Hope for Parents of Defiant Teens: 6 Ways to Parent More Effectively

by Janet Lehman, MSW
Hope for Parents of Defiant Teens: 6 Ways to Parent More Effectively

“I feel alone,” a mom of an out-of-control teen said to me recently. “I don’t go out much anymore, and to be honest, my family isn’t really invited to things because of my son’s behavior.” If you have an acting-out child or teen, you probably feel isolated. You’ve gotten tired of hearing criticisms from family and friends, and perhaps you’ve pulled back from social functions. I think when you have a child who’s out of control, in many ways it’s like living with an alcoholic family member. After a while, parents give up trying to change anything, and they often don’t talk about it, either—they just keep all their shame, blame and sense of failure inside.

"Parent the child you have, not the child you wish you’d had."

You’re likely to isolate even more as your child’s behaviors become more extreme. You question your parenting ability, even though your child’s behavior may not have anything to do with what you did or didn’t do. Here’s the simple truth—some kids are just more difficult than others. That is why it’s so important to “parent the child you have, not the child you wished you’d have.”

Related: Are you parenting an acting-out child or teen?

It’s important to stress that anyone can change at any time—even your acting-out child. Part of what kids need when they’re out of control is for parents to make some changes so that the child can feel safer. No matter how they act, kids don’t really want to be that out of control, because it doesn’t feel safe. Here are—6 things I suggest to parents in this situation to help them take back control of their homes and start parenting differently.

1. Know your bottom line. Know your bottom line and stick to it. Developing self-respect helps you set more limits; it also builds on itself. When you set limits, be ready and willing to follow through. Don’t use idle threats because your child may call your bluff. For example, your bottom line might be that your teen won’t be allowed to take the family car out on the weekend if he swears at you or calls you or other family members names during the week. Again, if you’re going to set a limit, stick with it. Don’t let him have those car keys on Friday night if he called his sister a “b---h” on Wednesday. Don’t be surprised if there is a negative reaction from your child. Just remember, he needs to own his behavior and be accountable for it. Things won’t change for your teen if he’s making it your problem as a parent.

2. Teach your child to problem solve. As a parent, you are the teacher, coach and limit setter for your child. Part of your job is to teach her how to solve her problems appropriately. When things are calm, you can say, “This behavior won’t solve your problem. Yelling at me because you’re angry about having to go to bed won’t help you—it will only get you into more trouble. So how can you solve this problem differently next time?” Listen to what she has to say, and suggest ideas if she can’t come up with anything. Some examples might be: “You could walk away. You could write down how you’re feeling on a piece of paper or in a journal. You could listen to music.” This is really powerful because you’re saying, “It’s not about me, it’s about you. And it’s not in your best self-interest to behave this way. How can you change what you’re doing so you don’t get into trouble next time?”

Related: The secret to better child behavior.

3. Aim for small victories. Take small steps and look for gradual change. The change could be as small as disengaging from an argument rather than getting drawn into a power struggle with your child. One way to start is to stand up for yourself. Saying something like, “Don’t talk to me that way, I don’t like it” is an immediate victory and it starts to shift your behavior. It helps you to start moving forward as a positive, effective parent. Look for small successes and take a moment to acknowledge them when they happen.

4. Work on one behavior at a time. Choose the behavior that’s the most serious to address first and begin to plan the steps to change this. Work on getting that under control and then move onto the next behavior on the list. Let’s say you’re the parent of a teen who’s engaging in risky teen behavior and breaking curfew, swearing, not doing his homework, and being disrespectful. What can you realistically aim for here? You have to figure out as a parent what you can live with and where to start. You can’t tackle everything at once or you’re going to fail. Look for safety issues first. Ask yourself, “How do I keep the rest of my family safe? How do I keep my teen safe the best I can?” Work on getting your teen home by curfew by setting limits around it and enforcing consequences, and then move on to the next thing on your list.

5. Be “planful.” Plan out what you’re going to say to your child ahead of time, before he acts out again. Deliver your message in as matter-of-fact of a way as possible. Besides helping you to remain businesslike and objective, this also helps you to separate from your child’s behavior by not getting drawn into a fight. The conversation can be, “Your behavior isn’t acceptable. I’ve decided it has to change, and this is what the plan is.” Or “We as parents have decided to change to this plan.”

Related: How to give consequences that will work for your child.

6. Ask for help. Stretch your expectations of your support system. If you stay isolated, things often get worse, making you feel more alone than ever. You might not think there’s anybody out there who will listen or help, but you might be surprised at how people react. A friend might be willing to meet you for coffee once a week and talk, for example, knowing that you’re going through a bad time. As a parent, it’s critical to ask for help and talk about what’s going on, whether you go to a therapist, find a support group, talk to folks at your child’s school or find a trusted family member or friend to confide in. Just put it out there and be open to feedback.

