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Scared of Your Defiant Child? Learn How to Get Back Your Parental Control

by Janet Lehman, MSW
Scared of Your Defiant Child? Learn How to Get Back Your Parental Control

Kasey* was a fifteen-year-old girl who arrived at my adolescent treatment center with a rap sheet and an attitude. She was beautiful, she came from a very wealthy family—and she was way out of control. When we met, I began to lay down the usual ground rules. Kasey, who towered over me, screamed, “F--- you, you f------- b-----!” and threw every foul word at me she could think of. I knew she was capable of knocking me on my butt. I won’t lie—my knees were shaking a little, but I didn’t let her see how scared I was. Instead I said, in as calm of a voice as I could muster, “Great, but you still have to follow the rules.”

There is no ‘magic’ to any of this. The only ‘magic’ is that you as a parent have much more power than you think you have, and you need to own that and take it back.

If your child is defying your authority and it makes you afraid or upset, don’t think that you’re alone—even as a behaviorist working with severely behavior disordered kids, I had to learn how to overcome this fear by making up my mind to take control of how I came across.

Related: Are you afraid of your child’s anger and acting out behavior? How to take back control today.

This brings me to my first piece of advice for regaining parental authority:

  • Act calm even when you're feeling scared. I often talk about parents being “good actors” around their kids. When your child is challenging you, trying to provoke you, or raging at you, I recommend that you keep as neutral of an expression as possible, even if on the inside you’re angry or scared. So “Fake it till you make it”—in other words, act as if you have a sense of authority or control, even if you’re not feeling it in the moment, and eventually the real thing will come to you.
  • Deal with the problem quickly. If you’re feeling scared or upset,I also recommend that you deal with the issue quickly and then walk away. Set the limit immediately, don't wait or let it slide. Even if you're not going to say the “perfect” thing, or if your words don’t have the perfect effect, say something that lets your child know that you are in charge. Then, go to another room and take a deep breath and let your knees knock. Then you can start getting back in control.

Related: How to be clear, direct, loving and in charge with your child.

You may have a child who has continuously challenged you since toddlerhood, or one who has just started to defy you, seemingly out of the blue. Just why do kids challenge us in this way? A lot of it has to do with developmental stages—especially as a teen or  pre-teen, your child is “individuating” from you, which means he’s separating from you and finding out who he is. This is natural and actually what kids are supposed to do, but for some children, the challenging becomes extreme. Let’s face it, when our kids challenge us, it can be scary—and we’re usually not ready for it. Your job as a parent is to set limits and let your child know what’s appropriate as he moves through the adolescent years and into adulthood.

The kids I worked with challenged my authority at every turn, but each time I was careful to respond with words or actions that said, “I’m not scared of you, and I’m not going to back off. This is the limit that has been set. This is what’s expected of you—and if you don’t follow the rules, there will be consequences.”

Related: How to give consequences that really work.

This brings me to my next recommendation:

  • Don’t back down. Try to be consistent. Let your child know that you aren’t afraid of upsetting him or saying “no” to his demands. Don’t get sucked into his bad behavior or what he’s saying to you, or let him try to engage you in a fight. Just state the rule, tell him what will happen if he doesn’t comply, and then walk away. And when you set that limit, stick to it. Consistency is the key, but the name of the game is follow through, follow through, follow through.
  • Start small. If you are working to regain parental authority, I recommend that you start small. Acknowledge that you’re going to need to work at this, identify where you want to start and realize that it’s not going to be the be-all-end-all, but simply “step one.” Ask yourself, “Where is the one place I want to start being more authoritative? What do I want to start setting consequences around and following through on?” Remember that any major change starts with the first step.

Many of the parents I worked with were well-meaning and loving. Most of them had been having a hard time for years setting limits with their defiant, willful, or difficult kids. Some of these parents had never really had authority in their house, while others had lost it slowly over time. The latter happens to many of us—we’re all working hard and dealing with so many things in our lives—our jobs, our relationships, our extended families, and sometimes an illness or death. Losing our sense of parental authority can happen to the best of us—but the good news is that this authority can be regained.

Related: How to regain your parental authority—starting today.

