6 Ways to Handle a Defiant Teen (Without Yelling)

If you’ve got tweens and teens in your life, you’ve most likely been the recipient of backtalk or other defiant actions.  Mighty Mommy is a parent to 6 teens, so here are 6 ways that you can respond positively to your defiant teen and keep the peace at home.

Cheryl Butler,
January 27, 2014
Episode #265

Remember when you first looked lovingly into your sweet baby’s eyes? When his newborn coos could melt your heart in an instant?

And now, 15 years later, as you try to stay patient through his attitude and smug, hurtful remarks - are you left wondering what the heck happened?

If you’ve got tweens and teens in your life, you’ve most likely been the recipient of backtalk or other defiant actions.  Unfortunately, this type of behavior is the norm of the teen parenting package. But don't despair! Positive change can happen in your family if you’re willing to invest some time dealing with it. .

For parents, the key is to handle that nasty and exasperating behavior in a way that calmly and consistently shows your child that you are in control and that you will not tolerate it.  Mighty Mommy has 6 teens in her life right now, so here are 6 ways that you can respond positively to your defiant teen and keep the peace at home:

Tip #1:  Never Assume the Reason Behind a Teen's Bad Behavior

Your child’s defiant behavior is actually the symptom of the actual problem. Don’t guess or assume that your child is acting out based on what you see.  If your son is belligerent towards you when he returns from school, it might not be that he hates algebra and is taking it out on you. Maybe he’s finding it hard to make friends and is feeling like an outcast.  That doesn’t excuse his poor behavior, but when he’s in the comfort of his own home, he can let his guard down and therefore targets his frustration toward those closest to him, usually his parents and siblings.

Try tracking your child’s behavior for a short period of time and notice what situations or feelings seem to trigger the aggression or defiant outbursts.  If you notice a pattern where he’s unloading his anger every day when he comes home from school, once he calms down later that evening ask him if you can talk about what you’ve noticed.  “Hey, it’s pretty obvious that when you get home from school you’re miserable and you’re taking it out on Dad and me. What's up? How can we help you?”  He may completely ignore your attempt, but if you start from a place of trying to understand what’s going on, you’re letting him know that you care and that you want to help him - rather than just casting blame.

Tip #2:  Connect With Your Teen Often

This tip may sound like a no brainer but it’s actually quite simple—kids want to know that they rate in our busy lives.  We all get caught up in the grind of work, running a household, trying to keep on top of finances and bills, and when it comes to family life with our older kids we tend to let things slide. We don't enforce sharing family meals together on a regular basis, we don't hang out after dinner and chat about what’s going on in their social world, with their sports’ teams, or any other aspects of their daily lives. 

Maybe it’s because when we do try to engage them, they blow us off with a sigh or a sarcastic eye roll. But it’s important to keep trying so that they’ll see you’re making a heartfelt effort.  Many times kids will act out when they feel they’re being ignored.  Look for opportunities throughout your busy day and week to connect with them on a consistent basis.  By doing so, you’re sending her an important message—you are important to me!

Tip #3:  Involve Your Kids in Problem Solving

My oldest son, now 19, went through a couple of very difficult years (ages 11 – 13) where he was completely negative about nearly every aspect of his life.  Not only was he doom and gloom, he had a quick temper and nearly anything we asked of him would result in a verbal attack.  We tried analyzing a pattern, took every opportunity we could to engage him when he was home, offered to let him see a therapist if he thought that would help, reached out to his closest friends to see if they knew what was going on, yet we continually fell short.

Finally, after a visit with our pediatrician we had a breakthrough.  During her routine questions at the beginning of the check-up, the doctor asked him what subjects he liked best at school.  He told her he liked science the best because it was the one subject where he wasn’t the dumbest kid in the class.  She shared this with us privately.  My son had learning difficulties and an IEP (Individual Education Plan) for most of his school life, but he always made an effort during school (completely hiding his negativity while there) because he didn’t want anyone to know how bothered he was that he learned differently from his peers. 