When Kids Push Back After You Make Changes

You can’t always predict what will happen when you start making changes in your parenting style. Some kids will “push back,” but others might not. Your adolescent may say she hates you, but if she’s doing exactly what you wanted her to do, you’ve won a small victory. If your child does push back and act out, respond with consistency.

Understand that once you start saying, “This is the way I need things to be,” and holding firm, you’ve made a decision. You’ve done something that brings respect back. It doesn’t mean the behavior will immediately get better—it may take months or years of ups and downs. But the important thing is, you’ve broken that cycle. Once you make a decision and set a limit, you’ve broken the cycle of being at the mercy of your child and his behavior.

Related: How to parent your defiant child or teen more effectively.

I truly believe that no matter how bad things feel, change is always possible. Remember, as we change, we help our kids change—and even small shifts in behavior are important. When we become stronger, we set an example for our kids in their own lives. There’s no magic to any of this, it’s really about you as a parent altering how you respond. Realize that once you take on the role of a more effective parent, you will likely keep things moving forward, and with each new success, you’ll feed on your ability to parent more effectively.

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Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of The Total Transformation Program. She is a social worker who has held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.


Have a bit of a situation were the father of my daughter who has a better economic status, is also supporting any whim that our daughter voices. He is a retired TV director who knows how to get people on his side and tells her everything she wants to hear. He has the power, the lawyer lover, the money and an extended family. He neglected us and abandoned us because we were not in 'his league', and now that our daughter is 16 he has come into her life to create animosity between her and I, just to display his power once again.

Comment By : Parenting alone

Our sons behavior is only directed at us( his parents), he is well behaved when we go to family or when he is at some other function!? We know this because people tell us,"He has such good manners, and," What a nice son you have"? We do not beat our son , but have given consequences for his "bad" behavior at home and towards us. We want to know why? We've asked him this question, (many times"), but all he says is "I don't know"??!! We never thought "parenting" was going to be easy , but not at all like it is now! We are in the process of getting him evaluated for ,ADD/ADHD, so are hopeful this will shed some light on our frustrations? The reserch I have don't and syptoms he shows are indicitive of this disorder. Stay tuned.........

Comment By : momstired

My 15 year old daughter walked out of the house and we couldn't find her until the next morning. She wouldn't call and her boyfriend hid her and lied to us. How do we handle this?

Comment By : Halo

I know some children truly have chemical or transmitter brain issues, but most of the kids in my neighborhood are just spoiled. They have been give huge amounts of control LONG before they should. It stresses out a 3 year old for parents to keep asking: "What do you want?" 3 year olds don't know. Grow up, parents. Use your stewardship properly when they are little and when they get to be 12 they will still know who is in charge.

Comment By : Molly

Hi Momstired, how old is your son? Sounds like ours! I find it reassuring that he clearly knows the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour (he just saves the latter for us! Subconsciously or otherwise) and also that he is most unlikely to have ADD/ADHD by virtue of the fact that he has no issues at school or out at others' place. But isn't it just exasperating at home! I think he will always just be one of those hard work kiddies! Duracell to boot. This site is also fabulous and I love getting the newsletters.

Comment By : InAustralia

* To Halo: It is so frightening and frustrating when you have a child who leaves the house without permission and you do not know where she is and are unable to contact her. We recommend having a problem-solving conversation with your daughter about her choices. For example, you might say, “I know you were angry the other night; running away isn’t going to solve that problem for you. What are some other things you could do the next time you get angry?” We encourage you to contact your local police department on their non-emergency number to see what kind of assistance they might be able to offer you if your daughter decides to walk out of the house again without permission. You might consider contacting The National Runaway Switchboard as they can provide you some support, and help prevent your daughter from running away again. You can contact them 24/7 at 1-800-RUNAWAY (786-2929) I’m also including links to some articles here on Empowering Parents that I think you might find helpful. Take care and we wish you the best as you and your family continue to work through this.
Running Away Part I: Why Kids Do It and How to Stop Them
Running Away Part II: "Mom, I Want to Come Home." When Your Child is on the Streets

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

Dear InAustralia, Our son is 14 1/2, ...althought he thinks he is mature beyond his years??? He knows how to play people, and he's good at it! we are trying to get to the root cause of this blatant behavior. Went to see his Dr. and the evaluations are in the works. Will keep you informed. Sure wish we could talk via email, maybe we could help each other? Our son does have issues at school, but only because he refuses to do the work....as if it's going to solve itself?! Anyway will tell you our finding as soon as we get some.

Comment By : momstired

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defiant teens, effective parenting, parent differently, out of control behavior

Responses to questions posted on EmpoweringParents.com are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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