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How to Handle Teenage Defiance: When A Teenager Pushes Back

Being confronted by teenage defiance can be … well, we’re just going to come right out and say it: really (really) aggravating! So, we asked parenting expert Amy Speidel—known as the “child whisperer” around Your Teen’s office—for her advice on rude teenagers.

Q: It can be frustrating when a teenager pushes back.

Speidel: Sure, and all parents deal with it. You’re driving home from your teenager’s soccer game, and you really want to talk about the game. But your teenager bursts out with, “Can we just stop talking about the game!” Her behavior is rude. So now the conversation escalates into how disrespectful she’s being to her parents. And you point out that you went out of their way to go to the game. But, we all know lectures never go well. Your lecture won’t get through your teen’s belligerence.

Q: So what’s a better way?

Speidel: Try, “That might not have been the best way to express that you would like some quiet. Perhaps we can work on how you say that differently the next time, but right now, let’s just be quiet.” We have to trust that when we’ve done enough groundwork with our teens, we can back off and let the remorse kick in. In other words, when your teenager is belligerent, you should be quiet so that they can hear their own belligerence.

Q: That doesn’t sound easy.

Speidel: No, but think about it this way. Whatever is going on with your teenager in that moment, he’s not managing well. He’s feeling trapped, exposed, or vulnerable in some way. If you can balance yourself enough to wish them well, you won’t judge them quite so harshly.

Q: So, let’s move beyond rudeness to outright defiance. What then?

Speidel: Oftentimes, teenage defiance happens because as parents we haven’t proactively communicated our expectations for a particular situation. As children gain skills, they believe that they should be able to use those skills the same way adults do. For example, your teenager will think, “When I get my driver’s license, I will have unlimited access to the car,” or “I can watch Netflix whenever I want, just like my parents.” Defiance often arises when the story that your teenager has rehearsed in his head—which he may have rehearsed over and over again— differs from the one that you’ve rehearsed in your head.

Q: And so we need to be clear about expectations?

Speidel: Yes, and proactively discuss the parameters. If it’s a family car, then your teenager should understand that he doesn’t pick up the keys without asking, “May I?”

Q: So, you give your teenager parameters in advance—say, no phones during homework—but she defies you. What now?

Speidel: You really can’t physically make a teenager do anything, so you say, “Here are your options: you can do this, get it done, and then you’re free to go. Or, you can leave it and feel the consequences as they fall. I won’t save you from them. You will have to deal with them.”

Q: Often, we get emotional and blurt out a consequence that we’d really rather not enforce. How can we best approach naming consequences?

Speidel: We should give consequences from our executive space to our teenager’s executive space. Threats come from our emotional space, and they’re a threat because you don’t really want to have to enforce them and your teenager probably knows that. Say, your consequence is, “If you choose not to get that done, then you are not going to be able to go on the overnight trip.” That’s when you are either going to get pushback if they believe you—or they will say “fine” because they don’t believe you. What you need to say from your executive space is: “Look, you have the power here. You need to just get it done.” And then give a consequence you are willing to enforce. They are going to be angry, but if you are calm about it, they will start to manage themselves.

Q: Do we need to come up with a consequence right then and there?

Speidel: No, you don’t need to come up with it at that moment. But, you do have to follow through if your teenager doesn’t abide by your expectations. You can also rely on the natural consequences: “Since you didn’t take the time to complete the assignment, you’re on your own with this one.” Then, let the consequence from school take its effect.

Q: Can you give more scenarios of how to handle teenage defiance?

Speidel: Say your teenager took off when she was supposed to take her sister somewhere. You could say, “You no longer have the rights to the car in the way that we thought you were going to. You will no longer be able to get yourself from here to there, and you are going to have to find another way to do it.” If your teenager is reckless with his stuff—and loses something, say a phone charger—then you say, “You are going to have to wait until you can afford another phone charger. You don’t get to just take another charger from the house.”

Q: Do you have any final thoughts?

Speidel: It’s helpful to remember the purpose of consequences. It’s not about making your teenager miserable. It’s about, “I want you to be successful in this. You may not feel like this is right, but everything in me wants you to make the wisest choice.”

Amy Speidel

Amy Speidel is a Certified Parent Coach at Senders Parenting Center and an instructor in the Conscious Discipline Philosophy for parents and teachers.