How to Understand and Cope with Your Defiant Teen

The teenage years are famous for the emotional and physical havoc they can wreak on your family life. Your happy, easy-going child suddenly becomes a sullen and withdrawn not-quite-adult; the best-behaved child transforms into a teenager who defies you or gets in trouble at school. You’re dealing with a defiant teen.

Even when you know the years between childhood and adulthood will present unique challenges to your relationship with your child, it doesn’t make it any easier when your teenager closes herself off to you or engages in behavior you don’t recognize.

“Who is this person?” you might think. “This is not the child I knew a year ago. Is our relationship doomed?”

The good news is twofold: the tumult of young adulthood isn’t forever, and your teen’s defiance is probably a big part of her eventual transition into happy adulthood.

New pressures

Beyond hormones, which cause your teen to feel and act in ways he isn’t yet practiced in understanding, new developments in the structures that make up his brain can inundate and overwhelm him.

For example, research shows that the reward center of the brain develops before more inhibitory thought frameworks. You can imagine that this alone might draw a stark contrast between the way you perceive a situation and the way your teen perceives it.

The confusion and disconnect don’t stop there—scientists are starting to discover that increased fear and anxiety might weigh heavier in his mind than the tools he needs to manage difficult emotions.

It makes sense that if your teenager is constantly seeking out new, exciting experiences and feeling heightened anxiety at the same time, his reactions might seem disproportionate, irrational, and intense from your vantage point.

So why is my teen defiant?

Against this backdrop of biological development, the transitional teenage years necessitate that your child learns to become independent enough to live on her own. Such transitions can be painful; they are certainly changes in which she has no experience navigating.

As a result, your teenager moves toward independence by testing—testing you, testing herself, and testing different kinds of communication and behavior. This might help you feel a little better next time she argues irrationally or says something that hurts you as a parent—she might not even really be thinking about what she’s saying, instead she’s testing boundaries that define her current situation.

What tools can I use to cope with my defiant teen?

Seeking to understand the forces at work on your teen’s emotions is an important first step toward coping with his new attitude. Beyond understanding, there are a few strategic tools you can use to make your life—and his—a little easier.

  • Be consistent – This time in your family life might be really trying for you. Maybe you’re finding it hard to keep your cool, or you’re so worn out that you want to give in to your defiant teen. What your teen actually needs most is consistency. Talk about rules and expectations. Write them down.
  • Let your teen come to you – Even when you feel angry or upset, respond positively to the rare occasion when your teen opens up or asks for your help. Forcing your teenager to talk could make her retreat further into her new world. When your teen knows you’re listening, you’ll be better able to work through conflicts together.
  • Spend time together – even if it feels like the sullen teen across the table from you isn’t getting anything from eating dinner together, the shared family time might be the exact kind of stability he needs in a world that feels suddenly new in every way.
  • Keep her busy – encourage her to find activities she enjoys. She’ll learn self-esteem, teamwork, and lots of other great attributes—and she’ll be more likely to stay out of trouble.
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