Another important thing to realize is that there is no “magic” to any of this. The only “magic” is that you as a parent have much more power than you think you have, and you need to own that and take it back. Time and time again, I saw the parents we worked with gradually regain their parental authority. Their kids would ask me, “Hey, what did you do to my mom?” But all we did was empower parents to realize that they were in charge, not their 15-year-old kid. This brings me to my next point.

  • Let your child know you mean business. Understand that if your child is in control, he now sees himself as being in charge. But again, that’s also very frightening for kids. As much as they enjoy that sense of power, it’s very scary to feel like they’re controlling their parents. Understand that a teen is never going to say to you, “I’m scared because you have no control over me. I’m 16 and I’m running the house through intimidation and threatening behavior.” Children, and even teens, want parents to have control and set boundaries around their behavior, but they’re not going to admit that. In the adolescent treatment center, I actually had kids say (after they’d been with us for awhile), “I was really out of control. You wouldn’t believe what I was doing. I was breaking windows and punching holes in the walls, and my mom was afraid of me. It was crazy.” Many of the teens who came to us, like Kasey, had been intimidating their mothers (and sometimes fathers) and physically threatening siblings and other members of their families. After working with us, parents were eventually able to say to their kids, “I’ve allowed this behavior to go on. This is not going to help you as an adult. I’m taking charge now.” Sometimes that meant that they called the police when their child was destroying the house or becoming physically abusive. Regardless, they let their kids know that they would not stand for the out of control behavior any longer.
  • Parent the child you have…I think it’s also extremely important to look at your child realistically. “Parent the child you have—not the child you wish you had,” as James always said. Maybe you thought your child would be fairly well-behaved and pleasant to be around all the time, or that she would be a good athlete or student. But if that’s not the case, you need to start seeing her for who she is. As parents, James and I worked hard to look at our son realistically and honestly, and to love him with all of his strengths and weaknesses. We assessed the struggles he was going through honestly and then worked on them together. It’s so important to check in with your child and have a realistic sense of who he is and of what he’s going through—and to know what’s reasonable to expect of him.

Related: “Parent the child you have—not the child you wish you had.”

With firm limits set, adults around them who wouldn’t back down, and consistent consequences in place, almost all the kids we worked with eventually learned how to behave appropriately. At the same time, if their parents worked hard to gain effective parenting methods and were able to take back their parental authority, they were successfully able to take charge of their family again. My message to them was the same message I have for you today: have faith, because you can always gain parenting skills. You can do this. Do not give up—just start small and keep moving forward.

*Not her real name.

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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.


This has inspired me to try harder and keep at being consistent, thanks.

Comment By : Shahla

I absolutely agree and recently took back control from my 8yr son who was defiant since toddlerhood and made my life miserable daily but in the last few months he as learned that I mean what I say and say what I mean and the bad behavior has all but stopped. When we do have an altercation it is in the form of him pleading why his way is better but I state the consequences and what he needs to do and I walk away and I always use as few words as possible; after a few rounds of consequences he learned quickly. I have found that the arguing all but stops when I leave since there is no one to argue with.

Comment By : steelerfan

My son has adhd and becomes very defiant and physically aggressive at times.I'm learning to take back my powers as an authoritive figure after years of my own mom interfering,dad as well. Its gotten so stressful that we now have an in home counselor! But the articles I get from here are so easy to understand and follow. I'm taking it day by day but I know thingsll get better:-) thank you!

Comment By : mimi27

"Parent the Child you have and not the one you wish you had." First time I heard this, and I think this is my problem. I come from a large hispanic family where I thought I was doing things the right way for my own child. I am the oldest of 7 and the only one who was not a teen parent and went on to higher education. I live on my own with my 10 year old son and spend time with him, actively involved in his school activities, and do extra stuff like when he was learning about the missions, he and I went to visit 4 different missions so he got to see first hand the similarities and differences. I try and enrich his learning environment as much as I can, with summer programs, music, etc. On the other hand my siblings who have 4-5 kids each, live in a shared household, never really have the time or resources to take the kids out. They are the ones who have outstanding students and well behaved kids. My son is not horrible he actually has good feelings, but does very poorly in school. I feel very frustrated because I constatntly find myself asking that question. What am I doing wrong?

Comment By : MG

Angry, defiant children are often the result of angry, defiant parents who project their anger on to their children. Parents can not effectively deal with their children until they deal with their own issues first.

