Unfortunately, the words “defiance” and “teens” seem to go hand in hand. Most parents have learned to expect teenagers to act out and defy authority at one time or another. And thankfully, most teens eventually learn to treat their parents with more respect as they age. Fortunately, this means most families get through the teenage years without many major disasters or permanent damage to family relationships.
However, there are still a great number of families for whom the transition into adulthood is especially rocky. For some, “normal” or “typical” teen attitude turns into a systematic pattern of defiance, struggle, or even violent or illicit behavior. So, how and when does a teen enter the “danger zone” and how can we – as parents or youth leaders – recognize it before it really gets out of hand? If you are unsure how severe your problem is and how you can handle it, here are a few things to consider.
- The power struggle. Engaging in a power struggle with a teenager (or any child, for that matter) can be dangerous, unproductive territory. What you see as asserting your authority can be seen by your teen as an attack, mistrust, or lack of willingness listen to them. Teens who feel that authority figures aren’t listening or don’t trust them are more likely to defy that authority. Eliminating the right to make some of their own choices is not only counterproductive to a teen, but will often alienate them even further.
- Stay connected. Many parents and youth leaders make the mistake of believing their teen only wants deep connections with their peers. However, most teens are actually craving a stronger connection with their parents. Defiant behavior in teenagers is often a misguided way of seeking your attention, even if they don’t realize it themselves. This doesn’t mean being their BFF or weekend buddy. It means making sure your teenager knows their experiences, struggles, and choices are valid, and that you will make a real effort to understand them when they talk to you. When communicating, try an attitude of concern for their well-being instead of being a drill sergeant. “Do you need a ride home at 11:00?” is better than, “You better not be late or I’m coming for you.”
- Know your teen needs you. You might have heard the phrase, “your kids have plenty of friends; what they need are parents.” Most people equate that statement with taking a hard line, setting rules, etc. But that’s not all. Teenagers will learn through experience that their peers may not always be kind, reliable, or honest. If you are a steady, reassuring, grounding presence in their life, they are more likely to come to you when things go wrong in their social circle. However, you can’t expect this to happen automatically. This type of relationship has to be grown and cultivated over time. They need to understand that you will drop everything when they need you. If you are not engaged with them during the easy, pleasant times, they won’t come to you when they’re struggling. Give them your full attention, whether they’re just talking about their homework, their schedule, or something more serious. Talk with them daily, showing interest and concern. Plan to spend time together, but let them decide when their schedule allows it and what they’d like to do. Overall, make sure your teen knows they matter to you, ALL the time.
Perhaps evaluating your relationship and making changes to your parenting style will repair or manage the problem. Or, you may wonder if your family needs outside support in dealing with a defiant teenager. If you feel the situation is beyond your ability to manage or improve it, you might consider professional help. If you suspect substance abuse, mental illness, depression or self-harm, it might be time to seek counseling, family therapy, or other resources. For extreme cases, boarding schools or in-patient therapy may be require to get your teen back on track. No matter what your situation calls for, there is guidance available that can help you make the right choice for your teen and the rest of your family.