What do you say to a defiant teenager?

Does your teen roll his eyes and ignore you when you’re trying to talk to him or get him to do his share of the household chore?

A defiant teenager can be one of the most frustrating things you will have to face as a parent. You may remember the sweet toddler he once was, learning to communicate and learning about the world around him. While toddlers are prone to tantrums, they don’t often take their attitude, backtalk, and door slamming to the levels that your defiant teen can.

So what can you do or say to your defiant teen to get him back on track?

How can you respond to a teen who rolls his eyes and utters, “whatever!” or shrugs when you tell him something?

Is he defiant, or is it a symptom of something else?

Your teen may very well be rebellious and defiant, or his attitude may be due to underlying mental health concerns.

The reality is that your teen isn’t always going to open up to you about everything readily. This means that you’ll need to take matters into your own hands if you suspect that something else is the root cause.

Depression and anxiety can take on many forms. Your teen may not appear in the ways you may think are the classic signs of depression, but he may come across as apathetic and defiant.

Counseling and other therapeutic interventions are a good start, and, of course, as he begins to get a handle on the depression, you’ll start to see a shift away from the defiant behavior.

If your teen is struggling with his peers at school, perhaps due to being bullied, you may find that this contributes to his attitude and defiant behavior. This often goes hand-in-hand with depression. Addressing it with therapy and by working with the school can help your teen immensely.

Responding to his defiance

So just what should you respond with when your teen is shrugging, rolling his eyes, and saying things like “whatever,” “who cares,” or “I don’t care!”?

Perhaps one of the most important things to remember is that it genuinely doesn’t matter if your teen is apathetic and claims to not care about anything you’re discussing with him. He can dislike it, but he still needs to stick to the rules and boundaries that have been established for him at home and school.

Here are some phrases that could help you:

  • “You don’t need to care, but you need to respect me.”
  • “It’s okay if you don’t care. Would you like to talk about it?”
  • “We care, we care about you.”
  • “It’s okay if you’re angry. We can talk about it.”

Keeping the conversation flowing is essential, regardless of the situation or level of stress.

Setting boundaries and establishing household rules

Your defiant teen may be struggling with several things in his life, but that does not give him free rein to be disrespectful and rude. It’s important that you set boundaries for him and let him know what will and won’t be tolerated.

The same holds for the household rules that he will need to follow. Some examples of boundaries and healthy household rules to uphold include:

  • His language and attitude should be respectful at all times, whether he’s interacting with parents, siblings, teachers, or peers.
  • He should respect any curfew established for him. If he’s going to be home later than agreed upon, he will need to call you so that you can understand why.
  • Things like his phone, tablet, and gaming consoles are not rights, they are privileges. If your teen’s behavior does not mesh with the household expectations, he will lose access to them.
  • If your teen drives, he should be reminded that his use of a car is also a privilege that can be taken away if he abuses this privilege. If your teen is caught speeding or violating other traffic rules, don’t try to swoop in and save him from the potential legal consequences that he faces. His defiance will soon take a backseat to any legal trouble he finds himself in.

It’s important to clarify to your defiant teen that his behaviors, actions, and words are hurtful and damaging to the relationships he has in his life. While he may initially shrug it off and come across as wildly apathetic to this, it’s important to keep reiterating that his defiance will not help him maintain friendships and relationships.

It’s also important that you follow through when you set consequences for your defiant teen. Make sure that he understands exactly what the boundaries and rules are, along with the appropriate consequences. There should be no room for confusion or negotiation. The last thing that you want is to allow your defiant teen to argue with you.

Taking control of your own emotions

As a part of determining what to say to your defiant teen, control your emotions when you’re engaging with your teen. Emotions can run high, anger can emerge, and harsh hurtful words can be said.

As an adult, it’s up to you to control your emotions. Your defiant teen is not likely to be able to control his as much. If you feel like your feelings are starting to take control of the conversation, step back for a bit until you’re able to feel calmer.

If you are able, you could bring in reinforcements to take over the conversation (i.e., your spouse, a good family friend, a teacher, or a coach from the school). They may be able to speak with your defiant teen with a calmer and more rational approach than you could.

Getting further outside help

You know how valuable it can be to have a family friend, teacher, or a coach speak with your defiant teen with you or on your behalf.

There are also other options to consider, including:

  • Individual therapy. Your defiant teen may resist the idea of therapy, but the right therapist will have plenty of experience working with defiant teens.
  • Family therapy. Your teen’s defiant behavior and actions don’t just impact him. They take a toll on everyone else in the family. Family therapy will allow each member of the family to be heard and to express themselves.
  • Group support sessions. In a setting that includes peers, your teen may be able to get the right type of support he believes he needs. Not only will other defiant teens be able to share their experiences, but he may recognize himself in the others in the group.

Getting him into a program that addresses the needs of the defiant teen can be helpful. These programs are designed to give teens a supportive and structured environment where they can learn how to regain control of their behaviors and approach life.

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