Comment By : The Grandfather

my son is adhd and people blame it on that and just it is not he plays into it and my morning dont go so well he always tells me i dont have to listen to you mom that he thinks he dont have to listen to me but when dad says something he starts to cry i just want to grab him and say why are you like this every morning is the same thing and it dont change he is driving me up the wall i tell him what has to be done and he just bounces about and sings throws my cups around i tell him five times or more to take his pills and pack your lunch get some breakfast then get ready to get the bus i just want my little boy that he was not saying mean things to me or his sisters now that he thinks its ok to hurt people and steal and blame others then when we find out its him that did it or his room its been years that we have ask for him to clean it me and my husband took us a week to get it in order and it back the way it was but it was someone else to mess it that it was not him like right now he made me scream and he just laugh in my face rrrrrrr he gets me so angry that makes me wish i never had children and i had four of them him and his oldest brother are both the same who cares about mom or dad or they say im moving out go a head see if someone else will put up with you oh here we go im the bad parent that i dont care how do you get it in his head that i love him not for what he does right now im so angry that he dont care he even laughs at me oh i can go on but right now im upset that he dont care

Comment By : hoppenmad

It's hard to " Pick a place to start" in taking back control, when every aspect has been an issue. And as for calling the police,what if you are out in the "boonies"? By the time it would take for them to get there,nothing would be left.I do however leave the room when my child starts that behavior,usually after being given the rules(for the thousanth time),and what the consequences will be.Slow and steady wins the race!!And a lot of prayers too.

Comment By : Moms Tired

OK, I agree entirely with this approach, but I'm not having very good success with it so far. My son's major problem is a tendency to explode with extreme verbal abuse when he doesn't get what he wants. I have clear rules and consequences involving loss of electronics, which I apply consistently, but this does not prevent the abusive outbursts occurring over and over again at intervals. The difficulty on this occasion is that I am insisting on an apology and a discussion over how he will prevent it happening again (as advised in these columns), which in itself has provoked further nightly outbursts of extreme rudeness and a steadfast refusal to apologise. We are into a second week of this behaviour and it is difficult to maintain normal life for the rest of the family. What is the maximum length of time you would expect to wait for a 15-year old child to back down. I am going to remove the TV from the house tomorrow, but of course, the rest of us will then also be punished by being unable to watch it. At present, I am not over-confident that this is going to succeed, and my husband (who will not take in interest in a concerted approach, which is a problem in itself) shuts himself in another room every evening because he can't tolerate the atmosphere.

Comment By : HDF

* To “MG”: It’s a perplexing situation when you are providing every possible educational opportunity for your child yet he’s not performing up to your standards. I can hear how discouraged you feel. I don’t believe it’s a question of what you are doing wrong. You are doing a lot to help your son academically. I would suggest sitting down and talking with your son about his school performance. What’s the reason he’s doing poorly in school? It may be any number of common stumbling blocks for kids like not completing homework, difficulty understanding directions in class or it’s challenging to finish the work on time. Pinpointing what your son is struggling with can help guide you in helping him develop a plan for improving his school performance. I would also suggest talking with the teacher to find out where your son may be having difficulty. Here are a couple of articles that may be helpful in addressing school performance issues: Sinking Fast at School: How to Help Your Child Stay Afloat and Problems at School? How to Handle the Top 4 Issues I hope this helps. Good luck working through these issues with your son.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

This is a joke! Why would I fake it? I want to listen to what my son has to say and express my emotions to prepare him for...ummm....the world!

Comment By : hellomynameisrobert

I found this site researching problems with my 4 year old son, but I have a visceral response reading this. I was a very angry teen like Kasey. While I think this in theory is a good idea, you're really missing the bigger picture here. This sounds like exactly what my stepmom used to say and her whole methodology about raising children - they want to be controlled. They must be to be taught to submit to all authority. And the more she tried that, the worse my behavior became. I rebelled more and life was a living hell for both me and my family. I failed out of school and my life was spirally out of control for a long, long time. The point you are missing is that kids don't want to be controlled. They want to be parented. They want guidance from trusted adults that respect them. Once your parental authority is gone, the trust and respect has also eroded. I do like the final part about "Parent the child you have" since that was something that was definitely missing in my teen years and I was made to feel like utter garbage because I didn't live up to expectations. If your kid is like me, then none of this is going to work since it became a power struggle to submit and I wasn't going to do it. My room was stripped to only mattress on the floor and I didn't have a door, but I won't do what my dad or stepmom said out of principle. It didn't matter what the consequences were. I didn't care. If you're at that point, then this will not work. I'm really worried that people like my stepmom are going to read this and use this as proof that bullying and tormenting kids is "parenting".

