves collaboration with teachers, healthcare professionals, and other caregivers. Parents are responsible for working together with these individuals to address any behavioral issues that may arise, ensuring the child receives appropriate support and guidance.

Exceptions: It’s important to note that while parents play a vital role in their child’s behavior, external factors like peer influence, cultural norms, and media exposure can also impact a child’s actions. Additionally, certain mental health conditions or developmental disorders might contribute to behavioral challenges beyond a parent’s control.

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