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Disobedient Teenager: Bad Behavior or Effort to be Independent?

What happens when a teen feels one way about a particular issue or problem and the parent has a very different take? At Your Teen, we understand that sometimes you need to look at a problem from multiple perspectives. It can also be helpful to hear from a neutral third party. That’s when we bring in a parenting expert to provide the practical advice you need to bridge the divide and help restore harmony.

Here, a father and son struggle over listening and following directions.

Headshot of father Jay Gilmore

I have this Chris Tucker quote from the movie Rush Hour stuck in my head: “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?” Chris’s character was meeting Jackie Chan’s character for the first time, and Chris assumed there was a language barrier. Well, I’m not assuming anything: I know my teenage son doesn’t understand anything I say!

Case in point: I recently left the house and told my son to put the dog in the cage and to stay in the house.

I used to tell my children not to answer the door while my wife and I were away. They used to fail those tests. But now they’ve graduated to other failures.

I gave my teenager two directions. All he had to do was put up the dog and stay inside. I show up an hour later, and he tells me, “I walked Kash. We went down to the bus stop and back.”

I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I know that means he disobeyed my direct orders twice.

What if a larger dog attacked Kash? What if a criminal broke in because the door was unlocked? I’m sure teens think adults just love rules, but rules are there for their protection. Yet my son doesn’t listen!

Jay Gilmore is an assistant professor at the University of Memphis, where he teaches sports broadcasting and journalism courses. He is a husband and a father of three.

Headshot of son Jalen GilmoreWhen my dad says not to do something, I try to follow directions. One time we were outside a restaurant, and my sister and I were standing on the side of the truck. My dad didn’t say anything. The next day, I stood on a chair’s leg rest in our kitchen in the same manner, and my weight broke the chair. Maybe if he’d chastised me for standing on the truck that way, that lesson would have saved the chair. But maybe I wouldn’t have listened anyway.

I don’t know why I don’t listen.

With the Kash scenario, my dad said not to let him out, but I said to myself, “What if he potties in the kennel? I’d have to clean it up.” I don’t look at it as me not listening, but rather as me being proactive and taking initiative since I am a teenager. I thought it was a really good idea to walk Kash. I didn’t try to hide the fact that I went outside. As soon as my dad came home, I said, “I took Kash outside for a walk.”

I feel like every time I don’t listen or I disobey, I say to myself, “I won’t do that again.” But sometimes I forget, or I think I can figure things out myself.

Jalen Gilmore is a high school freshman. He enjoys hanging around the house with his family and taking care of Kash. He describes himself as very caring.

Headshot of Carla Naumburg, Ph.D.I have so much empathy for Jay and Jalen.

Their wires keep getting crossed, and it’s frustrating for everyone! But if we take the time to analyze this situation, a lot can be learned from it that will help Jay and Jalen.

Jalen’s insights are a great place to start. He is letting his dad know that:

  1. he needs to understand the reasoning behind a directive
  2. he’s eager to assert his independence,
  3. he’s not always sure why he doesn’t follow directions.

This last point is developmentally very common—and frustrating for parents. I recommend a lot of deep breathing and patience.

As for the first two points, Jay will have more success setting rules for teens if he works with Jalen’s needs, rather than continuing to issue instructions without discussion.

Next Time, Try This:

Here’s what this might look like: The next time Jay leaves Jalen home with the dog, they should have a conversation first. Jay can ask Jalen to come up with a plan and then discuss if it makes sense, as well as agree on the natural consequences of any problems that might arise. For example, if Jalen doesn’t cage the dog, and the dog chews up a shoe, Jalen pays to replace the shoes.

If Jay is setting down a rule that is non-negotiable for safety issues (for example, Jalen not walking the dog alone), then Jay should explain the reasoning for this important rule. They could also talk about strategies for how to make it work: If Jalen is worried the dog will pee in the crate, perhaps Jay and Jalen could take the dog out together before Jay leaves. If Jalen breaks a non-negotiable safety rule, then he isn’t allowed to stay home alone with the dog again until he demonstrates growth in this area.

Hopefully, such conversations will help Jalen feel empowered and able to follow Jay’s rules, while also supporting their relationship.

Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., is the author of three parenting books, including her brand-new release, How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids. You can learn more about Carla at

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