Change Your Child's Rebellious Behavior with 4 Positive Strategies

If your child is bucking your rules and acting out in ways you can't even fathom, don't despair! Here are four practical ways to combat rebellion so you and your kids can begin enjoying each other's company once again.

Cheryl Butler
7-minute read
Episode #623
The Quick And Dirty

Everyday conflicts where parents and their children butt heads can be seemingly endless, causing grief and stress to all parties, but there is hope. Here are four positive strategies you can implement to lift this nerve-ending tension and redirect this defiant behavior so you can live in better harmony with your kids.

  1. Reevaluate your rules and boundaries
  2. Postpone confrontation when you're emotional
  3. Don't get sidetracked
  4. Look for the Positive

One of the best parenting tips I gleaned from our pediatrician was that kids secretly thrive on having rules and boundaries. Because of her keen advice, I hit the ground running with a loving set of family expectations when we began raising our brood of eight.

My once easygoing daughter announced she didn't have to help with her chores any longer ... because she didn't feel like it.

She was right! My kids always did better when they had firm expectations. As they grew, we tweaked them. However, I vividly remember when there was a shift in my kid's attitudes about our household rules. My once easygoing daughter announced she didn't have to help with her chores any longer ... because she didn't feel like it. And my usually eager-to-please tween son decided he was no longer going to walk the dog and take out the trash before he started his homework. And that was if, in fact, he even did his homework at all.

Huh? What was going on here?

Why does rebellious behavior happen in children?

Parents know their kids better than anyone. If you've noticed behaviors that don't reflect the personality you're used to seeing from your child, do some investigating to figure out what might be going on. The source might be as simple as your teen being districted by having a crush on a girl in biology class. Or maybe it's more challenging, like your tween being bullied by the mean girls during lunch. Circumstances like those can make for unexpected changes in your child's behavior.

It's normal for teens to test authority when they want to exert their independence and get out from under their parent's constant watch and supervision.

But under any circumstances, it's normal for teens to test authority when they want to exert their independence and get out from under their parent's constant watch and supervision. Studies have shown that a teen's brain is still not done forming and growing, which can lead to emotional outbursts. David Elkind, Ph.D., author of All Grown Up and No Place to Go and professor of child development at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, explains that:

During the teenage years, the area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex is developing. This is the part of your brain that is behind your forehead. It's your thinking cap and judgment center, which means kids can now develop their ideals and ideas.... In turn, this means that younger children don't see the flaws in their parents, whereas adolescents suddenly see the world more realistically.

David Elkind, Ph.D, "Teenagers: Why Do They Rebel?"

When you tune in as to why your child is starting to buck the rules in your home, you have a better starting point to correct this damaging behavior.

Some children are rebellious due to a behavioral condition known as Oppositional Defiant Disorder. In children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), there is an ongoing pattern of uncooperative, defiant, and hostile behavior toward authority figures that seriously interferes with the child's day-to-day functioning. If you suspect your child may have ODD, please consult a healthcare professional.

4 kind strategies for handling defiant behavior in tweens and teens

Once you've ruled out the possibility of a behavioral issue that needs intervention from a healthcare professional, it's time to consider some ways you can correct and redirect your child's defiant behavior.

1. Reevaluate your rules and boundaries

Suppose you've always run a household that has had rules such as expectations for homework, strict curfews, and a zero-tolerance policy on disrespect. In that case, you're lucky—you have clear boundaries and your child knows the deal. But if you've been wishy-washy or inconsistent with rules, it's time to figure out your bottom line on what's acceptable and what won't fly and then stick with it.

Regardless of whether you've had rules in place or not, reevaluate this scenario and tweak things to accommodate the stage your family is now at and establish new guidelines if you need them. More importantly, take the time to review your new rules with your kids. Instead of threatening "new rules effective immediately" in the heat of the moment when your child has been defiant, call a family meeting when everyone is calm and you've had time to reflect. Then, lovingly but firmly present the rules.

If you're going to set rules, you need to enforce them. This means being consistent, which truthfully is half the battle when it comes to parenting! Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, QDT's former Savvy Psychologist, recommends including your tween or teen in creating solutions for chronically disrespectful situations. This is a win/win for both parent and child because when a rebellious action occurs, you can enforce the discipline that he/she decided was fair. Take it one step further and post your rules and consequences in a neutral area such as the kitchen to serve as a gentle reminder when needed.

