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The Challenges of a Defiant Teenager: Finding the Why

Clinical psychologist Dr. Suzanne Schneps has been in practice for over 30 years in the Cleveland area. Let’s face it; we are sharing close quarters with our teenagers. A defiant teenager poses an even bigger challenge now.

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Q: What do we do as parents when we see all the Facebook pictures that look like everyone’s having so much fun while every time you say something to your kid, they sneer at you, they ignore you, or they slam a door?

Schneps: First of all, most people are not putting on Facebook that I screamed at my kid, or I threw a cauliflower at their head, or I just couldn’t stand it anymore. But the most important way that a parent can handle themselves is to apologize. It means so much to kids when we as grown-ups say, “You know, the feelings are getting so big. I didn’t handle it well. And I apologize.” One of the few things I can guarantee at this time is that I don’t think anybody could be perfect. It’s just too hard.

When you live with a defiant teenager who has been challenging all along, it makes it even more difficult. Just like before, we need to look at why are they being defiant. Are they being defiant because they’re scared? If you’ve had a challenging relationship with your family and you call your mother a few interesting names and you call your father a few more interesting names, you change the set. Now, you don’t have to be worried about the Corona virus.You can be in a fight with your parents. And that’s familiar. You really know they love you. And in the end, all will be OK. So some of it is about being scared. Some of it’s about being sad or being disappointed. Some of it’s about the uncertainty.

Q: Is there a place now to be able to try and peel back the layers and see what’s causing the defiant teenager to act out?

Schneps: Some kids might be interested in that experience. But it is unlikely to think that under extreme stress, kids are going to let us know what this is all about. I think the one thing that parents can try to do is to empathize. This is really hard. It’s hard for all of us, but it’s especially hard when you are the defiant teenager who is used to escaping and there’s no escape. They’re stuck. The most important thing is to emphasize the need for safety.

Q: How can we try to do something fun for a moment with our defiant teen?

Schneps: Defiant teenagers don’t want to have fun. They don’t want to participate. So give them a choice. There’s no control in any of this. It’s okay if they don’t want to participate. Maybe they do not want to play family trivia. They do not want to play Monopoly. They don’t want to see the same movie. Go back for a second to your two-year-old when you give them the blue cup and they wanted the red cup. Something would tip them off. The same is true with the defiant teen. One thing that seems to be somewhat helpful is to say “We need some space and the rest of us are going to go for a drive. You’re welcome to come. But I’m thinking maybe you need space, too.”

Q: That sets off alarms for me. I’m worried that the other message we might be sending is there’s us and there’s you.

Schneps: That’s an outstanding point, because the defiant teenager will frequently say, “Nobody likes me. Actually, nobody loves me. They love my sister, my brother, everybody better. They don’t love me.” So one of the things that I suggest to parents is to do a few kindnesses. I call it running the Ritz Carlton. Say tomorrow is breakfast in bed. What’s the difference? You know, a little orange juice, whatever you happen to have in the house. A little piece of candy that you put on their pillow with a little note that you love them. And does it work? All of the hurt just doesn’t go away, but for the second, they get to see that they’re cared about. We always invite them. It’s their choice, whether they come. It’s their choice.

Q: If they choose to come and take down the whole experience, then what do we do?

Schneps: We’re thinking, “I can’t believe I decided to invite them. And they’ve ruined it. And I needed to get out.” But we say, “This is so disappointing. I guess we’re going to turn around. I guess this just didn’t work.” We get out of a car. And we hope that they get out of the car, too, and that maybe it’s calm for a minute. There isn’t any magic. They were challenging before and now they’re confined, which escalates that feeling. They feel super trapped because they’re trapped within themselves.

Q: What if we asked them to do us a favor. Does that work?

Schneps: No. “Why should I do you a favor? You don’t love me. You love Sally and George so much, Ma. Why don’t you ask them to do you a favor.” You can’t implore them to be behave a little differently. That doesn’t work. If you’re lucky enough to see a moment or two of kindness, don’t forget to say, “I really enjoyed that meal with you. It was really pleasant.” It’s hard to remember that. But any time that we can, stroking the positive really helps so much. It doesn’t mean that five seconds later they’re not going to be really upset and defiant. They’re all good kids. They’re just really hurting.

Q: What’s one big message you want to give to parents who are living with that type of child in their house and really struggling right now?

Schneps: Forgive yourself for when you have a moment, and work really hard to find the moments to be positive with them. Let them know how much you do love them and that it’s really a hard time. And it’s so uncertain. And that uncertainty makes everybody anxious. Maybe hold on to the idea that there will be a vaccine for some hope so we don’t need to be afraid for the long term.

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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