Nothing raises my heart rate as quickly as a teen acting with overt defiance. Like the time my daughter took the car keys and said she was leaving, even though I had said no. I wondered why it was always a daughter that pushed my buttons. My sons were no angels, but their defiance felt different. Turns out my experience is common—there’s a difference between boys and girls when it comes to the way they’re defiant. We asked parenting expert Amy Speidel for help.
How Boys and Girls Differ When it Comes to Defiance
Q: Tell us how boys tend to push back?
Speidel: With boys the interaction can become aggressive, especially between dads and sons. If I am a human being and someone acts aggressive towards me, I will want to be aggressive back towards them, whether I am two years old or 20 years old. When someone says “Don’t take that tone with me!” or “Don’t do that!” then immediately the other person goes into a higher level of aggression. So what we want to do with the aggressiveness of boys is to not fight fire with fire.
Speidel: You don’t get more aggressive to help them calm down. Research shows we never give back what we receive. We always tend to increase. If we get shoved, we want to shove back harder. The way to calm a situation down, especially with boys, is to relax those aggressive tendencies. You can say, “It’s getting too heated. Let’s back away.”
Q: What about boys with their moms?
Speidel: Women don’t tend to get aggressive in the same way men can. Women tend to be verbalizers. But boys sometimes walk away from their moms because they don’t know how to handle an exchange verbally. They back off, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be compliant. They mutter. They may say a swear word under their breath. But when boys say, “Whatever” to their moms, the tendency is to believe they are going along with it. The big fireworks happens when mom finds out they never got it. You say, “Take care of this … make sure its finished,” and they say, “Fine!” and then you discover they didn’t do it at all.
Q: What about girls?
Speidel: Girls are more verbal. Like boys, their brains are reconfiguring in their teenage years—and for girls there is a lot of language attached to that. That’s why girls can say such nasty things to mom and dad, whereas boys, as we’ve talked about, tend to walk away.
Q: So how should we handle the defiance?
Speidel: Start by being calm, even nonreactive. Defiance and belligerence are only defiance and belligerence if we decide to join in on that game. Then you can tell your teenager: “You can decide to do this and here’s what will happen. Or you can decide not to do it and here is what will happen. And you are in charge of your decision.”
Then you have to walk away. Walk away because you realize that you can’t make your teenager do anything. You can’t physically pick them up and move to where you want them to be, for example. You’ve got to rely on something else, which is telling them what you believe will be in their best interest, which they might not believe right now. Again, it’s “You can do this. Get it done and then you are free to go. Or you can leave it and feel the consequences as they fall. I wont save you from them, you will have to deal with them.”