2. Postpone confrontations when you're emotional

The worst time to confront a rebellious child is when you're tired, stressed, or you've had a bad day yourself.

Let's say your high school senior knows his curfew is 11 p.m. ... no matter what! Midnight rolls around, and he still hasn't returned home. Worried, you wait up for him. At half past midnight, his car pulls quietly into the driveway. Although you're relieved when he walks through the door, you're also frustrated and angry that his behavior caused you to miss sleep while you worried yourself into a frenzy.

Worry can get out of control! Dr. Jade Wu's episode, Afraid of a Loved One Dying? How to Keep Yourself Tethered to Now, will help you get a handle on your fears.

Seeing your upset expression, your teen immediately goes into defense mode with excuses about why he's broken curfew. Rather than get into a fighting match with him, step aside and postpone the emotional confrontation. Instead, welcome him home.

I'm so happy you're home safe and sound.

IF your son launches into the reasons he's broken curfew, tell him you'd like to delay the conversation.

We can talk about this tomorrow when we're both rested.

Now wish him a good night's sleep and walk away. By doing this, you're saving yourself from a heated discussion where both of you might say things that you'll later regret. Not only that, you're giving him some time to sit with his choices when it comes to breaking rules. Knowing he'll have to squirm for a while before the inevitable conversation about his behavior is a consequence of its own for breaking house rules!

3. Don't get sidetracked

One skill most kids have mastered by the time they head into their teen years is the art of deflecting, particularly when they're trying to talk themselves out of a jam.

I read an interesting article on Power of Positivity's website called Psychology Reveals Why People Deflect Instead of Taking Responsibility. The psychology behind deflection is an inability for a person to focus on themselves. In the case of a rebellious child, this tactic can be a way to direct attention away to avoid having to own up to making a poor choice or acting inappropriately.

In the example I used earlier about postponing a confrontation with your child who broke curfew, an angry teen could quickly try and sidetrack his mother by saying "You're so unfair. None of my friends have a curfew that early. You still treat me like I'm a baby!" Rather than admitting he broke the curfew, he deflects from his mistake by attacking your rules.

Unfortunately, this deflecting strategy is often successful. It's not hard to get a tired, worried, angry parent worked up over defending the house rules. And that dynamic can sometimes result in a battle of wills or even a shouting match. But let's be clear: If you let your child derail the conversation by provoking you and raising your defenses, then your child has won this round.

What should you do instead? As I just mentioned in tip two, refuse to engage when you're not in a calm state of mind. Or, if you're already calm and trying to engage in a productive discussion, gently bring your child back on track by reminding them of the focus of the conversation.

I'm hearing you say that you think our house rules are unfair. These are the rules we've set down as a family, and the ones you agreed to. We can talk about them at another time, but right now, we're talking about you breaking curfew last night. We need to return to that topic.

4. Look for the positive

Unfortunately, many of us tend to focus on the negative and what needs correcting in our children's lives rather than what they are doing right. When they act out and are rebelling, it's undoubtedly easier to tune in to their bad behavior and overlook anything that's going well. A better practice is to focus on the positive and offer encouragement when your tween or teen does something desirable, no matter how small the action may be.

I've mentioned before on the Mighty Mommy podcast that I learned an excellent strategy from my kids' elementary school called "Caught in the Act." The teachers and staff would look for opportunities to catch a child doing something good. For their good deed or positive behavior, they were "written up" with a "ticket" that praised their good action. My kids were always thrilled and positively beamed ever time they received a ticket! I loved the idea of reinforcing positive behaviors so much that I've been using it in my home for over 20 years.

As you navigate through a difficult period of defiance and rebellion, take time to find things that your child is doing right. A higher test grade than usual in a difficult subject? Getting home half an hour earlier than curfew? Getting up and getting ready in the morning without complaints? When you look for the positive and reinforce these moments with a smile and a short word of praise, your doing your small part to help soften the rough, crusty edges of a contentious, rebellious stage.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.