Comment By : Cia

I have two boys with a previous marriage and she and I don't parent the same way. My ex loves to try and persuade the boys with gifts if they listen. While I try to give consequences and stick with a program. It is so frustrating hearing "Mom let's me do this" I really don't know how to handle this situation. My oldest son even went to live with her because she would always take his side when he got in trouble and made it out to seem as if I was doing something wrong. I just want my sons to be productive young men who work hard and treat people kindly. It has even got to the point where my youngest son no longer shows his stepmom any respect. They used to be super close, but ever since his mom said he didn't have to listen to her, he has changed how he treats her. Please help!

Comment By : B Burns

Very enlightening and encouraging.As a parent I have experienced exactly the same feeling . Thanks so much

Comment By : Sonaliavmps

* To “B Burns”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. It truly is a difficult situation you are in. I can hear how much you want your sons to grow up to be respectful, responsible adults. It can be effective to focus on what you have control over. Even though you may not be able to control how your ex-wife parents or how your son interacts with his stepmom, you can, however, control how you react to these behaviors. You and your wife are the ones who decide what rules and expectations you have in your house. These rules are what you use as a guideline for your son’s behavior. Try not to get pulled into the “Mom doesn’t do it that way” power struggle. If he’s disrespectful to your wife, let him know that’s unacceptable and hold him accountable for that behavior. We would recommend that you as the birth parent be the one who takes the lead in these situations. I understand how difficult it can be to blend families. There are a some articles that address this issue you may find helpful. “My Blended Family Won’t Blend—Help!” Part I: How You and Your Spouse Can Get on the Same Page , “My Blended Family Won’t Blend!” Part II: What to Do When Your Stepkids Disrespect You and Blended Family? The 5 Secrets of Effective Stepparenting . I wish you and your family the best as your work through these issues. Good luck.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

* To “HDF”: I completely understand your exasperation in not seeing much of a change in behavior. There really is no specific time frame as to when your son is going to turn his behavior around. I applaud your ability to follow through with consequences in the face of constant disrespect and verbal abuse and your attempts to get him to problem solve. Problem solving is where you can help him develop the skills to deal with his anger and frustration. He will probably be reluctant at first but I would encourage you to continue trying. Right now, you can focus more on the process than the product. This is probably a different way of interacting for the two of you. It may take a little time to get the process down. If he is rude or verbally abusive during the discussion, you can stop the conversation. Let him know the discussion needs to happen and that, until it does, one of his privileges will be on hold. Try to remain as calm as possible. I know that can be easier said than done. Here are a couple of articles that may help you learn how to stay calm in the face of his outbursts: Does Your Child Act Out to Manipulate You? How to Stop Falling for It and How to Stop Fighting with Your Child: Do You Feel Like the Enemy? I do understand how difficult and frustrating this can be. I wish you luck while you and your family work through these issues. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

I have 4 college children and 1 high school child, my oldest is married with child and lives with her husband, but my husband is paying for her college tuition, etc. and the other ones still live with us. Recently, one of my 19 year old twins, complains and naggs alot because she has to take public transportation to school, she doesn't help much around the house, or when I tell her to wash the dishes, she says, "No, why should I, I hardly ever eat here!" It's almost true, as time goes by, she dislikes most of my cooking, eating less real food, whenever she doesn't like something, she will just eat cereal, a burrito, or a hot dog. She argues with me over not cooking food that she likes, her having to take public transportation making me feel like I haven't been a good mom, I tell her that she is not a child, if she doesn't like what I cook, she should learn to make her own meals, but then she's lazy about that also. Most of the conversations with her turn into arguments, she dislikes the idea that her dad is still helping out the married daughter by lending her his car and not doing it for her. I know that by this age, they should be living on their own, but being hispanics, we believe in giving them a career first so they can make it on their own, but it is very difficult.

Comment By : Worried and frustrated

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