Dear Your Teen:
I had a run in with my teenage daughter over the weekend. She was being stubborn—and maddeningly defiant—and I handled it horribly. I’d like some guidelines for how to approach these emotionally charged parenting moments.
For some parents, bold defiance evokes a quick and harsh reaction, maybe even rage, followed by escalating threats. When you get to, “If you do that, you will never, ever leave your room again,” it’s time to think about alternatives.
How to deal with your teen’s attitude
Remember “It’s Not About Me”
The first thing for you to think about is that your teenager’s defiance has nothing to do with YOU. What you might see as defiance and disrespect is a response to their feeling of lack of power in the world and you just happen to be the one pointing that out. Consider this scenario.
Teen: “I’m going out.” (Teen is thinking: I am completely focused on the moment. My friends are calling and I must respond!)
Parent: “What about the project that’s due tomorrow?” (Teen is thinking: This throws a giant wrench in an otherwise perfect plan.)
Teen: “Why are you always in my face about everything?” (Teen is not asking a question so don’t even attempt to answer.) “I need to go. I’ll take care of that later.” (Teen really means: “I really want to do what I want to do. Must you always try to get me to be more responsible?”)
Teens want what everyone wants—to be in charge of their own lives, to balance their own priorities. So it’s challenging when your view of what is most important doesn’t mesh with your teen’s view. All of us have a hard time when the world doesn’t go the way we want, and having someone (anyone) point out that your priorities need to change, is frustrating. Think about your own irritation when you have a plan and someone says, “But I thought you were going to ____ (fill in any responsibility). You said you’d get that done.” Your response may sound similar to your teen’s, “I’ll get to it!” You’re likely thinking, “Now I have to change plans, and I’m angry at you for reminding me!”
Lead with understanding and compassion
Let’s face it, no one wants someone else to have power over them; it’s frustrating and, for many, that feeling ignites a negative response. You can try to avoid an escalation by handling the situation in a compassionate way. Be curious about how they see the situation, and how it might be resolved. Allow them to be part of the problem solving. This does not mean that your teen can determine how things will go, but they won’t feel like they exist in a dictatorship.
In our scenario it might be a simple . . .
Parent: “I’m wondering how that’s going to work out for you. It seems like your time is pretty booked. Do you have an idea of when this would fit in?” (When you focus on problem solving instead of the defiance, your teen will do the same.)
Teen: I’ll make it work out.
You, parent, now have two options:
1) Teach your teen responsibility by letting him experience the consequence of his choice, which may include a late night or poor grade; or
2) Teach responsibility by stating your position as the parent. For example, you might say, “It’s important to take care of your responsibilities. Once your project is finished, you can make plans for any extra time you have this weekend.”
There will probably be a blow up—all the usual rhetoric about what a horrible person you are—but remember, it is not about you. If your teen is stomping and swearing, but not leaving the house, she is actually adjusting to your expectation, albeit in a loud, obnoxious kind of way. If you can ignore her attitude and sustain compassion, you can work on that later. For now, be responsive to how hard it is to have plans blow up in your face.
Figure Out An Alternative Response
When anyone, including teens, responds to disappointment with an outburst, they need to consider a better strategy in order to manage disappointment. You can help your teen consider a better strategy, but not during the outburst. During a time when you and your teen are in a position to talk easily, consider these points.
- Share with your teen how you perceived the situation and ask how they experienced it.
- Talk about ways that your teen might be able to get through future moments like that with fewer explosions.
- Find out what triggers his or her fireworks. It might be a certain phrase you use without even knowing it, like, “What made you think that you’d be allowed to do that? (No one likes to be belittled), or “Absolutely not! You’ve got things to do around here!” (No one likes to feel bossed).
Be curious and respectful, and your teen might view your firm response through a more cooperative lens. (I said might.)