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Defiant Teenagers and Quarantine: Interview with Dr. Neil Bernstein

Neil Bernstein Ph.D. is an adolescent psychologist and author of How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Can’t.

Q: Despite the stay at home situation that has been mandated, some teens are just ignoring the restrictions. How can we convince our defiant teenagers to cooperate?

Bernstein: Teenagers are allergic to control. The more we force them to do something, the more they do the opposite. Why are they allergic to control? Sometimes they feel the parents are control freaks and they feel compelled to say white if we say black and vice versa. In some cases, peer pressure can fuel defiance. Believe it or not, a little bit of genetics is mixed in. Kids are born and raised with different personalities, and it’s not a one shoe fits all thing. So if the child has been stubborn, negative, whatever from early on, it’s conceivable. ADHD could play a factor. Sometimes just plain old resistance to being told what to do can be a factor. And you know, these kids are stubborn and they tend to blame others. If there’s an argument with their parent or with a friend, it’s your fault.

Q: So what do we do?

Bernstein: Do you know the old saying you don’t get into a spraying match with a skunk? That translates to if your kid has control issues or defiance issues, the last thing that’s going to work is to say “Because I said so.” That’s why that’s just fueling the resistance. So we start out by validating their concerns. “I know it makes you angry when I tell you what to do. I would like to hear your thoughts as well.” You don’t stoop to their level in argument. You try to keep it rational. You tell them what you think is important and you want to hear it out and you would like the same courtesy for them to hear what you are saying. Sometimes you can actually ask for their advice on something to get them into the conversation of compliance.

And it’s useful to say to your kid, “I really don’t want to control you. What I really want is for you to control yourself. And you know something, son, daughter, if you control yourself, I will be able to chill out and step back and trust you. That’s up to you.” If you want to make it work, you want the teen to feel respected and not controlled.

Q: Does there have to be a bottom line sometimes?

Bernstein: Absolutely. Yes. But this is important. That bottom line must be enforceable. One of the worst things a parent can do is make threats and punishments that are not going to happen because the kid learns to ignore it. We want is our kids to take us seriously. That means being able to state your expectations clearly and most importantly, to have realistic, natural consequences.

Q: For parents who have struggles with bottom lines in the past, how do they deal with this particular moment when our kids do not want to be socially isolated from their friends.

Bernstein: First of all, we want to know if the child really understands the concept of social isolation. And have they heard it from someone other than us on the news or someone they respect or whatever the case might be? Second of all, we want make they understand the risks. That shouldn’t come from a lecture from you, ideally, to be honest with you. You can turn on any news station now and they’re constantly telling you why social isolation is important.

The kids I’ve talked to responses range from “It stinks but I’ll do it” to “Forget you. It’s stupid.” The goal is to get their attention and awareness. Sometimes you can say, “Well, what would you do if you had it or if your friend had it?” Sometimes you can call their attention to someone who’s familiar to them who has it. This will help them realize that it’s in their best interests to do it.

Q: There’s a population of kids who are saying, “I’m ignoring this. Stop it. There’s no point.” What do you suggest?

Bernstein: You might have to negotiate a connection with one friend because that’s better than all their friends. If the friend is healthy and better yet, if you know the parents, you can make a decision together. It’s a process.

Q: What if there’s a family that has decided to socially isolate. And one kid in that house is not following the guidelines of the rest of the family. In my house, I think one of my kids would say, “Well, then don’t come back here because we’re doing everything we can. And if you’re not going to follow the rules, you’re contaminating all of us.” How do you handle that situation when there is an outlier in the family?

Bernstein: You can say to the child, “We can’t force you to do this. We can’t bound and gag you. But if you’re going to be a part of the family right now, you’ve got to go along with what we’re all going along with.” There’s something called the control rebellion cycle, which has been studied extensively over the years. And what we’ve learned from that is with a certain type of child, the more we attempt to “control” them, the more they like to rebel against what we say. There is no single intervention that comes with a guarantee where it will work for everyone.

Now, in some cases, maybe you can cut a deal. Sometimes bribery. There are lots of ways to incentivize. And sometimes you can just say, “Look, this is important to us, even if you feel you don’t want to do it, if you do this for us, when you ask us to do A, B or C, which is often to get tickets for this concert or that we’ll go along, we’ll cut you slack in a couple of months whenever this is over.”

But remember, the more strong-willed and defiant the child is, the less likely threats are likely to work. They like deals. A lot of the kids love to bargain. And sometimes we have to use that to our advantage. And, you know, this is probably the most serious thing we and our kids are going to experience in life.

Q: It’s true that every characteristic has a negative and a positive side to it. For the kid who is defiant, how can you reframe it for parents and help us see something beautiful in that?

Bernstein: Strong will serve you well in life have determination when you find something you believe in or something you want. But we have to have cognitive flexibility, which is the opposite of cognitive rigidity. That means the ability to look at both sides of an argument or issue or whatever and be able to process that and come to the best, healthiest decision for yourself. And it can serve you well. There are a lot of well-known people who are strong willed.

Susan Borison

Susan Borison, mother of five, is the founder and editor of Your Teen Media. Because parenting teenagers is humbling and shouldn’t be tackled alone.

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