Few things in life are as frustrating as dealing with an aggressive, unruly teenager. With that being said, however, remaining patient, calm, and empathetic is essential when communicating with any adolescent. Your teenager is dealing with heightened emotions, sensitivity, and impulsivity as a result of changes in his developing brain; as such, he needs level-headed guidance now more than ever. Moreover, it’s important to understand that your teen’s brain is also prompting him to test limits and boundaries. This is a perfectly natural and necessary process, but it’s often misinterpreted as malicious behaviour, leading to unnecessary friction between parent and child.
Instead of reacting angrily to your teen’s demands for independence, it’s wise to look past his impatience and focus on establishing open, respectful dialogue. You want your teen to feel he can talk to you, but at the same time, you need to make sure he learns how to work with others harmoniously. To help your teen learn healthy boundaries and tone down his defiant behaviour, we recommend using the strategies below:
1. Use praise and privileges to motivate your teenager.
Adolescents often come across as being spoiled and entitled, even if they were not materially over-indulged as children. They seem to look upon luxuries—like spending money, access to electronics, and so on—as being rights rather than privileges. This doesn’t mean your teenager is ungrateful, however. His brain is just so focused on what his peers are doing that he’s desperate to “fit in” and not be left out. This, of course, means having access to the same things they do.
Rather than arguing with your teen about his desire for more money or time on social media, allow him to earn luxuries via good behaviour. Develop clear, consistent house rules (e.g., no swearing or name calling, no coming home significantly past curfew, etc.) and make sure that your teen knows his access to privileges is dependent on following them. Likewise, don’t forget to use verbal praise to reward your teen for good behaviour. Just like small children thrive when their parents point out what they do “right,” rather than just what they do wrong, teens who receive verbal affirmation are happier and more confident. This in turn can help them resist the more negative aspects of peer pressure.
Ultimately, you want your teen to behave well because it feels good for him to do so. If your teen only behaves well due to fear of punishment, he’ll be tempted to behave poorly any time he sincerely believes he won’t get caught. Maintaining a positive, encouraging relationship with your adolescent is one of the best ways to curb rebellious behaviour… Even when you’re not around to watch him.
2. Don’t nag.
The more often we say something, the less impact it has. And yet, regardless of this undeniable fact, many parents resort to nagging their teenagers when they don’t comply with a rule or carry out a task. Unfortunately, not only is nagging ineffective, it tends to encourage defiance. The longer parents stall in implementing a consequence, the more teens start to believe they aren’t serious about doing so. Because teens’ brains are hardwired to test limits, they decide to push their luck and see how long they can get away with whatever they’re doing (or not doing, as the case may be). To avoid setting off this battle of wills, give your teen instructions once, verify that he heard and understood them, then wait. If he disobeys you, give him one (and only one) warning that consequences are imminent. If he continues to ignore you, administer the consequences—without further discussion. (Teens will use arguing to delay consequences, too.)
3. Make a “discipline plan” and follow through with consequences.
Many parents get into a cycle of anger and remorse when dealing with their children, and this cycle only escalates during adolescence. When their child frustrates them, rather than delivering consequences calmly, they escalate said consequences to unrealistic levels out of frustration. Once they have calmed down (or once they see they have truly upset their child), they feel guilty for their actions and let their child off the hook entirely. Naturally, this makes for extremely ineffective discipline and it may encourage teens to become emotionally manipulative. After all, they have been taught that if they provoke their parents enough, they can often get their own way.
Don’t fall into the trap described above. Make a list of specific consequences and the transgressions they apply to. When you feel like you may lose your temper as a result of your teen’s behaviour, take a deep breath, review the list, and then calmly tell your teen that because he has broken a rule, he will face the removal of certain privileges. Enforce these consequences without adjusting them, no matter how much your teen argue, cajoles, or otherwise tries to talk you out of doing so. (Note that if you often get into verbal fights with your child, you may also want to prepare a list of firm but rational things to say to him in various tense situations. It’s of paramount importance that you demonstrate respectful conflict resolution skills for your teen.)
Furthermore, you should avoid protecting your teenager from the consequences of his actions when he’s outside the home environment. If your adolescent is facing detention because he’s misbehaved in class, for example, don’t call the teacher and try to get the punishment modified. Let your teen learn that his choices have a real impact on his own level of happiness; they don’t just impact other people.
4. Help your teen solve his problems.
While most teenagers will do anything to avoid admitting they need the help of their parents, they invariably do. Ironically, it’s exactly because teens are so peer-oriented that they still need mom and dad to act as their primary confidantes. Teens constantly censor what they share with friends owing to fear of rejection, whereas they (should) know their parents accept and love them unconditionally.
As a parent, your role should extend far beyond just administering discipline. After your teen has endured a consequence for his behaviour, take the time to talk to him about what prompted him to act out in the first place. Once you get to the root cause of the problem, ask if his behaviour really helped him solve that problem. If it didn’t, work with him to develop ideas for how to handle the problem better in the future.
5. Choose your battles wisely.
Your teenager will probably do a lot of “little things” that annoy you—whether it’s rolling his eyes, leaving dirty socks on the floor, taking a long time to get ready for school, or all of these things. The simple reality of the situation is that you can’t—and shouldn’t—punish your teen for all of these minor transgressions. Trying to do so will be exhausting for you and maddening for your child. Instead, you should stick to the few “big issues” that really carry a risk of harming your teen or someone else in your household (either physically or emotionally). Missing curfew repeatedly without calling home, for example, could be dangerous because it makes it difficult for parents to determine whether or not their child has gotten into a genuinely bad situation. By focusing on real problems like this, you will help your teen prioritize, affirm that you only have his best interests at heart, and help your family avoid numerous pointless conflicts.
6. Befriend other parents.
Not only will befriending other parents help you keep your teen safe without being intrusive (that is, you can verify that your child is being supervised while visiting friends and check to make sure he is where he says he is), it can provide an invaluable source of support. After all, who knows what you’re going through better than other parents of adolescents?
Talking to other parents has been shown to lessen fears of failure and diminish worry. When parents discover that other teens have, for instance, experimented with smoking or alcohol use, or appear to just want to play video games all the time, they realize that they haven’t made some kind of fundamental mistake as parents. They also realize that there is nothing “wrong” with their child; he’s just going through the same growing pains as the rest of his peers. This kind of reassurance typically leads to calmer and more rational parenting.
If by any chance you discover that your child’s behaviour isn’t just “normal” adolescent experimentation or limit-testing, it’s important to remember that there is help available. If your child shows signs of extreme defiance, engages in frequent self-destructive behaviour, or shows other signs of severe distress, you should consult with a trained mental health professional. Your child may have an undiagnosed learning disability or behavioural disorder that’s causing him to act out excessively. With early intervention and proper treatment, he should be able to get his life back on track before his negative habits become deeply entrenched.
Though raising a teenager is certainly challenging, if you maintain a strong bond with your child, it can also be an extremely exciting time. After all, during adolescence, you’ll get to see your child come into his own. He’ll be defining his identity and enriching his unique personality in preparation for adulthood. He’ll develop his own views, opinions, and insights—and what he learns about himself along the way will prompt you to discover new things about yourself, too. Remember: Neither you nor your teen are taking this journey alone. You have each other, in addition to the support of others in your community.