How do you discipline a defiant teenager?

As the parent to teens, you've likely experienced backtalk, door slamming, and other actions that could be considered defiant.

You and your teen have come a long way from those first sweet words and tender moments when he was a toddler. Now, you're likely fighting to keep from losing your patience when your questions or instructions are met with eye-rolling, lousy attitude, and even hurtful comments.

If you've tried to lay down the law when your teen has been disrespectful or has broken some of the household rules, you may find that your punishment tactics no longer work. Parenting and disciplining a defiant teen can take adjustment and fine-tuning.

The good news is that there are ways for you to respond positively, firmly, and keep the peace in your home.

Don't assume you know why they’re being defiant

In many cases, defiant behavior is a symptom of an underlying problem. This can make it difficult for a parent to truly understand what is going on in their head.

Defiance can be something many teens express for the sake of expressing it, but a belligerent teen may be acting out because of problems with his friends, difficulties in school, or because he feels anxiety.

It doesn’t excuse his defiant behavior, but it does make things more understandable once you recognize that when he's comfortable at home and feels safe, it's easier for him to express how he feels. Unfortunately, the frustration or upset is often targeted at those closest to him, which is generally his family.

See if you can figure out what might be triggering the defiance or aggression that your teen is displaying. If you begin to see a pattern, you'll be in a better position to help him through the situation.

Talking to him about what might be going on can open a great conversation. It could also lead to him completely ignoring you. However, if you begin the process with trying to understand versus issuing punishments, you will demonstrate to your teen that you can and want to help.

Control your own emotions and anger

When tensions are running high in any situation, it's generally just going to make things worse if you start to yell and lose your temper with your teen.

What to do if you feel you are losing your temper:

  • Remove yourself from the situation so that you can regroup.
  • Call in reinforcements by way of your parenting partner or a close friend who understands your family's difficulties.
  • Call a temporary truce with your teen so that you can both catch your breath.

Once you feel calmer and better able to approach the situation rationally, reopen the discussion with your teen.

Consider the best parenting approach

Three parenting foundations can help you navigate the often complicated and stressful world of parenting a defiant teen:

1. Stay consistent.

While your teen may be closer to adulthood, like all young people, your teen needs to know what is expected from him. He needs to believe that you will follow through with consistency on your established consequences.

If your teen has been talking back without respect, your reaction to him should be consistent every time. Staying consistent will help your teen to take you seriously and allow him to understand what his limits genuinely are.

2. Provide structure.

Most children and teens tend to do better in a structured environment.

Teens tend to seek out independence, making it hard to find that healthy balance between the two.

As a parent, you can provide your teen with the structure and guidelines he needs as he learns to take on more responsibilities for himself.

3. The love is unconditional.

Being a parent is hard. Parenting a teen who is constantly being defiant can feel downright impossible sometimes.

That said, it's important that you don't let up on the love. Don't withhold affection or kindness from your teen as he struggles to navigate his rapidly evolving world.

Your teen still loves you, despite what he might be screaming at you some days. Keep the love strong and without condition, particularly on those days when he seems hard to love. That's when he needs a reminder of the love the most.

Choose the battles you're willing to fight

A huge part of being a teen is chasing independence. Some of this can take the form of defiance against parental rules.

While some situations should not be ignored, there may be others where you could just let it go. Not all battles are worth fighting.

Your teen sneaks out after curfew and gets into trouble? Address that swiftly.

Your teens won't pick his jeans and socks up off of his bedroom floor? It might be better just to let this one go for now and look for ways to instill more structure around household chores.

Picking your battles allows you to better focus on the more serious issues versus constantly being at war with your defiant teen.

Hold your teen accountable

When your teen gets himself into trouble, don't make excuses for him.

If he hasn't been keeping up with his homework, he needs to face the consequences at school.

If your teen has been caught stealing, it's tempting to want to rush in and rescue him. However, he needs to be held accountable for his actions and his behavior.

Follow through on consequences

A part of holding your teen accountable is following through on the consequences that have been set out for him.

There are two categories of consequences for teens:

1. Removal of something. In these situations, you remove something from your teen, such as grounding him so he can't hang out with his friends. Or taking away his internet access and his gaming consoles for some time.

2. Impositions in some way. These consequences involve imposing on your teen's time in some way. Perhaps he has to run errands with his parents instead of staying home. Maybe he needs to take on extra chores or help cook dinner for the family.

There's no doubt that following through on consequences can take plenty of time and energy. However, if you don't follow through on each consequence, you are essentially sending your teen the message that he'll eventually get his way if he wears you down.

Skip the bargaining

It's not unusual for many of us to find ourselves bargaining with an angry toddler in the middle of the grocery store. We'll often do just about anything to get just a moment of peace and control back.

However, for a defiant teen, bargaining teaches him that he doesn't need to take the household rules seriously and lets him know that he can test the limits to see just how far he can push until you give in.

Stand firm. The rules and the consequences serve an important purpose.

Reinforce the good and positives

Be sure that you offer praise to your teen for positive and cooperative attitudes and behavior. Too often, we tend to focus on the negatives. This makes it entirely too easy to forget that the good things should be recognized and praised.

Rewarding good behavior is often much more effective than reacting to poor behavior with yelling and consequences.

In some situations, your defiant teen may need some time away in a new environment.

At a residential treatment program, your teen son will be offered the structure and compassion he needs to help him work through his behavioral and mental health concerns.

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