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Practicing Positive Discipline with a Defiant Teenager

Lately, parents in the Your Teen parent Facebook group have been asking for advice about how to address teenage defiance. To supplement the support and wise words of advice graciously posted by other parents, a mindful parenting coach wrote in to offer this perspective.

Dear Your Teen,

My teenage son refuses to listen to or follow the family rules. We have tried everything to get him to comply, including grounding him, without success. He barely completes his homework, regularly breaks curfew, refuses to do any household chores, and is rude and defiant toward me and my husband. Every type of punishment just makes him angrier and more defiant. What should we do? Please help!

Answer | Ellen F. Gottlieb

It sounds like your son’s non-compliant behavior is frustrating you, perhaps even scaring you. Your feelings are understandable and valid. Probably neither of you fully understands why he’s doing this, and communication has broken down, which can make both of you feel disconnected from each other. 

Because your son has been acting out for so long and with increasing intensity, you may feel fed up with your son’s defiance and want to punish him for it. However, I caution you against doing that. You tried punishing him already, and it hasn’t worked to curb his behavior. In fact, you may be stuck in a cycle where punishing him only makes his defiance worse. Now is the time to consider positive parenting.

To break the cycle, I encourage you to take a more mindful approach to discipline, one that tries to figure out what’s going on beneath your son’s behaviors so you can ultimately tailor solutions to your son’s specific needs.

So, what’s going on here? Why is your son acting out, and how can we bring you closer together?

Defiant behavior could mean that your teen wants to be seen, heard, and valued for who they are, complete with their concerns and feelings.

Your son probably doesn’t want to engage in destructive and inappropriate behaviors, but resorts to them because he feels like no one has listened to his smaller cries for help. Defiant behavior might be how he signals he has unmet emotional needs.

Try asking him to talk to you. Your son might need you to listen while he voices concerns. He might need a safe space to express his individual hopes and dreams. He also might need more of your encouragement and confidence in him being able to find his own way, and your assurance that it’s okay to make mistakes because then he can learn from them and prepare better next time.

Connection starts with deep listening.

I coach my clients to listen deeply and be fully present because it helps their teens open up. Letting your son fully express himself without your judgment, criticism, interruption, or reaction will help lay the groundwork for deep trust and emotional bonds.

Ask open-ended questions when you work together to find solutions.

I suggest asking open-ended questions because it helps teenagers look at issues from different angles. So, for instance, instead of asking whether your son did his homework and settling for a yes or no answer, you might ask why he’s not doing it. Maybe he doesn’t understand the instructions. Maybe he doesn’t know how to solve or find the answers. Maybe he’s hungry, or exhausted, or troubled by something else that happened that day. An open-ended question leads to a more meaningful conversation and makes it easier to tailor solutions to your teen’s particular needs.

Don’t be discouraged if your teenager has no immediate answers.

I encourage my clients to tell their teens there are no wrong answers, even when the answer is silence. It’s not uncommon for teens to avoid conversations with their parents. They also might not know the reasons for their behaviors.

Just keep asking those open-ended questions because what you’re doing is leaving the door open for self-reflection and problem-solving later. For now, it’s enough to listen and be present. Teens need to know that their concerns are being heard.

Give your teen greater input and agency, then watch their behavior shift.

When you’re ready, work with your teen to create new household rules, giving him greater input and agency. For example, you can let him negotiate a later curfew and how to divide up household chores. Again, listen to his input without interruption and give him a supportive space to express himself. If he messes up later, instead of punishing him, ask how you can help him abide by these new rules. If periodic adjustments are necessary, you can work on them together. 

I hope you’ll find that a more mindful approach helps eliminate your teen’s defiant behavior by creating space for more connection, change, and growth.

Ellen F. Gottlieb

Ellen F. Gottlieb, a certified Conscious Parenting Coach, is the author of “How to Raise a Parent: Becoming a Conscious Parent in an Unconscious World.” You can learn more about Ellen and her work at www.enlightenedparenting.co

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