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Dealing with Defiance in Tweens and Teens

Dad looking at son's notebook

​​​​​​​​By Chris McGinnis, Ph.D, BCBA-D.​, Former Director of the Behavioral Health Clinic at Boys Town South Florida, West Palm Beach

Oppositional defiant behavior is something we see at our clinic fairly often, although parents typically don't refer to it by its clinical name. Instead, they might simply complain that their teen won't do as he/she is told. As any parent of a teenager will attest that this is an all-too-common occurrence in late adolescence.

Whether your teen isn't helping around the house or is refusing to abide by curfews or is simply saying things like, "Yeah, yeah, I'll get to it — just let me finish this level," oppositional defiance can be frustrating for a parent.

Teaching Important Social Skills

One thing parents sometimes fail to do is teach their children simple social skills they'll use later on in adolescence and adulthood. One critical basic skill is following directions. In fact, it is literally the first skill we feature in the Boys Town book Teaching Social Skills to Youth. This skill needs to be taught early and practiced often. The steps are simple:

  1. Look at the person.
  2. Say, "Okay."
  3. Do what you've been asked right away.
  4. Check back.

If you teach this skill to your children and practice it with them while they're young, then they will be conditioned to know how to respond when asked to complete a task.

Maintaining a Good Relationship

Teenagers are less likely to be defiant if you maintain a positive, open relationship with them. This is something you must start building early on. They need to know they can trust you and come to you with questions or problems. Without a good relationship, a teen's default position can often be defiant; if given a choice, they'll opt to not do what they're told rather than comply.

Maintaining a positive relationship also comes in handy when delivering negative consequences for negative behaviors because the teen in question will understand that you are punishing a specific action (or inaction) rather than simply picking on him/her.

Positive and Negative Consequences

If your tween or teen is refusing to do what he/she is told, then it is only natural to issue negative consequences for this negative behavior. These consequences need to be:

  1. Delivered dispassionately, like a police ​officer issuing a traffic ticket.
  2. Appropriate for the negative behavior (e.g., don't ground your teen for a month for not taking out the garbage).
  3. Something that has a meaningful effect. (Taking away video game privileges can be much more effective than banishing a teen to his/her room, where he/she might rather be anyway.)

One of the most effective negative consequences is to restrict your child's access to technology. Whether a cellphone, tablet or other device, teens view these things as being as important as food or oxygen and will quickly toe the line if separated from them.

More important than issuing appropriate negative consequences is to use effective praise when your child does something right. In fact, ​we find that it works best if you issue four positive consequences for every negative consequence.

The trouble is, parents don't often notice when their kids are doing what they're told — after all, this should ​be the norm. It's much more common to notice when things aren't going as planned. So, try to notice when your teen does something right and praise him/her for it. This has the twofold effect of reinforcing positive behavior ​while preventing the child from feeling that he/she is always being criticized.​