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.
This brings me to my first piece of advice for regaining parental authority:
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.”
This brings me to my next recommendation:
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.
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.
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.
Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.