See also: 8 Ways to Create a Fulfilling Life With Your Special Needs Child

Although we got to the root of the problem, the negative outbursts continued for several months after, so we decided to focus on a solution rather than the problem.  We asked him how he could better control his behavior because it was draining not only us, but ultimately him as well.  He thought about for a couple of weeks and then asked if he could work with a tutor twice a week outside of the house and for us to stop micro-managing his school assignments.  Overall, he was still a C+ student, but once we backed off and gave him his breathing room, he started to relax, got involved with school sports, and his defiant behaviors went from 90% to less than 10%.  Hes in college now and doing great!

Tip #4:  Be Compassionate, Not Forceful

No one likes to be told what to do.  And yet research shows that the average parent gives dozens of orders every day, most in a negative tone. If your child is continually challenging you, consider how you can help him or her tackle more responsibility, instead of making him or her feel bossed around. 

Some suggestions on how you can confront bad behavior with compassion rather than force are:

  • Stop, drop (everything else), and breathe.  Since your buttons are pushed, you need to get calm before you address the defiance.

  • Reinforce your expectation about the standard of respect in your family:  "You know we don't speak to each other that way in this house."

  • Give your child a chance to correct himself while you reopen communication: "I know you didn't mean to be disrespectful.  I do want to hear what you have to say. Can we try a do-over?"

  • Stay compassionate. Say "Ouch!  That was pretty rude...You must really be angry to speak to me that way. I try to always speak respectfully to you. What's going on?"

  • Listen to your child patiently: "Oh GOD This is SO Boring. Please Kill Me, I see. I'm so sorry, I didn't realize that was happening. Thanks for telling me."  Remain calm and listen. You need to give the teenager the chance to vent all those pent-up feelings that cause them to feel disconnected and angry.

See also:  5 Ways to Be a More Playful Parent


Tip #5:  Reduce Environmental Stressors

It’s not uncommon for a child to act out due to things outside his control in his home environment.  These stresses could be overt, such as marital fighting or physical or mental health problems of the parents or primary caregivers. Or they could be more subtle such as the child’s exposure to too much TV, a poor diet, or aggressive music and video games. Family instability, including economic stress, parental illness, harshly punitive behaviors, inconsistent parenting practices, multiple moves, and divorce may also contribute to the development of oppositional and defiant behaviors.

Take inventory of these outside influences and try and reduce and eliminate as many negative influences on your child as possible, while promoting a more healthful lifestyle for the whole family.  That doesn't mean you have to be a pushover, however.  Children, even teens, crave structure and boundaries so choose consequences that hold some impact, such as restricted access to electronic devices, and don't waiver and give second chances.  Demonstrating firm and consistent parenting is one of the average gifts you can give to your child.

See also: 8 Ways to Lighten Your Parenting Load


Tip #6:  Reinforce Compliant Behaviors

One of my absolute favorite parenting strategies is to build on the positive—and do so frequently when it is deserved.  The more positive attention a teen gets for being compliant, the less negative attention he'll look for by being defiant.  So in other words, get into the habit of consistently catching your child doing something good.  If your teen offers to give his younger sister a few bucks for treats when she’s at the movies, let him know how much you appreciate it.  “Hey Jake, I think it’s great that you let Amanda have money for popcorn at the movies—I really appreciate your thoughtfulness.  She’s lucky to have you as her brother.”  

See also: 8 Strategies for Dealing With a Defiant Child


Do you have a defiant teen? What strategies work for you?  Share your thoughts in the comment section at quickanddirtytips.com/mighty-mommy or post your ideas on the Mighty Mommy Facebook page. You can also connect with me on Twitter @MightyMommy or e-mail me at mommy@quickanddirtytips.com.  Visit my family-friendly boards at Pinterest.com/MightyMommyQDT.

One of our most important jobs is to show teens appropriate, healthy ways to behave as we give them some problem-solving tools to deal with stresses and frustration. A defiant child can certainly test every ounce of parenting patience we have, but if we remain calm, loving and act consistently, these negative behaviors can be turned into positive ones.  Happy parenting everyone!

I am hugely indebted to psychologist Dr. Laura Markham and her site AhaParenting.com for her invaluable advice on handling the challenges of parenting.

Defiant teen and other images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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