By Cathie Ericson
Nothing gets our blood boiling as much as a defiant teen, whether they’ve ignored your request to unload the dishwasher or slammed the door when you asked about their day. It’s important to remember that most often this is just typical teen development and typical feelings, says Dr. Cameron Caswell, adolescent psychologist, family success coach, and host of the podcasts “Parenting Teens with Dr. Cam” and “Parenting Teens Power Hour.”
“When teens disagree with us, they get emotional, which might be as benign as an eye roll or as upsetting as having them yell mean things like ‘I hate you’ or ‘You’re the worst parent ever.’ And rightfully that triggers us,” Dr. Cam says.
However, it can also lead to the false assumption that they’re being purposefully disrespectful and nasty, which is probably not the case. “I’ve never talked to any teen in my 20 years who wants to get in trouble, disappoint their family, or get everybody upset,” she says.
Good to know, but knowing this is typical teenage behavior doesn’t necessarily make us handle that behavior any better. So what can we do when we’ve been dissed by our rebellious teen? Here are Dr. Cam’s tips for salvaging that relationship without feeling like we’re being walked all over.
How to Deal with Your Defiant Teen
1. Be the one who remains calm.
Teens don’t have the same tools we do. For one, their brains aren’t yet completely formed, which makes them more emotional. “Parents tell me repeatedly that the biggest initial change comes when they start showing up calm because it helps their kids learn to become calm,” Caswell says.
2. Assume they’re doing the best they can at this moment.
“What appears to us as defiance is their best attempt to self advocate,” Caswell says. They tend to get louder and nastier because they do not feel heard. In fact, she says, often they’ve learned that from us. The key is to let them feel what they’re feeling, whether it’s sadness, nervousness, and yes, anger, which can be particularly hard for parents to accept because it often feels directed at us. “All of these are very healthy emotions, but when we gloss over it or tell them not to get mad, we’re invalidating how they’re feeling, which actually makes them feel worse because now they feel bad about feeling bad.”
3. Listen with empathy.
Often parents use their skill of active listening to try to placate their teen. They might say, “I see you’re angry.” But kids don’t like being pacified, and what this reflection is doing is devaluing their emotion, which makes it far more likely it will quickly turn into fury. We know how it feels when someone tells us to calm down. It rarely goes well. Instead, Caswell recommends getting in their shoes and looking at the issue from their perspective. If a friend has treated them poorly, for example, side with them and assure them that you understand why they are upset.
4. Realize why they might be dismissive.
When your child was younger, they probably did what you asked because they didn’t realize they had a choice. Now, as a teenager, they have their own opinions, needs, and desires, yet often parents are still expecting them to do what you want when you want it. “Teens might need a minute, and closing the door is empowering to them. It’s them saying they have agency over their life,” Caswell says. Often, when you give them their space, they are less likely to fight you. “If you’re trying to rein them in too much, they are bound to get resentful,” she notes.
5. Look more for what they are doing right.
When our kids were toddlers, we were supposed to “catch them being good.” Well, the same theory works on teens. “If our conversations with them are always centered on how they need to pull their grades up or they don’t do enough around the house and spend too much time on social media, they might decide they don’t want to spend time with us at all,” Caswell points out. So, if they do part of a chore, instead of focusing on what they didn’t do, thank them for what they did and then remind them for the next time. “It preserves their dignity,” she says, adding, “If you can’t find anything they do right, you are not looking hard enough.”
6. Ensure they respect boundaries.
There is a fine line between some expected defiance and all-out rudeness, so it’s important to remember that it’s not about allowing your kids to walk all over you. While you want to give them space, that doesn’t mean you have to accept if they say nasty or hurtful things. But, the key is not to yell back, Caswell says. “Tell them that you’re not okay with words that make you feel terrible, but that you’re going to wait until they’re ready to talk more respectfully, and then you really want to hear what they have to say and understand what they’re feeling.” The key is to make sure you’re a parent with boundaries and self-respect but that you are respecting them too.
7. Keep the ultimate goal in mind.
Remember these tough days and emotional roller coasters won’t last forever. Caswell says that often parents worry that their teen will never grow out of less-pleasant traits, like having a messy room or playing video games all day, if they don’t nip those behaviors in the bud. But usually they will, she assures us, especially if you have modeled the behavior you want to see. “The most important piece of it is that when they grow out of these attitudes and actions that bother you, they still feel connected with you and believe you are on their side,” Caswell says.
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